Welcome to the Student Ambassador Blog! This blog was created by current student Ambassadors of the UNC School of Social Work MSW programs for people like you: Prospective 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!
Mid-terms are quickly approaching and the pressures of course work, field responsibilities, and personal life are beginning to mount. The social work program at UNC is not a test heavy program but there are usually several projects, papers, and/or presentations due just before breaks. This can be a very stressful time if you not plan ahead and practice self-care. You may want to know how it is possible to get a healthy amount of self-care with so much going on?
This can be a challenge but there is a way. In fact this is where planning is your best friend. Sometimes semesters can get off to a bit of a slow start and you end up with assignments piled up near the midway or end points of a semester. The way I have managed this is by laying out my semester on a paper calendar (phone calendars are nice for quick reminders but holding a paper calendar in my hand seems to be more real to me). Doing this allows me to see where assignments are piled up and I can then start some assignments early. In fact I usually mark assignment start dates on the calendar so I can get them started and finished early or on time. I also take advantage of the slow starting semesters and get assignments completed weeks ahead of time.
I have had a lot of success utilizing this method and find it much less stressful than waiting for assignments to build up me. By looking ahead and planning my assignments out I can kick relax and watch football while some other people are neck deep in assignments. There have even been times when I was little unsure because every was working so hard and freaking out to the extreme yet I had no work to do. I just knew I was missing some important assignment when in fact I was just well prepared and way ahead of the game. Thus, planning ahead and completing work early is the best self-care you can practice as you maneuver course work at one of the best schools of social work in the country.
The transition to 2nd year has been very trying, but also rewarding for me thus far. This school year began with a bang and has taken off so quickly. I never expected to experience so many challenging issues on my first week of field! My first few weeks have been very gratifying, eye-opening, and intense. They both solidified my thoughts and experiences of public schools and confirmed the need for social intervention and policy change. The following are some of the things I have done that I believe can be helpful to others…whether you’re still in the application process or beginning your first year.
- Inform your field instructor of your assignments. It is important to share your syllabi because class work will likely coincide with field.
- Stay ahead of the game with assignments and readings. Compared to my first year, this year has been much more intense. With field taking up a large portion of my week, in addition to my paid jobs outside of field, I have to be very strategic in planning and scheduling in time to study…more so than last year.
- Take initiative with forming relationships and networking with other professionals at your placement. Interacting with people other than your instructor will give you opportunities to get involved and learn more about others areas than may not be specific to your placement.
- Be vocal about what you would like to learn/achieve in field. For example, I was surprised to learn that my position was a bit more macro than expected. Since I ultimately want to focus on direct practice, I let me instructor know and she immediately put me in touch with ways to get more direct practice experience.
- Don’t forget about YOU. Remember to take time out for family and self-care. It is important to value the experience and reflect on how you are actively changing the lives of the individuals you are working with. YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE! Here’s a little inspiration from my field placement to yours… :)
The need to strike a balance between school, concentration year internship, relationships with loved ones, and self-care has become apparent as mid-semester draws near. Just one of the amazing benefits of the MSW Program at Carolina is the challenging classes led by pioneers and innovators in their chosen facets of our field. While these types of challenges help mold us into future leaders, self-care and personal relationships also require focus for our lives to remain healthy, sustainable and fulfilling. The hectic schedule actually allows time outside of studies despite three days at the internship and another full day of clinical supervision and on-campus classes.
We are truly fortunate as the entire state of North Carolina offers a variety of day trips and weekend getaways catering to all budgets. My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in the western part of the state enjoying the year-round natural beauty on offer. After spending two nights in a cabin in the Nantahala Gorge we drove an hour east into the city of Asheville. Asheville has an incredibly vibrant arts scene while boasting some of the best restaurants in the state. We had a stunning Spanish lunch at Chef Katie Button’s Cúrate located off of Pack Square in historic downtown Asheville. We also enjoyed free live bluegrass music in the cool mountain air at the Folk Heritage Committee’s Shindig on the Green.
North Carolina’s varied attractions don’t begin and end on the western end of the state. The beach is just over two hours east and offers some of the best fishing and surfing opportunities on the east coast. From the quiet beauty of Cape Hatteras to the charming riverfront historic district in Wilmington our state is fortunate and ripe with chances to get away from the daily grind.
The Triangle also offers a varied array of impressive restaurants in all three of its cities – Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham. It also boasts over 400 trails of hiking across diverse terrains all accessible within minutes. Local music institutions such as the Cat’s Cradle, Lincoln Theatre and Durham Performing Arts Center draw an eclectic mix of nationally-recognized artists. Students at UNC’s School of Social Work are truly fortunate to receive one of the top educations in the country with such a variety of exciting opportunities at our doorstep.
For many of you who are going to be applying this winter, the GRE may be something that you have taken multiple times in an attempt to achieve higher scores. Some of you (like me at this time last year) have been so caught up in everything else in your life that one day it dawns on you- I HAVEN’T TAKEN THE GRE! There are also those of you who have been very aware of the need to take the GRE, but have been holding out until the very last minute hoping that the school will send a friendly announcement stating that they have recently decided the GRE is no longer a necessary piece of your application. Keep dreaming, my friend.
Whichever category that you fit in, I will advise you to do something that one of my past social work professors always reminded his students to do- BREATHE! I will add to that golden piece of advice to also stay calm, take a step back, and realize the cold, hard truth that no one has the answer for how to ace the GRE. However, there are a few steps that I would suggest for you to follow in order to make it through the GRE journey and feel like a true pro. These are all things that I wish I would have been told prior to taking the exam.
1) Check into financial aid.
Yes, before you even sign up for the test or look at dates- contact your university’s financial aid department to see if you qualify for a reduced price on your exam. Many students do! FYI- this takes some time to process, so it is best to do it well in advance of signing up for the exam.
2) Educate yourself on what the heck the GRE is
The GRE can seem like a powerful, mighty force that you have no control over. Knowledge is power, and educating yourself on the ins and outs of the test will be a great starting point.
3) Sign up for the GRE
If you use the website listed above, you will be able to access the sign-up site for the test nearest you. This will help you to get a good idea of your preparation timeline.
3) Buy/Rent/Loan a GRE test prep book
I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a waste of money or time. I was lucky enough to locate a friend who had a GRE prep book which included online access to practice tests. This gave me a really clear idea of what type of content would be included on the exam, and where my strengths and weaknesses were. The online feature helped to guide my areas of focus, which was great since I was in the middle of my senior year and GRE study time was limited.
4) Sign up and attend a UNC GRE Test Prep session
The UNC School of Social Work offers only two more sessions this year! These test prep sessions are critical, because they go beyond the content-specific preparation offered by textbooks. You will learn test-taking strategies specific to the GRE that will be critical in operating under the GRE time constraints.
5) BREATHE…Stay calm…and Ace the GRE!!
On the day before the exam, go to bed early, clear your mind of all things GRE and get a good night’s sleep. Have a healthy breakfast the morning of the exam, arrive a little early, and make sure to have the items they require at check-in. Just a heads-up, the check-in process and overall feeling of the exam can be pretty strict and stressful, so the more prepared you are, the better.
6) Remember that the GRE is only a slice of your amazing application pie!
Yes, the GRE can offer admissions some insight into our test-taking abilities, writing skills, vocabulary and math knowledge, but it does not outweigh who we are as a person and future social worker. The admissions is also interested in our past educational performance, lifetime of work/volunteer experiences, professional interests, dreams, goals and reasons for choosing to apply to UNC. So don’t forget to balance your time out between all aspects of your application, and good luck!
- Faculty – It has been so much easier than I expected to build relationships with my professors, and these interactions have been more rewarding than I could have hoped. They have led to answers to long-standing questions I’ve had, ways to get involved with the School of Social Work, and even research and internship opportunities. I’m so grateful that I get to learn from such an eclectic and experienced group of people!
- Community – Before moving to Chapel Hill, I was concerned about what it would be like to live in such a renowned “college town”. I have been pleasantly surprised to discover how much there is to do in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh, and North Carolina in general for those of us who are no longer undergraduates.
- Opportunities for Involvement – My only complaint about graduate school is that there are not enough hours in the day to do all the activities that interest me. Whether it’s joining a caucus, volunteering at SHAC (the oldest student-run clinic in the country!), attending clinical lectures and workshops, or meeting up at a football game with other social work students, the days never feel long enough to squeeze in everything I’d like to!
- Peers – Moving to a new place is always scary, but walking into the School of Social Work on my first day, I felt as though I was finally surrounded by “my people”. The friends I have made have supported me through the unique experience of graduate school, and have been a huge part of my time in Chapel Hill.
- Tar Heel Basketball – As a long-time college basketball fan, there is no better place to be than Chapel Hill. Graduate students get priority in the ticket lottery, and there are always plenty of fellow Tar Heel enthusiasts to watch games with!
- Child Welfare Educational Collaborative – This opportunity has given me the chance to connect with faculty, staff, and peers who share my interest in the child welfare field. Monthly meetings help me connect coursework to my experiences in the field, and allow me to learn from others how things are done in other counties. The camaraderie and support provided to me from this group has been invaluable thus far in my Concentration year.
- Time to Choose a Concentration – As a two-year full-time student, I appreciated the opportunity to explore both Macro and Direct practice during the initial year of study, before determining my concentration. I will be leaving the School of Social Work as a much more well-rounded professional for having the time to learn about both perspectives from experts in the field.
In the work we do, we often spend the majority of our time hearing about the worst in people’s lives. Oftentimes, we work tirelessly to bring out the strengths in others or shed light on the positive possibilities in a difficult situation. There is so much beauty and purpose in our work, but immersing yourself pain of others can easily wear you down. From the moment you set foot in the School of Social Work, students and professors alike promote the importance of self-care, which is a practice I had never taken seriously before. As a working professional, self-care for me consisted of the occasional ‘treat yo self’ day with some of my close friends, ie. brunch, pedicures, and good-natured shenanigans.
Although, I still love a good old-fashioned ‘treat yo self’ day, I found that it wasn’t as fulfilling as it had been. Sure, I would feel great for that day, but soon after, I would be right back in a ‘funk’. After exploring a few different outlets, I finally found what really sustains me physically, mentally, and emotionally. LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS. Lol…now I know that may seem strange out of context, but I’m so serious. Earlier this year, I took advantage of a Groupon and tried Crossfit for the first time and it seriously changed my life. There is something so empowering about being able to do your first handstand EVER (see photo) or beating your personal record for deadlifts.
So…what if back squats and Olympic lifts aren’t your thing?? That’s okay! When you come to UNC, I encourage you to find your self-care of choice or check out the Self-Care Caucus at the School of Social Work if you need a few ideas. In the work we do, it is just as important to care for ourselves as much as we care for others.
Several years ago, while I was exploring graduate school options in different fields, I spoke with a student who was a few months from finishing his master’s degree in another helping field. I asked him what advice he would give someone in my position, someone who would presumably be beginning graduate education soon. What words of wisdom would he impart?
His thoughtful response was, “Follow your curiosity.” He explained that there had been particular concepts and theories and practices to which he had been exposed in his coursework that had piqued his interest to the point that he had found himself in the library, digging for more material to sink his intellectual teeth into. (I think I remember him mentioning Jungian psychoanalytic theory as one topic that had caught his fancy.) He encouraged me and the other prospective students, regardless of what we ended up studying or where we enrolled, to do the same—to be guided by that which makes us want to know more.
In effort to feel at least slightly original, I would like to tweak his advice a bit. Just a few weeks into the first semester of my final year, I find myself not so much curious as excited. I am excited about learning how to assess and treat trauma—especially “complex” trauma—in SoWo 855 with Dr. Michael Lambert. For me, that means reading the “optional” materials, not simply the required readings. It also means picking Dr. Lambert’s brain on breaks and after class. In fact, I have assigned one of my classmates the task of telling me when to stop making comments and asking questions in class, lest my excitement become an annoyance to everyone else in the room.
I am also excited about my field placement at the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury. The VA features virtually every kind of social work within its programs. VA social workers take their role of developing budding professionals very seriously and work to ensure that interns receive a challenging and satisfying experience. One way that they do this is by offering students a chance to do “rotations” in departments other than their primary assignments. In my case, choosing where I want to do rotations was easy because of the excitement I felt as I learned about the different programs. Specifically, that excitement pointed me toward the military sexual trauma (MST) and outpatient PTSD treatment programs, as well as the Primary Care/Mental Health Integration (PCMHI) and Behavioral Health Interdisciplinary Program (BHIP). (The VA is all about their acronyms.)
As you consider a career in social work, I encourage you to do what I am doing: “Follow your excitement.” One of the reasons I chose social work over other helping professions was the wide array of careers available within this field. Although I personally have stuck with my initial focus of mental health treatment, some students find unexpected passions along the way and pursue exciting career directions that they did not anticipate. Whether you want to advocate for economically just policies, help provide safety and stability for refugees, treat substance use disorders, strengthen and protect children and families, care for the ill and elderly, or provide help to people in any number of other ways, an MSW from UNC can get you there in expert fashion. Just be willing to work hard and to follow wherever your excitement leads.