If someone told me a few years ago that I would make a good social worker, I would have asked, “A what now?” The words social never came before worker while growing up in Trinidad. I am not saying there was not a need for the profession in 1990’s rural T&T, it is just that no one I knew ever needed one, and I knew A LOT of oppressed people. Wives or common law wives were beaten once in while by their significant others, but everyone just went about their own businesses. That was something that was to be handled within that particular family and that was it. No one ever called the cops. Not even that one time a man was beating his wife so badly that he uprooted a handful of her hair right there in the street, surrounded by his neighbors. I was 12 at the time and wondered why no one intercepted. But that was life.
I graduated from secondary school, and migrated to New York. Within three months I was on my way to basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois. I joined the Navy to see the world and take advantage of that free college my recruiter just would not shut up about. In all 10 of those years I spent as a Sailor, the words “social” and “work/worker” never came up in that order, even though there are contracted civilian social workers in the Navy who do case management and counseling — something else I have learned since enrolling in the program. I cannot even remember watching a film or reading a novel that mentioned this profession. And I have seen many movies and read a good deal of literature. Or maybe I just never paid attention or gave it any thought.
I got out the military and enrolled in college. I decided to pursue a degree in English. Then I thought, what the fuck am I gonna do with that? So I switched to Communications. Do not laugh at me. Just a month before graduating from Fordham University was when I was introduced to the field of social work. This is surprising since Fordham’s School of Social Service is such a big deal. This just goes to show how oblivious I was to anything not within my orbit. I was quite self-involved. I was online reading an article, which stated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. I was floored. That is a suicide every 65 minutes. In 2012 alone 6, 500 veterans took their own lives. That is more than those who actually died in combat. Still, other sources say that those numbers are underestimated. I always heard about vets coming home from combat and having issues, but, again, this did not concern me so I never paid it any mind. I think it is safe to say that I was quite detached from the veteran population. After I got out I did not want to see another veteran. I only encountered other ex-service members at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center.
After reading the article, I was moved. I felt the sudden need to reach out to my fellow vets, because it is not fair that now that they are no longer able to serve they are forgotten. So I was particularly upset at the fact that our government was not doing all it should for the men and women who sacrificed so much to serve their country, or in my case — to get free tuition. I mean, I made sacrifices too. Don’t get me wrong. Being out to sea for months was no picnic, but it paled in comparison to what those in combat have had to endure. The news bothered me, mostly because I felt like an idiot. I felt guilty. I never took my military career seriously. I wasn’t a shit bag, okay? I was a good Sailor, for the most part. But I always looked at it as temporary. No matter how long I stayed in I refused to let my experiences in the military define me. Up to this day I have difficulty letting it known that I am a veteran. I mean if someone asked, which is rare, of course I would say yes. I am not ashamed of my Navy career, but I am aware of the stigma that is attached to being a veteran. Okay, this is enough of a tangent.
Anyway, after reading the article, wouldn’t you know it, I saw an ad for social work school. I cannot remember for what school, but I clicked on it and read up a bit on the profession. This, ladies and gentleman, was my introduction to social work. I did some research and made up my mind to get my master’s. I called up the veteran representative for Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, and she informed me that it was already passed the deadline but if I can apply within the next 48 hours she would see what she could do. What a sweetheart. That was the end of April. By June I had been accepted. Yay!
At this point I still had no idea what I was in for. I never thought I would even want a master’s much less one on a subject I had only learned about recently. I still had my doubts. That’s me. My whole life is one big doubt. But things always seem to work out. *knocks on wood* I did not know what to expect. Who does, really? But never in a million years would I have thought that two years in social work school would change me.
I am a lot more helpful to strangers. The other day I was in a hurry to catch the train to get to my internship, and this older woman was struggling to get her trolley down the steps. I actually stopped to help her and missed my train. I chose to help her instead of trampling her to get through those subway doors before they closed, which is what I would normally do. I was an asshole, I know.
I seem to care a lot more about the poor. And I am not talking about my own personal experience with the poor, which is probably considered middle class in the U.S. these days if I am to be totally honest. I mean poor. Growing up in Trinidad, I looked at America as the land of milk and honey. A place where opportunities flowed and money came easily. Boy was I wrong. Turns out you have to work just as hard as in Trinidad to get where you want to be. Shit, probably harder. Go figure. With that in mind, I assumed every adult who was always broke and never had a decent job simply lacked the ambition needed to strive in this country. Turns out a lack of opportunities due to discrimination plays a big a part in certain populations remaining in poverty for generations. This is where the human rights and social justice aspect of social work comes into play. It is my duty to seek social change for those individuals who make up oppressed groups. I did not think I would be able to do this one. I mean, who do I think I am fighting for others? But with the right resources I was actually able to help some folks out while interning at Catholic Charities during my first year of grad school. They were really grateful for my help and it felt good to help others instead of myself for a change.
I am more trustworthy than ever. I was never much for lying or stealing, but something I was never good at was keeping secrets. If someone told me something and made me promise not to tell anyone else, chances are I broke that promise. I would not go blab it to every person I ran into, but I would tell someone close to me and make them promise not to tell. I know, terrible. Well, I no longer have that problem. At my most recent internship at the Manhattan Vet Center, I worked as an adjustment counselor. I loved it. I mean, hello. I got to listen to all these stories, some of which were horrific and enabled me to gain so much respect for combat veterans, and all I had to do was ask open ended questions to get more and more info. Basically, as a social worker I have to be nosey. But, and it’s a big but, confidentiality is key. Some days I would go home with all the information a client shared and I was so disturbed by it that I felt the urge to call up my boyfriend and just unload on his ass. But I fought it. Social work has cured me of my diarrhea of the mouth. There is something special about the therapist client relationship. I felt like I was part of a secret club. Nothing that was said within my office walls got out. It was definitely a privilege to be confided in by people who are part of a population that avoids rehashing its combat experiences. I would not dream of breaking their trust, or anyone else’s trust for that matter. From this moment on, I am a volt.
I am a lot more compassionate. I used to be worried that I might be a sociopath, because whenever I saw those commercials asking to donate money to kids in Africa I felt nothing while gazing at the images of the starving children. Granted, I gauged my own reaction against that of my mother’s. She would always let out a slight groan, as though she could feel their pain and suffering. And while it is true that my mother can be overly dramatic, I still felt like there was something wrong with me. Now I feel so bad for those kids. I mean, I can’t even go three hours without getting hangry, and God knows how long they go without eating. I am also a lot more empathic toward people I see living on the street. I am more open to having conversations with them. I would never have thought thay I would feel comfortable talking to someone with schizophrenia, but that is exactly what I did when I co-facilitated a psycho education group at the Manhattan VA Medical Center. I know now that people are more than their mental illnesses and substance addictions. And, because of this, I am a lot less judgmental. I can’t just tell people to stop doing this or do that or else. A lot of the times they can’t do it on their own. They need help. Sometimes teams of people. Social workers are part of that team, and we are taught to treat all people with dignity. If you don’t believe me just look up our code of ethics.
I feel like I have grown so much in the last two years. Yet I have so much more to learn. When I first started taking courses in the master’s program I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Now I know that social work is a special profession. One in which we put the needs of others ahead of our own. Trust me, you would never hear a social worker say he or she chose their career for the money. As Father McShane, the President of Fordham, stated in his closing remarks during our diploma presentations yesterday, social workers are odd. I like being odd.