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!
My full-time job and part-time graduate program keep me busy during the week so I’ve had to learn to stay ahead of my homework. I’ve realized that my living room is not always conducive to studying (Netlflix is just too tempting). If I’m not at work or in class, there’s a good chance that you can find me at one of my favorite coffee shops. I thought I’d share them with you!
Located off of Highway 54 between Chapel Hill and downtown Durham, Bean Traders is the perfect spot for a group-project meeting or Saturday morning study session. It’s colorful and cheerful and full of tables. Grab a cold brew and carrot muffin from 9th Street Bakery and settle in. (Warning: it does get crowded).
Market Street has locations in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. I frequent the Chapel Hill location on South Elliot Road. There are comfy seats and tables to choose from. The quiet atmosphere is great for solo studying.
My favorite campus coffee shop, Friends Cafe is located in the Health Science Library on South Columbia Street. Less than a five minute walk to the School of Social Work, it’s the perfect spot to get some work done before class or grab a treat during break.
Since I work in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the Meantime Coffee Co. is my go-to spot for a mid-day coffee break. Housed in the UNC Campus Y, the Meantime is a non-profit coffee shop that is completely student run. Definitely stop in if you find yourself in this part of campus. You can enjoy delicious coffee from Carrboro Coffee Roasters while supporting the Carolina Community!
Technically not a coffee shop, but my list wouldn’t be complete without it. Closed in the winter, Honeysuckle Tea House is best enjoyed in the spring and summer. Located on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, the open-air shop is surrounded by gardens. It feels like studying in a tree house (but there’s still WiFi). Definitely worth the drive!
Best Hot Cocoa spots in the Triangle (Place name/ what to order):
- Cocoa Cinnamon, Durham, NC (3 locations): Cacao Canela
- Parker & Otis, Durham, NC: Regular hot chocolate
- Bean Traders, Durham, NC: Hot chocolate with coconut milk OR their sipping chocolate
- Coco Bean, Chapel Hill, NC: Hot chocolate with macadamia nut milk
- Sir Walter Coffee, Raleigh, NC: Hot chocolate with macadamia nut milk
- Jubala Village Coffee: Hot chocolate with macadamia nut milk
- Liquid State: Hot chocolate with soy milk
- Goorsha, Durham, NC: Cocoa Spice (spiked hot chocolate (;)
- & finally, for the best hot cocoa in town: me (:
I reflected last week on things I have been able to experience in the past few months that I have been wanting to work on and have been wanting to take part in. My caring of self has not always been great- at times I do so much of it but mostly I disregard the need to be gentle with myself or do the things that bring me joy.
Some of the ways I was able to come around and find the things that bring me joy is by
- Setting boundaries: Deciding what I say yes and no to, and fighting the urge of changing my mind afterward. I’m sure many of us relate because many of us are overachievers and may have little time to spare. (Use that time wisely)
- Finding activities, people etc that recharge us: As an introvert, I realize how much joy I find in doing things I love alone. This could be going somewhere public but doing my own thing alone, attending an art class alone, going to a concert alone. For some of us being around others recharge us- so find what works for you!
- Making a list: Many of us are busy, drained, and at times unattuned or unaware of our wants and needs in midst of many moving pieces. For me this meant, I had to be intentional about what I wished to achieve or do, or try. I made my caring of self another line item on my to-do list until it became easier to do. (This is for us who need more structure when it comes to finding ways to care for ourselves)
- Trying things: Sometimes we have no idea where to start because we have never practiced a hobby, perhaps we have social anxiety among other things that make trying new things a bit challenging. I have found that just trying things with no expectations has allowed me to be able to know what I want to do- and also has taught me what I DON’T want to do.
New habits take time, boundaries take time, but find what works for you and don’t forget to be consistent. Caring for yourself is central to your well-being and will be especially as social workers, students, caretakers, researchers, leaders, staff, and administration etc.
PS: One of the things I do to care for myself is to listen to music, make playlists and as of recently DJ. So! I suggest a playlist on Spotify by the name of Jazz Vibes! it’s my go-to with studying, or spending time alone!
Halloween just passed and there are a lot of scary things still floating around near Franklin Street. If you are faint of heart, this is where you should stop reading…
R E S E A R C H!
Phew, I know that was a little scary for some folks to see…Some of you may be cringing at the idea of doing research. It can definitely be boring…challenging…lengthy at times, but more than anything it is how we make sense of the world around us. The great thing about UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work is that there are so many amazing professors that conduct research. Plus, there are opportunities to volunteer and sometimes get paid for research!
Last year, I had no idea that I would even remotely be interested in research or enjoy it. However, I worked with a professor on alcohol and substance abuse prevention research along with alopecia research in the African American community. For my final research assignment, my research professor wanted me to create a video for middle school substance use prevention. Check it out below!
This year, I am working on a research study with Dr. Rachel Goode. We are focusing on finding ways to effectively reduce binge eating behaviors in African American women. We are partnering with the Department of Family Medicine’s UNC Weight Management program. This has been a completely different experience as we create and implement our study. Our study has a lab called the Living FREE Lab. Here’s our team, missing our partners from the Weight Management Clinic.
I am so excited to watch this unfold. If you are interested in learning more, check out all the awesome studies, publications, and research we are doing at our lab website (www.livingfreelab.org).
Moral of this sPoOky story is that UNC can give you more than just those three letters after your name. Take advantage of all that you can!
Last Friday, I was on the student panel for an information session for prospective students. One of the students asked us what we wish we had known before starting the UNC MSW program. I’ve been thinking about that and trying to remember what it was like to be a beginning student (it feels like eons but it was only a few months ago!). So for anyone else who is wondering, here are a few things I wish I had known.
- Financial aid is different
I’m not sure what all the criteria are, but apparently you don’t get Pell Grants in grad school. The SSW has a few scholarships they give out, but these will not cover your expenses. Your primary financial aid will be un-subsidized federal loans. Be sure to look into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and apply for it EARLY! Applications end around March.
- You can’t take all the classes you want
There are many classes offered by the SSW that sound amazing and you may be thinking you’re going to take all of them! Unless you enjoy maximum stress, don’t. Your time in the program is remarkably short, especially if you’re Advanced Standing like me. Don’t worry, though, because the SSW has so many learning opportunities outside of the classroom. There are workshops and expert panels and guest lectures that can give you the information you’re looking for. Also, your field placement is a great resource to get knowledge hands-on! For me, I couldn’t take the fundraising class I wanted, but I am getting that experience in my placement with their many fundraisers, including planning and promoting the event. Be realistic in your scheduling and seek out supplemental events to learn what you’re looking for!
- It’s alright to have a life
When you start a grad program, you will likely be very ambitious about getting super involved and doing all your reading and completing assignments well in advance of their deadlines. I have met many people who started like this, myself included, and I don’t think anyone has met those expectations. You may decide to continue working through school or you may have a family to care for. Maybe you know you need one day off each week to maintain your well-being. Whatever it is, you don’t have to be a home-workaholic. Other areas of your life are just as important and deserve your attention. Don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries.
- You can do this!!!!
Impostor syndrome is so real. You may feel like you don’t belong in the program, or you must have been let in by mistake. Your first few weeks of any class will likely be intimidating, and you may feel like you know nothing compared to your classmates. Or, you may be scared to apply at all, and think there’s no way you’ll get in. Don’t let negative thinking stress you out and stop you from doing something amazing! I remember having those same thoughts, and sometimes I still do. But, I am so thankful to be in UNC’s MSW program and I’m enjoying learning, connecting, and trying new skills. It can feel scary to take such a big leap, but you can do it!
I hope these few things will encourage others who are apprehensive about starting the UNC MSW program. UNC has so much to offer and if you’re thinking about an MSW, it is worth your time to apply to this exceptional program.
Recently I was struck by a story a professor told about an informal survey he conducts among workshop participants when teaching at conferences and training sessions: he asks participants to rate themselves in effectiveness as compared to other direct practice social workers. He reports that without exception, a majority of participants rate themselves as above average, or better than the majority of their peers. Then he makes the joke that statistically speaking, there must be a workshop full of below average social workers somewhere else, because here there is clearly a disproportionate number of above average social workers. He uses this vignette to illustrate the degree to which clinical practitioners are historically not insightful at rating their own effectiveness: we don’t know when we’re actually doing a good job.
This conclusion is supported in the research. For example, recently I reviewed a study of clinicians’ judgement of the strength of the therapeutic alliance between clinicians and their clients with co-occurring substance use and psychotic disorder. Researchers found that clinicians rated the therapeutic alliance as strong when they perceived the client to be progressing and changing through treatment. Which is all well and good, except for the additional finding that clinicians’ perception of client change over time was completely subjective and did not match up with the change over time data collected by objective assessment measures. This suggests that in addition to not knowing when we’re actually doing a good job, we also are not good at benchmarking client progress. Without the aid of objective assessment measures, we are apt to confuse clients who are very engaged in treatment with clients who are getting better.
Other sources would indicate that the full picture includes clients who get better over time even without being particularly engaged with the treatment provider. Adjacent to the concept of mental health and substance use treatment practitioners having poor, or at least, very subjective insight when it comes to their own effectiveness and their clients’ change and progress over time is the fact that sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, people get “better” without treatment. A reading from one of my Substance Use and Addiction Specialist (SUAS) classes cited information that “most” of people who meet criteria for addiction to illicit substances quit on their own by age 30. This surprised me, especially in regards to drug addiction, because true addiction is often presented as a crisis that cannot be remediated without intensive treatment. Considering the idea of how or why it could be true that people with addiction would quit on their own before age 30, the paper points to legal, financial, family, and social reasons.
This all brings me back to the idea of clinical practitioners rating themselves disproportionately as “above average.” More than just reflecting the fact that we, as practitioners, are subjective beings who aren’t good at intuitively measuring our own effectiveness, it tells a story about the cultural value of individuality in the United States. We rate ourselves as “above average” because to be “average” is undesirable. We want to be “above average” clinicians because we want to be the individual that makes the most difference in clients’ lives and is best able to help them. We want to “fix” clients that other clinicians couldn’t help.
In school we are surrounded by information about quantitative measures and assessment tools. In some practice settings, like hosptials, the use of these tools may be a built-in part of practice. In my experience, however, especially when working for smaller companies or nonprofits that may not have the financial resources to purchase specialized assessment tools or subscribe to current research, the use of formal assessment measures is lacking. I think this can incubate a culture of idealized individualism among treatment providers: an outsized belief in or reliance on the clinician’s role as the agent of change in clients’ lives. In turn, this can lead to an underestimation of the work done by clients themselves and of the influence of other factors in the client’s system, such as family members or friends.
I was initially resistant to ways of practicing that include manualized treatment and rigid assessment tools, because these methods felt out of step with the personal relationships with clients that inspired me to seek further education in the first place. But the more I learn about the field, the more need I see to incorporate conscientious implementation of EBP’s and use of objective assessment tools into my practice. Because I recognize that I am a fallible human being whose “powers” of empathy can only go so far; because clients don’t need me to be “nice” or take the place of a friend or family member; and because I’d rather not be a clinician who thinks I’m better than most at my job, but who really has no tools or data to back that up.
I began this social work program feeling very certain of my future career goals; I wanted to establish hospice programs throughout our nation’s prison system beginning with North Carolina. This aspiration was developed after watching a 2011 documentary titled Serving Life; this documentary was filmed in a Louisiana maximum-security prison in which persons who are incarcerated care for others in the facility who are at end of life. Unintentionally, over the course of my studies and personal experiences, I developed an interest in grief counseling; I decided that I would focus on having a career in grief counseling first to gain clinical experience and postpone my original goal to a later time.
For my specialization year field placement, I am placed in the Behavioral Health Interdisciplinary Program of the W. G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center. The Behavioral Health Interdisciplinary Program provides individual psychotherapy (typically brief treatment) and group psychotherapy to Veterans. This experience has provided me with opportunities to facilitate both individual and group psychotherapies. I’ve been able to observe and participate in the mental health treatment of veterans with a variety of presenting problems, including loss. This experience has enlightened me on just how limited my career goal of grief counseling was and challenged me to consider a career in which I can provide treatment for a wider range of presenting problems and thus, serve more people.
Social work field placement at the W. G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center is unique in that student interns are required to have at least one “rotation”, the required rotation(s) provides opportunity for students to be exposed to and gain experience in more than one specialty. Additionally, being hired at the VA is unique in that social work personnel are often assigned to a “tour of duty” upon being hired. This means that applicants should be licensed and trained “general” social workers who possess a variety of knowledge, skills, and experience so that they can be placed in whichever unit needed. After graduation I hope to gain employment at the VA, and as someone who wrestles with “sticking to” a concrete specialty, this hiring method provides me with a sense of relief. It eliminates the need for an immediate decision regarding my future specialty. It also helps me to relieve myself of the pressure of immediately needing to know “what’s next” career wise and creates space for me to enjoy this process while I continue expanding my horizons regarding potential social work careers.
The book, 101 Careers in Social Work 2nd edition, by Jessica A. Ritter and Halaevalu F. Ofahengaue Vakalahi is a great resource for anyone interested in learning about potential careers in the field of social work.
Link to the trailer for the documentary Serving Life: https://youtu.be/DzPzmeieXPE