Seeing the Forest for the Trees

For the past few months, I have been wrapped up in my own life- my own social work-y, professional life, that is. “My contribution will be greatest if I use and hone my strengths,” has been the mantra. For this reason, I have been in the zone, locked in, put my blinders on- but primarily about clinical mental health and clinical mental health only. I care about other areas of social work and of life in general, and I engage in them frequently… nevertheless, my passion or drive has been singular in focus, and it leads to becoming the best clinician I can.

Despite my diligence, my mantra of ‘play my part and do it to the utmost’ is sometimes wrenched from center and replaced by the Bigger Picture. A current event illustrates the entirety of cultural oppression. The zeitgeist crashes through the computer screen after reading an article. Most commonly, “The Big Picture” sits right there in the room with you when you realize how little you can do for a client, because there just aren’t the resources, or the time, or “anything else we can do.” Suddenly, my focus on being the best I can at what I do, is placed in context, which becomes so much louder than the small picture.

You have to see the forest for the trees.

Recently, I read a couple of articles posted online by the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). One was about horrendous wait times for in-patient psychiatric care in NC, and another about executive action that will see health insurance premiums rise for middle- and low-income households. Regardless of the skill I hope to display in the therapy room, in the recovery center, or in the case management role, one cannot transcend the context. My fixture to my chosen role loosens with thoughts like these and I start dreaming of a “macro” role: championing a social movement, starting a political career (HA!), or writing groundbreaking books that will change the course of history.

OK, calm down, Rob.

More realistically, I will continue to provide direct care, but focus on doing so with awareness of current policy and the happenings in a community. That’s where the MSW comes in. There is a reason we all study both ends of the spectrum in social work. One cannot focus only on one side and shirk the responsibilities of the other. The Generalist Curriculum at Chapel Hill prepares you for both direct practice and community and policy work. In the first stage of the social work education, we spend equal time covering the foundations of human behavior as we do the underpinnings of current systems of oppression: both affect the people for whom we work. Assignments are developed intentionally to assess our skill in conceptualizing individual cases as well as to assess our ability to identify needs in a community. From analyzing policy to evaluating evidence-based practices, we need to be able to think critically.

 

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Posted in Academics, In the Classroom

We’re Halfway Through the Semester?!

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Hello!

This semester is flying by much quicker than I would’ve anticipated. Although my weeks are packed with work, field, school and community work I’m stunned to take a look at the calendar and realize that we’re halfway through the semester.

Before I fall into a winding narrative about what these first few months have held for me, here’s a snapshot of myself; I’m a second year in the three-year Distance Education MSW Program, based out of the triangle. I’m first generation in multiple ways, first in my family to pursue a Masters and first generation born and raised in the United States. I’m a Brooklyn native, but moved down South a while back and chose to pursue my undergraduate degree at UNC, BA in psychology and double minors in Latinx Studies and Social and Economic Justice, and am back for round two with my Masters in Social Work.

One big thing to know about me I love hand-lettering, and weave it into my everyday life  as much as I can; I use it in my bullet journal, in class when I take notes, on signs I make when I’m heading to protests, and in my prints that I create for my artsy side business.

You’ll likely be seeing snippets of what I do in my posts, and just know that my notes are far from perfect (jotted down quickly in between fast paced conversations or speakers) but they are intended to capture bits and pieces that stand out to me in lecture, at events that I attend, and beyond that.

One of the first things I realized when I began this program is that with the nature of what we’re studying and the work that we are preparing to do once we graduate–we’re inherently impacted by what is going on beyond our classrooms because the communities that we are working with and that we ourselves are a part of are in a constant state of change. To ignore present day events, to shy away from acknowledging them in class conversations does a disservice to us as individuals, but also to the communities and populations that we are working with. Creating space in our classroom and in our school to have these conversations is vital to helping us become the best social workers that we can be.

Two highlights for these first few months of this semester are two events that I thought ya’ll might like to know about, and that were important to me.

DACA in Crisis

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‘DACA in Crisis’ took place on Monday, September 18th at the FedEx Global Education Center. The event was put together primarily by UNC undergraduate students who saw an immediate need in our Carolina community and sought to fill it. The event brought together five panelists who work on different aspects of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and undocumented issues both on campus and in the community ranging from community involvement, to university level insight, and legal supports, etc. The event provided information on DACA, its repeal, and addressed concerns from undocumented students and community members. Information on the event was disseminated on the UNC School of Social Work Latinx Caucus listserv and Facebook page. There were many familiar faces in the audience, and it was affirming to see fellow graduate students and social work faculty members present at this event (and some alumni of the program as well!). When legislation like this passes (or is repealed), the ways in which it can uproot our communities is difficult to put into words—simply put it can impact many of us in some or all facets of what we do, it can touch us directly, our families, the communities that we’re directly or indirectly a part of, the work that we do in field, etc. I was thankful for this event and the opportunity to learn more, to figure out how to be a better ally and to takes notes on what we should be doing as future social workers to best respond and best ways to show solidarity and ways to participate in efforts to create action.

A webpage was created from the student led, community efforts that day to pool together resources for current and prospective undocumented students and their families, encouraging ya’ll to check it out!

http://undocuments.web.unc.edu/

Social Justice Lecture Series: Ted Shaw,

Director of the UNC Civil Rights Center, Activism in Academia

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This event was the first of a Social Justice Series, recently launched under the Jordan Institute for Families at the school of Social Work. The series is a part of the School’s larger commitment to encourage informed engagement, especially around social justice and racial equity.

Dr. Shaw is the director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC, which was earlier this year stripped of its ability to litigate by the Board of Governors earlier this month. Dr. Shaw spoke about activism in academia and how it serves as a means of survival for him. Dr. Shaw spoke frankly about the current state of the country and the importance of fighting back, and of choosing hope—not a naïve celebration—but a hope embedded in struggle, a radical hope.

As a student it can be easy to feel overwhelmed simply at the weight of the injustices that we’re actively trying to combat, it can feel overwhelming to be absorbing the history of social work and struggle to balance that with present day events and actions that alone can be so heavy. Dr. Shaw’s words were a necessary light, a reminder of the importance of fighting back and of radical hope.

That’s all for now friends,

-theresa michelle flores

Posted in Events, Uncategorized

Opportunities Abound!

This year, my field placement is at Duke Movement Disorders Clinic. At the clinic we see patients who have Parkinson’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease. Mental health conditions often occur as a result of these illnesses (especially depression and anxiety).  To better serve my patients, my field supervisors sent me to a mental health first aid training this week. The goals of mental health first aid training are twofold; to teach people how to respond in a mental health emergency and to offer nonjudgmental support to someone who appears to be in emotional distress. The course does a nice job going over signs, symptoms and common misconceptions of depression, anxiety, suicidality, psychosis, and substance abuse. It also helps you formulate an action plan that is appropriate, nonjudgmental, and supportive to the person experiencing a crisis.

I finished the course today (yay!) and am so grateful that I had this experience. The class was taught by a psychologist and an EMS paramedic. As an MSW student, it was super cool to see members of the community, medical professionals, and mental health professionals coming together to learn skills to help people in need of mental health first aid.

Taking this training (for free) highlights one of my favorite things about the school of social work. There are SO many outside trainings, seminars, conferences, and resources available to you (many of them free) to attend and expand your knowledge, experience, and resume!
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Posted in Field Work, Outside of the classroom

Back to that self-care…

This semester is officially under way! First papers have been turned in, readings are piling up, groups are meeting regularly for projects, and I am back to frequenting my favorite study spots. One of the best things about Carolina is the fall weather. For a short while, humidity drops, temperatures become milder, but the sun keeps shining. Today I spent some time in my favorite corner of the Health Sciences Library (pretty much across the street from the School of Social Work) working at a standing desk, looking out two window-walls (picture below). When I needed a change of scenery, I sat on one of the many benches surrounding the School of Social Work building reading my textbook and enjoying the shade from a large tree. I actually shared the space with a few chipmunks who were busy running back and forth between the tree and a bush.

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Part of getting back into the swing of school means finding study spots that support my need for self-care that fit into my tight schedule. The standing desks and comfy chairs, and the benches around the school are part of the constant need to multi-task: I can get outdoor time while reading; I can get out of my chair but still write a paper. Obviously, self-care is about so much more than reading outside and using a standing desk, but I really believe that some of those little choices sustain me through times of high work load and stress.

 

Social work education can be taxing and emotionally draining at times, but it has also taught me to honor my own mental health and need for self-care. Many of my peers find that in community with each other, sharing lunch and conversations. I often find that I need time to myself between classes to get work accomplished in places that allow me to see the sun, stretch my legs, breathe fresh air, and enjoy some quiet time. Part of this social work education is learning what we each need to be balanced and effective practitioners, accepting that this may not be what others need, and allowing ourselves to be unique.

Posted in I ♥ North Carolina, Outside of the classroom

Wanderlusting in NC

Last week I got that feeling. You know that one. When you’re on the sidewalk and the trees rustle and then the wind hits you. After a full summer of heat and humidity, you are braced for a mix of dusty, hot, muggy-ness to the face. But no- not this breeze. This breeze carried fall with it.

It stirred something in me. I got a case of the wanderlusts! Now, I don’t really consider myself a big traveler, but every once-in-a-while it’s nice to get away. Luckily, we live in a pretty amazing state for quick weekend trips (and extended ones are even better!)… even little day-trips like the one I secretly took last week (Shh)! And I’m taking another one pronto (and convincing myself to think of all the reading I’ll catch up on).

It’s also really easy to catch that wanderlust when you live somewhere as beautiful as NC.

The famous Outer Banks are 3 hours and some change from Chapel Hill. Reading about the social construction of target populations is much more engrossing with your toes in the sand, lemme tell ya’. Any of you folks reading this from up north know this is what you want… it’s everything you’ve dreamed of. 80 degrees, sunny, a breeze coming in off the water… just think about it. Oh and the sea food. Please.

On the other side of the state and about equidistant, the Blue Ridge Mountains feature some of the best views, best waterfalls, best outdoor activities, and greatest biodiversity in North America.

Ok, I’ll stop with the photos now, but you get the point. It’s really pretty here, these places are really easy to get to, and it’s super inexpensive if you load up a couple people in the car and go for it. And don’t get me started on all the other stuff to do while you wander… barbecue (East vs. West- St. Louis’s got nothin’ on us!), breweries, all the food, the music scenes. You’re gonna love it!

Posted in I ♥ North Carolina, Outside of the classroom

Tears on Aisle 3…

One evening on my way home from field placement I stopped at a local grocery store to get some much needed coffee in preparation for a night of studying. Well, while shopping I noticed that a lady just kept following me around the store and staring at me. I tried my best to ignore her and enjoy my few minutes of “me time” perusing the aisles in search of the perfect coffee blend and creamer. Finally, the woman stopped me armed with an enormous smile and tears falling she said “thank you all so much for what you do!” I looked down and noticed that I had forgotten to take off my Hospice of the Piedmont name tag after leaving my field placement. The woman had noticed the name tag and it brought back memories of the hospice care her spouse of 54 years had received two years ago. She wiped her tears and asked if she could hug me. She told me that no one wants to lose their best friend, but that Hospice of the Piedmont had made it the most peaceful experience that she could have imagined for him. She said that she was thinking of volunteering at the agency soon and that her run in with me was confirmation that it was time to give back in her husband’s honor.

While I’ll most likely not repeat the mistake of leaving my name tag on after hours, the experience was so unexpectedly meaningful. It further inspired me to continue to strive to become a compassionate and effective social worker so that I can be granted with a lifetime of opportunities to help individuals and families navigate their end of life journeys.

Posted in Field Work, Outside of the classroom, Uncategorized

But how do I choose?!

If you are a student considering a MSW program, you probably feel as though you have an overwhelming amount of choices to make. You have to decide on a school, the program track, a concentration, housing options, and more! It seems as though there are so many choices, and what if you don’t even know what in the world you can or want to do with a social work degree?! Well, first off, realize that you are not alone. You aren’t the only one trying to figure this out, and there are people that are still trying to figure some of these things out halfway through their Masters program.

Here are some suggestions about what to consider when selecting a MSW program:

What program options does the school provide? Can you do a part time program while working? Is there an advanced standing program option for BSW students? What about online options? All of these things are important to various people, consider what options are important for you to have in a school.

What is the school known for? What is the school’s reputation in the community? Are they known for any specific programs or tracks? What do the agencies that work with the social work program think about the staff and faculty? What do the students say? Take it all with a grain of salt, but this is valuable feedback that may help you really start to understand what the program is all about.

What extra options does the school offer? Do they have special scholarship programs, like a child welfare program, or research assistantships? Or do they offer certificate programs? What about dual degree options? These extra opportunities can help you get the best bang for your buck and may be important to your career plans!

What are the courses like? Every school has a different schedule of classes, different faculty with various areas of expertise, and different field placement (internship) processes. You can often look through some of the course schedules to get a better idea of the electives offered, explore their website to learn about some of the faculty and their research/practice experience, and ask questions about what the field placement process looks like for that program.

What is the cost-effectiveness of the program? Consider your own personal finances. Do you need to attend a school where you will have in-state tuition? Should you opt for an online program? Do you want to work while taking classes? Is the area where you would have to live within your financial means? While there are loans available for most graduate programs, finances are important to consider when looking at a program.

What are your personal needs? Is this an area you would be willing to spend a year or more in? Are there post-graduate job options that you may consider? Do you want to go somewhere completely new, or be near loved ones? Whatever your personal reasons are, don’t count these out in the decision making process!

Ultimately, there is a vast array of options for you as you continue to explore which MSW program to choose, and there will be positives and negatives with every option. Find out the things you are not able to compromise on, and then visit or talk with a few programs to find which one is a good fit for you. Find a trusted mentor or colleague to discuss your options with, and don’t forget to trust your gut! Good luck on this exciting process!

Posted in Academics, Uncategorized