By: T. J. Rutherford
This fall semester ushers in a brand new chapter for me. I left my job as editor and Web manager of our city magazine in August, and now I am a full-time student. I wake up some mornings with an odd sense of uncertainty. I left my comfort zone. Like most people, I am a creature of habit, and I like the status quo. But if that were completely true about me, I never would have gone back to school in the first place. I wanted a change, and well, I’ve found one! My schedule includes three eight-hour days at my field practicum, where I am learning how to be a child welfare worker. It is both exciting and awkward. My two classmates, who have also been placed there, have both worked in a child welfare agency before. At times, I feel at a disadvantage, and I also know that I will learn all that I need to know in good time.
As of this writing, we are not yet connected to the Internet. I didn’t realize how much I rely on computers. It makes sense, of course, that I would be, given my former career in publishing. I am used to having instant access to e-mail and Google, whether I am at home or at work, and it is a real challenge for me. I have a “need-to-know” personality, and I turn to the World Wide Web to network, stay connected to friends and family, and get important information in a timely manner. One benefit is that we aren’t being thrown into everything all at once, so I need to be grateful for that.
Classes are in full swing. I am taking Crisis Intervention, Clinical I, Research Methods II, and Field Practice II. Some of my classmates have five courses this semester, and I have to say I am good with four and the internship.
My professors often mention that everything we are learning should be falling together in the second year, and I can honestly say I am experiencing this on a regular basis. The importance of evidence-based practice and conducting research that shows its effectiveness would have sounded like a foreign concept to me a couple of years ago. I now see the weightiness of confidentiality, as well as the significance of abiding by the Code of Ethics in my daily experiences at my field agency.
Perhaps most important of all is that I am learning about me and the kind of professional I want to become. Recently, after recounting a negative experience to my field instructor, she asked me: “T. J., what did you learn from this?” I immediately replied: “I will do things differently.” And, I meant it. I mean it!
As much as I try to balance my life while in school, I fall short of achieving this goal. It may be a bit of perfectionism on my part, and I am probably beating myself up about it too much. Perhaps balance is impossible right now, and I just need to do the best I can with school, and be at peace with that. I need only talk with my classmates to find out that we are all in the same boat—we just use different types of paddles, and we come and go from different creeks and rivers. Some have to commute a long distance; some juggle children and/or jobs with school. And some just try to stay above water with the number of classes and assignments we are given. Then, there is the stress of having to report, usually without pay, to a field placement where we are out of our comfort zones with people we do not know. We recently were given an assignment to read a journal article about the stress endured by graduate students, often with little or no support from field instructors. That actually made me feel better, knowing that it is a real issue.
I made a decision this semester, partly because I ended a long-time career, and partly because I am working in child welfare, to create a safety net of counseling on the couch of an LCSW psychotherapist. Imagine that! I am asking for, and receiving, support from a woman who holds the very degree I am working toward. It makes my heart glad to know she earns $90 an hour (my insurance is a blessing), and that one day, if I choose that type of social work, I, too, can earn that kind of wage. For now, she and I will forge ahead together as I meander through the hills and valleys—and plateaus—of the final two semesters of grad school and the sometimes daunting world of child welfare.
I know that when it’s all said and done, I will probably look back and say, “That wasn’t so bad.” It’s probably a little like having a baby. You forget the pain and discomfort the moment you hold your precious child, and I will more than likely forget the trials and tribulations when I hold the diploma in my hand. Until that day (May 8, 2010), I am going to do my best to stay healthy and focused.
T. J. Rutherford is in her second year of graduate school, where she is earning a master’s degree in social work. She left her job as Assistant Editor and Web Manager at a city magazine in August 2009 to become a full-time student. T. J. shares her life with her husband and a ten-year-old rescue dog. Read more about her day-to-day grad school experiences at THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER’s blog at http://blog.socialworker.com.