Welcome to the Student Ambassador Blog!

Welcome to the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work Student Ambassador Blog!  This blog was created by current student Ambassadors for people like you: prospective and new students interested in getting a glimpse of our Master of Social Work program from the student angle.  Feel free to contact Student Ambassadors if you want to learn more!

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Making Choices (Ahh!)

Ok, so one of the questions I am asked most often is “how did you chose to…”. I’ve been thinking on it and I think I’ve figured out my process for making big important choices during grad school and I’ll share it with you now. I will say, it has not been fool proof, but it has allowed me to make the most of the choices I’ve made and helped me to get the most out of them that I could.

Step One: Research.

I hate researching, I find it tedious and especially from home it’s hard for me to focus. At the end of the day though, this is going to help you so much. If you’re trying to decide on which school to attend, research. Do they have classes you like, are already interested in, or have no idea what they are (this one is important because we should be having new experiences in grad school as often as we can). Do they have professors interested in the field of study your interested in (even if they don’t have a particular class on the subject, seeking that professor out will likely allow you a chance at good conversations and learning opportunities as well as networking). If you’re trying to decide what class to take, look again at professor interests as they always bring that into the classroom in some way even when they don’t mean to. Ask around to other people who have taken the professor (questions specific to your needs such as “are they strict about due dates, how much are the readings incorporated into classes” and things like that are more useful than “how did you like them”). If you can get your hands on the syllabus even better. This goes for field placements as well. Ask around, look at their website, look into the people you’ll be working with and under to any degree you’re able.

Step Two: Question Yourself.

Ask yourself what YOU will be getting out of it. From school decisions to field placement choices, you need to be getting as much out of the experience as the institution is. Does this school offer a class you’ve never seen anywhere else? Can you get that knowledge or training elsewhere easily? Does this class have a professor interested in a topic that, while not relevant to this class in particular, is of great interest to you? Does this field placement put you in a good position to meet other people in the field and network in a way that others might not? What is important to you that you can only get from one and not the other of your choices.

Step Three: What to do if you make the wrong choice.

So, if you make your choice and end up regretting it there are a couple paths to take. First of all, if you can switch your choice, do it. Add/drop period for classes exists for a reason. It can be difficult to change field placements but worth it if you need to. If changing isn’t an option or if you can make it work, make it work. One way to make it work is to give it exactly as much energy as you have to give it in order to get what you need. Do you need to pass this class? Get you that P and keep it pushing. Do whatever readings you need to be competent in the skills and then remember that you’ll have lots of opportunities to practice them outside of class (in other classes or in field). Do you need to meet your competency evaluation in field? Make yourself up a plan of how you will meet each competency and do those things. Do the the work you need to do for your classes (as classes often have classes related to field) and move along. If you are not allowed opportunities to do those things, work with your professors, they know not all field placements are perfect and usually can work something else out with you. If there is a piece of it that you love, hang on to it for dear life. If even one client brings you joy, put as much of yourself as you need to into that client (while maintaining ethical boundaries), if it’s a group or one clinician, or one project, try to connect as many competencies or class projects to that as you can.

At the end of the day, you’re paying for this education, you want to be the best social worker you can be to your clients, your organization, your constituency, whoever it is you are working with, and to yourself. Get all that you can get out of grad school by making careful choices and making the most out of it when things don’t go to plan. I wish you luck.

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Finding Your Place in the Space

Let us be honest, most of us feel more comfortable in spaces with people that share our interest, think like us, and look like us. Similarities provide a sense of comfort and safety. Recently I participated on a panel and a student of color shared with me, (I was the only ambassador of color on the zoom) their reservations of attending UNC, questioning what on campus at a predominantly white institution (PWI) was like for a student of color. Fast forward a few weeks later I was on another zoom meeting and another prospective student shared that she was considering UNC however had decided to stay at the historically black college/university (HBCU) she attended for undergrad because it felt safe. By the end of that zoom, because of the space she was in and her two hour experience she had changed her mind…

In the first year of your social work graduate program at UNC you will read an article that will explore why all the Black kids are sitting at the same lunch table. The American Council on Education acknowledges that one barrier for African American students is the campus climate and lack of diversity. Research reveals that students of color experience stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation, ultimately having a negative impact on their mental health.

My experience as a distant education student may not look like a traditional student of color, although there may be some shared sentiments. However, I have utilized many resources that have been an outlet for me. I would advise students of color to become involved in student caucus groups and committees that support and promote the well-being of others that look like them. I have found these groups to be a safe space for an outlet and a great place for networking. There is no better time than now to join while everything is virtual. Some groups do not require that you are a current student and is a good place to start if you have reservations.

Below I have listed a few that I recommend or experienced:

Black Student Caucus

Triangle Association of Black Social Workers

Diversity Caucus

Latinx Student Caucus

Find more information at https://ssw.unc.edu/student-life/student-organizations/sowoso/

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What is Macro practice?

It often feels like there’s a wealth of information about direct or micro practice, but when it comes to macro practice…not so much. So today we’re debunking the top 5 myths of macro practice and reviewing the critical skills you’ll develop as a macro partitioner! Watch the video then peruse the list of skills as you decide whether or not to be a DP or CMPP concentration. And remember, there’s always room for the mezzo practitioners too. You can declare one concentration then take all of your electives in the other one to provide a wholistic education experience.

Macro Social Work FAQ

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Virtual Class vs. In Person

So, I have now been through about the same amount of virtual grad school as I have in person grad school and my experience certainly isn’t universal but I do get asked about the differences. So, let’s talk about it. (If you have read posts by me before you’ll know I’m neurodivergent and so some of my perceptions of the positives and negatives of each are colored through that.)

How classes are running now:

  • I have seen pretty much two main ways in which classes are run
    1. Synchronous lectures with asynchronous activities (“discussion” posts and such)
    2. Asynchronous lectures (pre-recorded) with synchronous activities (I prefer this one but found that it was more of my later specialization classes that were smaller that ran like this)
  • Professors are pretty understanding about being a little behind
  • Shorter semester but less breaks
  • Professors are typically still accessible after class

Things I prefer about online:

  • Getting training in the medium I’ll be working in for a while at least
  • Breakout rooms are nice
  • Seeing eachother’s pets
  • Recorded lectures that I can rewatch as needed
  • Slightly fewer papers
    • (keep in mind this doesn’t make a huge difference if working from home is difficult)
  • Being able to make it to class when I wake up late

Things I miss from in person:

  • Seeing people and having between class conversations
    • I feel further away from everyone in my classes than I did last year and that’s pretty sad
  • Getting to the building early and getting a lot of work done
    • Trying to find motivation and attention to do work from my house is all but impossible even when I desperately want to (see: posting this Sunday night instead of literally any other day this week)
  • Stopping in at professor’s office instead of having to email about everything
    • This is mostly personal preference but it was nice
  • I feel less connected to campus and the goings on of the school
    • Some of that is my own overwhelm and stepping back from reading emails and such

None of this is to make you fear or dislike online class, just to help answer a little bit of the questions I know a lot of people are having right now before starting their grad school journey.

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Need to get outdoors? Here’s my top 3 favorite places to hike!

Getting outside has never been more important for my mental, emotional, and physical health. There are three trails that have been my favorite by far, each providing a different look at nature and the great outdoors.

  1. American Tobacco Trail: The ATT is a classic trail in Durham that extends throughout parts of the triangle. It’s a paved path that is secretly hiding behind houses, under bridges, and over freeways. If you’ve ever driven on I-40 and seen a person bike across a bridge, that’s the ATT. This trail is a great one if you’re in the mood to enjoy a walk, but not get dirty. There are many trails that lead into the downtown Durham area, so it can be fun to walk through a forest, behind some houses, and then suddenly you’re downtown! Check out this guide to find the trail entrance closest to you: http://www.triangletrails.org/american-tobacco-trail
  2. Eno River Trails: The Eno River in Durham is full of hiking trails that are wooded and alongside the river. My favorite of the trails is the Buckquarter Creek Trail which starts up in the forest then ends alongside the winding river, a 1.5 mile loop. Depending on the weather, I suggest wearing hiking boots or tennis shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. The area is meant for hiking so is marked by a red dot on the trees along the way, but the area can get pretty muddy after a heavy rain. Check out the Eno River Trail website for more information: https://www.ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/trails
  3. Battle Park: The Battle Park trail is right on the edge of UNC’s campus in Chapel Hill. This trail is a true woodland experience that includes a few shorter trails within the park. These woods remind me of a fairytale experience and are majestical in the fall time. There are a number of look out spots that allow one to see free flowing creeks down below. If you’re feeling up for a longer hike, you can start your journey by the old Forest Theatre then find your way to the Gimghoul Castle nestled in the neighborhood just outside the Battle Park! Check out the link to learn more: https://ncbg.unc.edu/visit/battle-park-forest-theatre/
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Thinking About A Dual Degree?

Here are a few things to consider if you think you want to pursue a dual degree.

  1. Are both degrees necessary? Seriously think about your ideal career and consider if the degrees you want will get you where you want to go, or be helpful to you on your journey. What will both of the degrees do for you? Will they add necessary knowledge or training? Do they fuel your passions? If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t pursue both.
    1. Future Earning Potential. I know money isn’t everything, but having it helps. When thinking about if both degrees are necessary, consider whether having both degrees will increase the amount of money you can make post-graduation. There is no point in racking up tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt if you’re going to be stressed out about paying it back and don’t have great employment to help in the repayment process.
  2. Financial Aid. Graduate school is expensive, so it’s important for you to weigh how much debt you’ll be taking on. Also, fun fact, you can’t receive federal financial aid from two different programs at the same time. You can’t use financial aid from one program to cover your time in another. This means you should ask each individual program how much financial aid they might have available to you when you are fully enrolled with them! Again, money isn’t everything, but having it helps. The more you can budget now, the better!
  3. Fatigue. You will be in school for at least one additional year and that can suck. Both programs will likely by rigorous and will have your mind and body screaming at you for doing this to yourself. You will get tired through the process so it’s really important for you to have your answer to point number 1 to power through til the end.
  4. Becoming a Loner. This one is a bit obscure, but it’s something I’ve had to deal with. I spent a great deal of time networking and getting to know the people with whom I started my first program, only to be sad when they graduated and left me behind. Then, I was networked out by the time I entered my other program and barely had the energy to make new friends. I have made some, but it was draining. In all honesty, sometimes I feel like I don’t belong in either program, and that can be isolating. So, when you consider getting a dual degree, make sure you are okay with being a bit of a loner. Most times you will either find yourself isolated (because most people don’t understand the dual-degree struggle) or you will find yourself needing to add extra socializing to your already long list of things to do as a graduate student.

Okay, 2-4 seemed a bit bleak, but I promise, if you are able to point out why both degrees are necessary and remind yourself of that throughout graduate school, you will survive. And beyond surviving, you will thrive! So do some self-reflecting, do some research, and do what’s best for you!

These are general tips for dual degrees, but if you’re considering the JD/MSW and want specific advice, feel free to reach out to me!

Erica R. Bluford, bluford@live.unc.edu

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How to Handle Being Sick During Grad School

Being sick is never fun…but with the added stress and anxiety that comes with being sick during a pandemic, it can be a great source of worry and any symptom can induce panic. Speaking from experience, I always seem to get sick at the most inconvenient times…. when a project is due, right at the beginning of classes, or during exams. While academic rigor is important, your health and wellbeing should always come first. That being said, there are certain steps to check off when it comes to handling a sickness during grad school.

First, communication with professors and field supervisors is most important. I have been sick a few times this semester and each time my professors appreciated open and honest communication about my health. While I wouldn’t suggest giving every detail of your sickness, updating professors with how you are feeling, and overall health concerns is greatly beneficial. Each time I have been sick my professors have been extremely understanding and confirmed that my health is the most important thing. Typically, professors will offer different options for ensuring you are obtaining class material while still taking care of yourself. 

Additionally, this is not just about physical health. Professors in social work should be sensitive to mental health concerns and struggles. While this can feel like a moment of vulnerability, I always think being open about any mental health concerns that are impacting participation in class or completion of assignments is the best practice when paired with efforts to work through issues in order to minimize their impact. 

Secondly, its simple, but just do your best. Personally, when I am sick, I have a tendency to assume all efforts to be productive will fail. However, I have learned that if I can do whatever I am able to for class (even if it’s just one single thing), I feel better and it shows my professors that I am trying despite the difficulties I am experiencing. That being said, if you are truly unable to complete work because of physical or mental health issues, I would recommend reaching out to professors and the university Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in order to discuss how to find a solution that honors your health above everything else. 

Overall, your health matters. You are a whole person and school is only one aspect of your life. I urge you to make choices that are best for you and that put your physical and mental health as the top priority. I am going to once again highlight CAPS, as I think it is a very important resource for students. You can reach CAPS 24/7 at 919-966-3658. Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. 

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“P’s get Degrees”

A phrase you’ll likely hear a lot of us ambassadors along with professors and really anyone who’s been in the program say is that “p’s get degrees”. The grading scale in this program is as follows:

  • High Pass (H): 100 – 94
  • Pass (P): 93 – 74
  • Low Pass (LP): 73 – 70
  • Fail (F): 69 – lower

Most of y’all wont need to worry about the last two grades and will focus mostly on the high pass. A lot of us are high achieving students with high personal standards and that certainly shouldn’t change, on the other hand we have a lot of things going on in graduate school. A mindset I encourage you to get into is that “p’s get degrees”, passing the class is enough and someone with all p’s will get the same MSW degree as someone who gets all h’s. If you’re planning to get your doctorate that may change how important the difference between a p and an h is but for those of us just trying to get our letters behind our names, a p works just fine. Giving yourself this freedom from the perfectionist mindset can be really helpful and, in my experience, give you the time to dive deeper into your own personal and professional interests. It also gives you more time for self care which is a very important part of the profession we are all entering. It’s important to give yourself rest time or time with friends or pets or whatever it is that brings you peace and joy and sometimes that’s going to mean your paper gets a 91 instead of a 96.

Overall, if you take anything from this post, take the fact that it’s ok to put yourself first because that’s the real key to success in this field. I personally have about an even half and half split of H’s and P’s and will be graduating along side all of the people in my cohort who have all H’s with the same three letters behind my name and the same UNC Chapel Hill written across my degree.

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Considering the Winston-Salem (WS) Distance Ed Program? Do it!

I remember the days agonizing about which program to apply to. The full-time program in Chapel Hill was appealing because it was shorter in length. Also, I couldn’t imagine anything better than living in Chapel Hill for two years! On the other hand, the 3-year WS program stood out to me because it allowed me the opportunity to keep working. Ultimately, I decided to apply to the part-time WS program and I am so incredibly happy I did. If you are considering the WS program, here are some things to think about:

  1. If you like the idea of cohort learning groups, this is the program for you! The first two years of the WS program are spent almost exclusively with the same people. Your little group of like-minded classmates will quickly become friends, and eventually family! You will be amazed at how quickly your cohort will bond. Before you know it, you are all joining each other on a journey of exploration and discovery. This presents a rich learning opportunity where you will feel comfortable supporting one another and challenging one another. 
  2. While your generalist courses are held within your cohort, you also get the opportunity to participate in an array of summer courses. I definitely suggest that those considering the WS program consider enrolling in a summer session or two. These classes are interesting but also keep you in the “school” mode. At least this was my experience. Summer classes will introduce you to students in other programs, and often you will have at least one WS classmate in them as well. It is a great time to learn from new and old friends!
  3. It is absolutely feasible to work full-time in your first year of the program. This was particularly helpful to me as it allowed me the opportunity to practice skills learned in class in my employment setting. Additionally, many in the WS program continue to work at least part-time in their second year of study. For those who wish to continue working, know that it is possible!
  4. The field opportunities available to those in the WS cohort are exceptional. Many students in the WS program are not located solely in WS. My cohort has people located in the mountain areas, Charlotte, Greensboro, and others. The faculty are very skilled in locating field placements that are convenient in terms of location, and rich in terms of opportunity for learning.
  5. Lastly, WS is simply a great place! When classes are in-person, it is very common for cohorts to explore the downtown areas for lunch or for post-class dinner. The major highways converge in WS right down the street from our class location which makes travel for students easy.  
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Do You Really Get Breaks In Graduate School?

Short answer, no! Sure we get a fall, winter, spring, and summer “break” in a technical sense: but do you actually get to rest and relax during those times? I can honestly say I haven’t. I typically spend my breaks planning for the next semester, catching up on those things I failed to complete during the year, and working because it’s hard to make money during the semester. Before I know it, I’m getting emails about the start of the new semester. What is my advice? Don’t be like me. Know that taking advantage of your break is okay and even necessary for your success!

I believe — and this is my personal, unprofessional opinion — that people who don’t learn how to take breaks during graduate school become people who don’t know how to take breaks/vacations when they begin full-time employment. Those folks end up burnt out. So here are some tips for taking a break during your actual break:

  1. Turn off your phone and don’t check your emails for at least one day.
  2. Go on vacation or at least get a hotel room away from your house.
  3. Get a massage.
  4. Eat your favorite meal.
  5. Binge watch a TV show, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  6. Read a book for pleasure.
  7. Sleep in; or
  8. Get up early, but don’t do work!
  9. Schedule an appointment with a therapist.
  10. If your break is more than one week, schedule one day to do work/catch up and don’t work other than that day.
  11. Do anything else that makes you happy and isn’t burdensome.
  12. Find ways to incorporate a break into your semester, at least biweekly.

Start practicing now! While you are trying some of these tips, I will also be trying them. Let’s take a break, together!

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