In this series, we highlight and interview Graduate School of Social Service students and alumni who pursued their social work degrees and entered the social work profession after previously sustaining careers in different sectors.
Cheryl Wilson became President Elect of the National Association of Social Workers – Connecticut Chapter on July 1, 2021. Cheryl graduated from Fordham GSS in 2007 with a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She is a Fordham GSS faculty member and is an active member of the GSS Black Alumni Caucus.
When did you know you wanted to pursue social work, and why?
I came from a corporate background, and I was working in the health insurance industry. I was a customer service professional and while I was in that career, I continued getting a lot of feedback from customers about my temperament and my ability to listen and help people. I enjoyed making people feel comfortable in those stressful situations. I also held numerous positions while I worked in the healthcare industry such as: Benefit Analyst, Claims Analyst, Coordination of Benefits Coordinator, and Collections Specialist. In my most recent position at Anthem, I worked as a Behavioral Health Clinical Manager. In this role, I supervised a team of clinical licensed behavioral health professionals, which included licensed social workers, licensed professional counselors, and registered nurses.
I also became interested in the field of social work based on my own personal experiences that I had, where to advocate for myself. There were various social work related programs when I was a young adult, and I wouldn’t say the programs are not here now, but they just don’t seem as accessible, or there’s a lack of funding.
I remember being able to get my car fixed, it was a one-time opportunity, through the workforce program in New Haven Connecticut. It was geared to help people who are working and trying to get to work with a safe and adequate vehicle. I applied for the service and I received assistance by paying for a one-time car repair so I could continue getting to work. Those are the kind of things that I experienced, and each and every time something like that happened, it just made me believe in social work more and more. I am really appreciative of how the social support systems in place helped me to maintain and support my continuous growth.
How did you feel about making the career switch from corporate to social work? What emotions did you go through?
You know, I was really excited. I knew I was on the right path. Even when I wrote my [application]essay for graduate school, I wrote it from my heart. I was excited about what I was going to venture into, and to be a part of such a wonderful profession.
What’s something you learned through the MSW program that impacts your day-to-day career now?
One of the things that stuck out for me in the very beginning of the GSS program was one of the professors telling us that we have to make sure that our basic needs are met, and that we’re in a relatively good place ourselves — otherwise, we wouldn’t be any good to anyone else. That’s something that I hold onto because it’s so true.
And something that I do pass on to the students that I work with is to keep checking in on yourself. It is important to keep that self-evaluation process going, because we are constantly evolving as human beings.
I think the other piece is just being able to recognize the uniqueness of each person, regardless of the class, culture, or race you identify with. We need to take each person and understand that they come with unique characteristics and circumstances.
Did you get involved with the NASW while you were a student, or did that happen after graduation?
All it took for me to join the NASW [as a student]was for a professor to say, you’re going to get a discount if you join as a student, so I joined as a student. I did experience a little bit of a gap once I graduated and was transitioning into my profession, but then I rejoined because I was in contact a lot with [Stephen A. Wanczyk-Karp, LMSW]. Steve is our executive director for the Connecticut Chapter. I was always reaching out to him as a new graduate student. I was often asking questions and inquiring about different areas that I was in pursuit of, including seeking licensure. Additionally, I became more involved when I got invited by Steve to join the NASW-CT as a board member. It kind of just fell into place.
What kind of benefits do students and professionals get out of joining a group like the NASW?
It’s another opportunity for us to stay involved with the profession and become change agents in helping to address problems that impact individuals and families. I think it’s a good way to stay informed with policies and issues that are impacting people that we serve on a daily basis, and do whatever we can to help move the profession forward in accordance with our mission statement. There is also ongoing professional support and development and many opportunities for collaboration to create unique opportunities that propel the organization together for the betterment of society.
How did it feel when you were notified about becoming president of the NASW-CT?
I haven’t allowed myself to fully process my new role yet. I was completely honored and humbled. I did speak with the current President on a phone call and she kept saying how excited she was and reiterated that I am the perfect person [for the role]. She also mentioned my ability to manage people from diverse backgrounds, and honestly, I’m still trying to digest that this is happening.
Sometimes we pursue things intentionally and sometimes we’re just pursuing because we believe we’re in the right place at the right time, and I think, for me, I was just doing what I needed to do within the organization without expectations. I just want to be involved and I want to be committed; I want to do what I can do to help the NASW-CT organization meet its goals and to carry out the mission of the NASW-CT chapter.
It’s just refreshing to know it really does pay-off to work hard, and it is an honor to be part of such a wonderful organization.
As President, what are some of the things you’re most excited for in this position in the next year, or beyond?
I’m excited to really learn what is the most important piece of being a leader in this role. I want to make sure that I’m doing my part to help move the organization forward and especially for the Connecticut region. I’m excited about learning and collaborating with other leaders that are going to be in the same role as I am.
And I’m very excited to be working with Steve Karp. He is amazing. He’s just a wonderful person; he’s so committed to the field of social work, and I look forward to partnering with him on future endeavors.
When I pursued my education at Fordham, I was all in. I’m going to be all in in this role, as well.