By: Katie Ullman
People often ask, “Why social work?” It is almost inevitable that a social work student will be asked to answer this question multiple times during his or her social work education. Of course, many people will answer with something along the lines of “wanting to help people.” Personally, I have always hated this question. I knew I wanted a career in social work, but I could never find the words to fully explain why. Becoming a social worker was something that just seemed right, an unexplainable feeling that this is what I am supposed to do. Having a feeling is great (especially in this field), but I needed a more definite answer. I needed a universal answer I could tell to salesclerks, my 80-year-old grandfather, and potential employers. So how do you capture your passion for social work in words? I struggled with this question for a long time, and it wasn’t until the end of my field placement that I finally understood what social work actually means to me.
My first official field placement was at Families Moving Forward, a supportive program to assist families experiencing homelessness. This field placement was everything I could have hoped for: an amazing field instructor, friendly staff, meaningful work, support, independence, and my very own caseload. The abundance of knowledge I obtained during my placement was something for which I will forever be grateful.
As my hours were coming to an end, I began to invest less of myself at my internship. As many social work students understand, I was juggling far too many things to finish school. Papers, tests, work, field placement, family, friends were taking a toll on me. I was on a race to the finish line, counting hours until I could breathe again. It was in the midst of this chaos that I finally began to answer the infamous question, “Why social work?”
My last case started out seeming ordinary. Little did I know Mary would have such an influence me. Mary was a hardworking single mother who came to Families Moving Forward seeking shelter. She was a delight to be around and was a breath of fresh air to the emergency shelter program. Mary had an associate’s degree and was considered highly employable. I would often find her diligently working on the computer to find housing programs and applying to new jobs.
In one of our case management meetings, Mary shared with me the devastating news—she had been diagnosed with cancer and needed to be treated with chemotherapy and radiation immediately. My heart broke for this woman; being homeless is one thing, but having to go through a serious illness while being in a shelter seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. As social workers know, when it rains it pours. A series of unfortunate events followed as Mary began treatment. As her case manager, I felt completely powerless. What could a social work student such as myself have to offer someone facing cancer in a homeless shelter?
My internship was coming to an end. I only had a few more appointments scheduled with Mary, and I did the average things that needed to be done. Mostly, I just listened to Mary share her experience. I felt bad for not having any profound resources for her and didn’t think she would bat an eyelash when I told her a new case manager would be taking over for me because my field placement was coming to an end.
The day I told Mary I was leaving completely shocked me. She cried hysterically and disclosed that I was the only person who had taken the time to just let her talk about the cancer. She didn’t want me to go, because in the midst of all the pain, our weekly meetings were what held her together. Knowing that someone would just be sad with her made the week bearable. All of these weeks, I had been feeling bad about myself for not knowing what to do, and in the end just sitting with her was the most influential thing I was able to do for her.
Mary’s response to my leaving was sadness and anger. This makes perfect sense when I look back on the situation, but in the moment I truly thought Mary barely even knew my name, let alone would be angry at me for leaving (oh the joy of being a student!). I felt horrible that I had to leave her and hated that I had to add another piece of sadness to her already fragile plate.
This experience hit something inside me, and for the first time, I finally understood what being a social worker looks like to me. In all of my scrambling to get to the finish line, I finally knew in a logical way, not just an “it feels right” way, why social work is the right profession for me. Social work is acting out of love for strangers in tangible ways. We are made to represent love so that all people we encounter have a more profound sense of hope and faith within themselves. We do the hard, intimate, sometimes painful work, and in return bring a little more of the divine into daily life. We get to remind one another about the bigger, more beautiful picture that we can’t always see from where we are.
Sometimes the bottom just falls out, and nobody is exempt. Everything is not okay. And one of the most profound gifts we can give to our clients is the willingness to hunt down tissues or offer a safe place to be upset. Because in the end, what else is there to do? I can’t take away the cancer, although I would if I could. I can’t buy my client a house, although I would if I could. I can’t say that it’s never going to happen again and everything will be okay. But I can be there, and I can listen to their stories, of funny things the doctors said, and the strange and annoying things that people think are helpful to say in these situations. I can sit in silence in the moments of rage, knowing that everything is not okay, but that this tiny moment is.
Thanks to my field placement, I now feel confident as to why I am dedicating my career to social work, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the amazing people who allowed me to be a part of their journey.
Katie Ullman is a student in the University of St. Thomas/St Catherine University School of Social Work. Her field placement for 2010-2011 was at Families Moving Forward, a faith-based program in Minneapolis that provides temporary housing and supportive services to children and families. Katie recently became a volunteer at the Angel Foundation where she provides support to adults facing cancer. Her favorite activities are yoga and watching movies with friends. She plans on attending graduate school next year to become an LICSW.
From The New Social Worker, Winter 2012, Vol. 19, No. 1.