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 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!
When was the last time you evaluated something? When was the last time you asked for feedback about your performance or about an idea? As social workers, we have an ethical responsibility to evaluate our own practice as well as social policies and programs. How do we know if our actions are effective? When do we know if something needs to be improved? These questions can be answered through social work evaluation.
At the UNC School of Social Work, our capstone project is an evaluation of a practice, program, or policy. We need to determine the characteristics of our sample, how our variables will be defined, which measurement tools will be used, and how the project relates to the larger field of social work and/or social justice.
Because we are well into this project, I have been thinking about evaluation a lot. It is interesting and difficult to think in evaluation terms, especially when you can get caught up in day-to-day activities. Additionally, participating in social justice movements and speaking out for equity can divert our energy away from thinking about evaluating if our efforts are working.
At its core, evaluation requires asking questions and figuring out a structured way to answer those questions. It involves looking into what others have studied on a particular topic and identifying gaps in the research. It consists of narrowing variables and justifying the methods used to measure the variables.
Evaluation does not have to be some huge undertaking. It can be as simple as asking our clients how we are doing as practitioners. Collecting client feedback is often lacking in social work practice, even though we like to view the therapeutic relationship as a partnership. But, it’s not enough just to ask for feedback. A responsible practitioner finds a way to operationalize the feedback and acknowledge the clients’ responses.
The beauty of evaluation is that is can be used at every stage of program or practice implementation. Evaluation can look at how a program is starting out or can try to determine if the program met its intended outcomes in an effective way. One component of evaluation that I feel is critical to the development of ideas and to personal growth is seeking input from colleagues. Ask multiple people for their thoughts on your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or reasoning behind any feedback. Most of all, don’t shy away from asking questions and bringing others in to help you find the answers.
Three weeks ago I had the ultimate pleasure of seeing Alvin Ailey for $10. No, you did not hear me wrong. AND I brought my fiance with me, for $10 as well! (And he’s not a student!)
How did I pull this off you ask?
It’s just one of the wonderful perks of being a student at UNC.
Unless you’re a double heel, you come to the school of social work unaware of the magic of being a student at UNC. Along with the free sports games, you have the opportunity to attend a myriad of festivals, activities and events. Perhaps my favorite “perk” at UNC is the Carolina Performing Arts Center. This beautiful building right in the middle of campus is host to world renowned musicians, artists, dance troupes, and comedians that are available for students (and a +1) to see for 10 dollars each!!
This is how, a few Tuesdays ago, my fiance and I found ourselves front and center at an Alvin Ailey performance. We spent the entire performance in awe of the talent and power of the dancers, marveling at how, for what is usually a large sum, we saw this incredible performance for only a few dollars.
Amazingly, you can repeat this experience all year when you’re a student at Carolina! Students are not limited to the number of performances they see!
This years schedule ranged from Audra McDonald to the Nutcracker, and it’s a part of being a student at UNC that you do not want to miss out on.
Now excuse me while I go leap around the living room pretending I can dance.
My experience as a birth doula is significant piece of my lens as a public health social work student. It was in working as a doula that I began to see examples of disparities and gaps in the maternity healthcare system that leave new families vulnerable to physical and mental health issues when they are most in need of extra support. I lay out here an overview of how I serve families as a doula. I hope you’ll see the parallels between social work and doula work, and the areas where having a public health background helps me think about systems that need to be changed to better support new families. My social work and public health education has helped me to be a better doula when I work individually with clients, and my work as a doula drives my career goals to create equitable programs that reduce disparities for pregnant and birthing people, and their families. Importantly, thanks to Rob for the fabulous pun in the title.
The names and details in this story are fictional. I have crafted this story based on my experiences supporting birthing people and their families as a birth doula. I have tried to make this an accurate depiction of my role supporting a family, while protecting the privacy of my clients. During this story, I will refer to the pregnant person as a woman. Not all pregnant people identify as women, and this does not by any means replicate the experience of every pregnant person.
It’s 10pm and my phone starts ringing at maximum volume. I open a text that says “I think things are happening… I’ve been having contractions like every 7-10 mins for the past hour or so.”
“That’s great!” I respond. “Are you able to rest through them at all? I’d highly recommend eating something, drinking something, taking a shower, and trying to take a nap. That’ll either slow things down or speed things up.”
“Ok I’ll try that, thanks”, says Kelly.
“Great. Let me know if anything changes. My phone is on!”
I walk to my closet and pull out my doula bag. I dig through, taking a quick inventory. Essential oils, diffuser, EmergenC, phone charger, rice socks, Rebozo (a Mexican woven cloth used for various comfort measures in labor), TENS unit, hand massagers, and olive oil (for massage) – everything is in order. I place the bag by the front door. Next, I go to my drawer and pull out my yoga pants and ‘game time’ shirt, which reads “Vaginas do open, babies do come out” and put it on the chair next to my bed. I pack my back pack full of snacks, a book, water, and Kelly’s birth preferences sheet. Then I crawl into bed and try to sleep, knowing that I’ll likely be called in a few hours.
Kelly is a 30-year-old first-time mother, who is now just past 39 weeks into her pregnancy. She’s had a healthy pregnancy and is planning to have her baby a hospital under the care of a large OB/GYN practice in the area. She’s got the support of her husband, Devon, but given her history of rape and anxiety, she decided she wanted a doula for extra support during her pregnancy, labor, and the early postpartum period.
Kelly and Devon took a childbirth education class at the hospital she is birthing at, and she is planning to breastfeed their baby girl. She wants to wait to get to the hospital until she is pretty far into labor, because being in the hospital tends to make her anxious. During the course of her pregnancy, she has told me that being in the hospital reminds her of being in the ER following the rape. However, she wants to have the option of pain medication if the pain of the labor is too intense.
Kelly and Devon have been married for just over a year. They live in a small 1-bedroom apartment near a large city. Kelly has a graduate degree and Devon is still in school. They have a significant amount of student debt and were not really planning to have a baby at this time. They are definitely stressed about money because Kelly has just started at a new job and doesn’t have any vacation time accrued yet. She has been able to qualify for 6 weeks of unpaid disability time, but they cannot afford for her to take any time off beyond those 6 weeks because Devon only works part-time.
During the pregnancy, I met with Kelly and Devon twice and we talked about their desires for the birth. We spent a lot of time processing Kelly’s fears and concerns about the birth and how it might trigger her PTSD from the previous rape. I recommended a couple books for Kelly and her husband to peruse that were appropriate given her unique history – one about giving birth as a sexual assault survivor, one about remaining in touch with your body while birthing.
We also talked about the benefits and risks of pain medication during birth. I told them that for some survivors, being numb from the chest down creates feelings of powerlessness that can be incredibly re-traumatizing. For others, the physical sensations of labor can bring back memories of the assault, and pain relief can make the whole experience more positive and empowering because women have the ability to take control of the experience. And for even others, the experiences are completely separate and the one does not affect the other. I told Kelly that her husband and I would focus on creating a safe space for her to labor both at home and in the hospital, and that we can communicate openly about her pain medication options throughout the labor. Kelly had already told her doctor about her history of sexual assault, but asked me to share this information with the nurse and doctor present at the delivery so she wouldn’t have to.
During the course of her pregnancy, I was available to Kelly 24/7 via phone and email. She would often check in with me after her appointments and sometimes she would call with questions about things she was feeling physically. When she started to have some bloody show (light bleeding when the cervix begins to soften), she sent me a picture and I assured her that it looked like a normal amount of bleeding.
As a doula, I am not a medical provider. My role is to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to pregnant people and their families during the pregnancy, birth, and early postpartum period. In our modern maternity healthcare system, this kind of support no longer comes from the woman’s medical provider. In practice, this looks a lot like a woman coming to me with questions they might feel silly about and they’re not sure if they need to pass onto their provider. I’ve seen enough normal birth, and received enough training, to be able to say to Kelly “Yup, that looks normal to me! If you’re at all concerned, definitely check in with your doctor.” Often times, this reassurance is all she needs.
At 3am my phone starts ringing again. I roll over in bed and pick up the call, “Hi Kelly, how are you doing?”
“Well they’re definitely closer together, like every 5 minutes now.”
“Ok that’s great! We’re looking for these to get longer, stronger, and closer together. Sounds like you’re making great progress! Can I stay on the phone with you through a contraction?”
In the next couple minutes I hear Kelly start to take some deep breaths. She starts to whimper a bit. About 20 seconds into the contraction, I say “You’re doing amazing. How does this one compare to the last one?”
Kelly pauses for a few more seconds, then says, “It’s about the same. They’re definitely stronger than they were, but they’ve been like this for like an hour now.”
“That’s great!” I respond. “And where in your body are you feeling these?”
“That’s the thing, I feel them really bad in my back. It’s like someone is stabbing me out of the back.”
“Ohhh ok.” I say. “Well it’s possible baby is in a funky position in there. There are several positioning things we can try. I can either send you some instructions, or I can head your way if you feel like you’d like some extra support at this point.”
“I think it would be good if you came now. I’m just so tired and this really hurts.”
With that, I head to Kelly’s home. Over the next four or five hours, Devon and I help Kelly move through a variety of positions to encourage the baby to rotate into a better position, combined with restful positions to preserve her energy. I remind her to drink water between contractions, prepare snacks to keep her and her husband’s energy up, and remind her to pee frequently. I sit with her and demonstrate breathing deeply through the contractions, and then her husband and I breathe with her. I talk to her about making low moaning noises, rather than tight whimpering noises because holding tension anywhere in the body creates tension in the pelvic floor and slows things down. I show her husband how to apply strong pressure to her back during the contractions to reduce the back pain. Her contractions remain about 5 minutes apart for about five hours, but between her husband and myself, Kelly feels safe, supported, and in control. Then we start to see a noticeable shift.
“I think the pain is moving to the front now” Kelly says.
“That’s really great. Hopefully baby is turning” I reply. I’ve been timing her contractions for about 20 minutes of each hour and they have definitely gotten closer together in the past hour.
“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this.” Kelly says.
“Ok” I respond, “You’re doing an amazing job. I definitely think these contractions have gotten closer together. I don’t think there is any rush to get to the hospital, but we could head that way any time you feel ready to do that.”
About 2 hours later, we pile into our cars and make our way to the hospital. Kelly wants to have her cervix checked and she’s thinking about getting an epidural. When we arrive, a nurse listens to baby’s heart rate and checks Kelly’s cervix. She is about 7cm dilated.
“That’s amazing!!” I say. “Kelly, you’re doing an amazing job!! You’re really close to meeting your baby! What do you feel like you want? You’ve been coping beautifully on your own, but I know you were definitely thinking about getting an epidural when we talked prenatally.”
While Kelly and Devon talked about the options, I dimmed the lights in the hospital room. I hooked up the essential oil diffuser and pumped some lavender into the room. Kelly chose to get an epidural, took a nap, and she was ready to push her baby out about 4 hours later. While she was pushing, I worked with her nurse and doctor to find positions that were effective for pushing, while protecting her back and hips from being over extended since she could not feel them with the epidural. I reminded the doctor that Kelly really did not want to have her perineum cut unless there was a medical emergency. I placed a cool compress on her forehead as she worked hard to push her baby out and showed Devon how to support her head and leg while she pushed. I reminded the doctor that she wanted to delay clamping the baby’s umbilical cord after birth until it had finished pulsating.
Once the baby was born, I strongly advocated for Kelly to get to keep her baby skin-to-skin on her chest. I snapped photos of Kelly, Devon, and their baby girl in the first moments of her life. I also helped Kelly and her baby establish breastfeeding and showed Devon how he could help her find comfortable positions for nursing. Once baby finished nursing, I placed her skin-to-skin on dad’s chest while mom had a well-deserved meal.
Over the next several days, I checked in with Kelly to make sure she was feeling well and to answer questions about breastfeeding, newborn care, and postpartum healing. About a week after the baby was born, I visited Kelly at home. I administered and Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Screen to screen for postpartum depression. I talked to Kelly about her labor and birth, filled in the gaps in her memory, and answered questions about the experience. I gave her resources for some local breastfeeding and new moms support groups. I talked to Devon about his experience with the labor and birth and gave information about a local new-dads group if he was interested. With that, I encouraged Kelly and Devon to reach out to me any time and thanked them for including me in this critical time in their lives.
The role of the birth doula is to fill in the gaps in support that are often experienced by birthing people and their families in our current maternity healthcare system. The support I provide varies based on the needs and dynamics of each individual and their family. I think the intersections between doula work and social work are abundantly clear, and I am passionate about making this support more widely accessible for the families that need it most. If you’d like to learn more about doulas, you can check out my certifying organization DONA International.
As many perspective students are starting to hear back about graduate school acceptances, and trying to decide what path is right for you, I thought I’d share about what my path as a UNC MSW student has been like since beginning in May. I came into the program with Direct Practice as my concentration, and I am also pursuing the school social work license. It was a no brainer for me to do this, as it did not add any time to my advanced standing MSW to complete this license, and I now have it for my future if I decide I want to continue with school social work long term.
In order to do this license at UNC, there are a couple key steps. First, we have an field advisor that specifically focuses on students on the school social work license track. She assist with setting up a school field placement, and advises the academic requirements we must take to be eligible for licensure after graduation. In addition to my field placement in the school, I also needed to take one elective in the school of education from a selected list of possible courses ( I chose one that focused on Special Education), and now I am enrolled in a School Social Work Policy course as one of my electives in the spring. With my MSW, the school field hours, and these academic requirements, I will be eligible to apply for the license come May.
School social workers work to address the “whole child” by strengthening the relationship between the school system and the child or family. They work to remove barriers that interfere with the child ability to learn and succeed in school, and frequently provide support or referrals to address various needs. We conduct assessments, advocate for needs, broker services, build social skills, and support student health and wellbeing. We work on issues such as attendance, drop out prevention, homelessness, mental health, cultural competence, special education, and school equity. In North Carolina, school social workers can be placed in one school, or handle several schools, based on the county and the need. School social workers can have caseloads as large as hundreds or thousands, because they can receive referrals for any student at any time.
I was drawn to school social work because of the ability to interact with students within a system that touches every student during some of their most formative years. I have had the chance to work in both a couple of elementary schools, and a high school during my field placement, and have learned so much. While school social work at times has been very different than I pictured, I am very glad I chose to pursue this license. The interdisciplinary nature of this work, the connections with students, along with the potential to impact large numbers of children and families are some of my favorite things. If you are at all interested in the possibility of working in the school, I would highly suggest looking into this option! I’ve linked the page below to the UNC School Social Work License Info page, as well as a PDF from the North Carolina School Social Work Association describing school social workers.
Social work experiences and life have taught me that no one has this “thing” figured out. When I say “thing” I am referring to life. A few things come to mind when I think of life and daily experiences. I will list them below:
1. There is not always a correct answer. What works for you, may not work for me. Route A may be perfect for one family while another family prefers route C. Sometimes situations are complex which could mean that there are multiple answers to the issue or situation.
2. Experiences shape our perspective and outlook on life. Experiences in graduate school have increased my self-awareness. I am able to articulate what I like, don’t like, and expect to gain when describing my dream social work position. It’s okay to try a new experience, even if it’s scary or uncomfortable at first.
3. Not having it all figured is okay…because you’re not alone. I have encountered several career driven adults that have changed jobs, positions/titles, and interest until they figured out what works for them. Even if a certain place or position feels “right” momentarily, at least you can say that you tried it.
4. Don’t be afraid to feel uncomfortable. For me, stepping outside of my comfort zone increases my anxiety. I am approaching the end of this MSW program and I can see tons of personal and professional growth in myself and I truly believe that it is because I learned how to embrace feeling uncomfortable. I am grateful that both of my field placements were different (one working with older adults with a memory loss and the other in integrated healthcare in a pediatric clinic). The process of learning how to excel as a MSW Intern in these two placements taught me that it is possible to be successful in the unknown.
5. Last but not least, perspectives are always different. For example: two of my clients can be going through very similar situations but have two different responses, attitudes, and perspectives. I try to keep this in mind when working with other professionals. What I prioritize as important and on the top of my list, my colleague may not. This creates an opportunity for conversation if each party commits to trying to understand the other.
While typing this I flashback to being in my kindergarten classroom and my teacher having us repeat the famous proverb “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” At that age I was not expected to have life all figured out and at this moment in life I have those same expectations for myself. I have a plan in place, goals written down, and mentors to verbally process with. But I also know that one mistake will not keep me down and life, with all of it’s experiences, will continue to mold and shape me after graduate school.
Our most recent winter storm reminded me of the first time I faced North Carolina in the snow. I was back in Maryland for a visit when a snow storm hit the east coast and dusted the region with 3-4 inches. After waiting a day or two for the plows to clear the roads, I headed home. Well I could tell the second I crossed the North Carolina boarder. The roads were ice! After a very stressful two-hour ice skate/drive, I made it home and there I remained for the next couple of days until the ice melted enough for me to get out of my neighborhood. Lesson learned- don’t mess with North Carolina in the snow.
When the roads aren’t covered in snow, UNC Social Work students have many different options for getting around. Chapel Hill Transit is a free bus route that covers most of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Parking on campus is expensive and often not centrally located, so I take the bus when I have class. A lot of folks who live nearby also bike or walk. There are plenty of bike racks and students who register their bikes with UNC’s Department of Transportation and Parking can get 50% off a U-lock and help finding their bike if it ever gets lost or stolen. For those who don’t live locally, there are several park and ride locations that require permits. Students who take the GoTriangle, PART or Pittsboro Express buses can get a bus free pass through the UNC Department of Transportation and Parking. Some buses even have free parking lots for commuters to leave their cars while they ride.
If you are new to the Triangle, it will be important for you to consider transportation when looking at house options. After a long day of classes, I love being able to hop on the bus and be home in a half hour. It’s also nice to have a stop nearby so I’m not walking far on mornings when I’m running late or nights when it’s cold. I also have a car so it was important for me to find housing where I could park my car for free.
With all these great transportation options, you might be thinking, “I don’t need a car!” But unfortunately, that’s not completely true. A big part of the social work curriculum is your field placement. While there are field placement options in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, they are limited. You might not be able to get the experience you want if you are limited geographically. If you are not planning to have access to car while completing your graduate studies, it might be a good idea to talk to the field office. They can give you a good idea of what kind of field placements would be available to you and you can judge whether they would meet your educational and professional goals.
I’m lucky to be able to say I have a pretty easy commute. On class days, I can plug in my headphones and zone out while I take the bus home and on field days, I pass my half an hour commute catching up on my podcasts. But on days like this when the roads are covered in snow, it’s just best to stay home.
As many of you reading this are aware, application deadlines are coming up!
(If you didn’t know, but need to know, check it out here: https://ssw.unc.edu/programs/masters/admissions … Jan 9)
Based on my own experience and the experiences of friends, and judging from the majority of questions we get about applications, I imagine many of you reading this may be feeling a lot of conflicting things about your personal statement. Maybe some other part of your application has you feeling uneasy. Now, I realize the point of this blog is to provide a sneak-peak into life as a student at UNC-CH, but I’m gonna deviate here for a minute and share some thoughts on the most common concerns I hear from potential applicants. The primary concern being about the personal statement.
For one, the personal statement is the crown jewel of the application process. The other parts have their place and are still important, that is certain (don’t go telling Sharon Thomas that Rob said not to worry about the other stuff), but the personal statement is where the magic happens. That being said, it is not cause for CONCERN. Primarily, the personal statement is intended to show the university who you are, what you are all about, and how well you can communicate that to them. Also, no one is asking you to self-disclose or divulge extraordinarily personal information about your past or any identities. If these elements of who you are influence your interest in social work, then great- feel free to include them. If not, do not feel compelled to- but also know that, if you are comfortable doing so, it is welcomed.
Further, I think there is often some confusion about the style or “voice” in the personal statement. Many of us have gotten so used to writing in hyper-professional, sterile language for our jobs or for academic papers, but remember that this is your voice. A professional, intelligent voice (don’t write the way I am on this blog, for instance), but yours nonetheless.
If you fear that you are not a strong writer, ask a person who wrote a recommendation for you to read it, ask a family member, loved one… hell, ask a stranger on the internet if you’re so inclined. Just make sure that grammar and clumsy rhetoric are not getting in the way of communicating who you are and what you can do with an education from Chapel Hill.
I hope this provides some perspective! Take care of yourself if you’re coming up on this and other deadlines!
Let any of us student ambassadors know if you’re interested in chatting more about the school.