Like many of us, Maddox Emerick’s life was shifted in the spring of 2020, when the world came to a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide lockdowns kept Emerick—a trained performer since his time as an undergraduate theater major—off the stage and wondering what came next.
“I’d always had social work in the back of my mind, and I thought, this is the world encouraging me to think about it more,” Emerick said. “I’d been exposed to clinical social work, and also some other types of case management, while I was growing up. And I’d always been told, ‘You’d make a great therapist.’”
So, in what Emerick called a ‘definitive transition point’ in his life, he chose to pivot away from theater and into a career of social work. The first stop: a Master of Social Work (MSW) program.
While researching MSW programs, Emerick said Fordham gave him the flexibility he needed to tailor the coursework to his interests.
“At Fordham, especially in your last semester, there is a lot of flexibility and autonomy in course selection,” he said. “I wanted to be able to explore my education in my own way.”
And that’s exactly what Emerick is doing. As a student in his last semester, he is pairing the course load he chose with an impressive internship. Since September, Emerick has been a clinical intern at the Institute for Human Identity (IHI) therapy center, overseeing five clients and one 90-minute group session.
“I’m in a cohort of interns that has students from basically all of the major social work programs in the city,” Emerick said. “I’ve gotten to meet a bunch of other early career clinicians and get information from them, share resources with them, and some of them have become very good friends of mine.”
Learning by Doing: Time at the IHI
Not only does Emerick network with like-minded students at his internship, he gets to do what he loves and serve a population he cares about. IHI is the nation’s first and longest-running provider of LGBTQ+-affirmative psychotherapy, providing care for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities since 1973.
Emerick said his current caseload is made up entirely of people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
“These folks, systemically, tend to make less money, be in poverty more often, and have less access to health care and mental health care resources,” he said.
Not having much clinical experience himself, Emerick said he started the internship a bit nervous. His internship last year was mostly administrative, case management work — so meeting with clients was an entirely new endeavor. Most of his colleagues, on the other hand, had already been in clinical roles.
“The first month to six weeks of my supervision I kept wondering, is everything that I’m doing OK? It was a learning curve,” he said.
But as his caseload increased, Emerick got to ‘flex the muscle’ of clinical sessions, and became more comfortable in his role. He thanks the IHI staff for their incredible training, and also their trust. Emerick said the organization gives clinical interns real autonomy, and the opportunity to develop their skills in real time.
“At the very beginning of the internship, the IHI staff said, ‘We treat the interns like staff therapists, so you let us know if something is up, but otherwise, it’s up to you,’” he said. “The client work in my internship is very separated from the administration of the agency.”
The result of this work life freedom? Real connection with his clients, achieved on their own terms.
“I find myself constantly being surprised and humbled by just how candid my clients are in sharing their lives with me,” he said. “I often have the experience of leaving a session and feeling very fortunate to be able to hear such private and vulnerable things, and to be trusted with those things in that way.”
Individual vs. Group Dynamics
Along with his individual client caseload, Emerick leads a 90-minute group therapy session at IHI. Since Emerick was the newcomer in a group that had known each other for a while, he said it took some time to break down those barriers and enter himself into their established relationships.
“The group is very interesting because a lot of the group dynamic predates me as a facilitator. I still find myself learning about the dynamics that are already present in the group,” he said. “Whereas with an individual, it’s me and them building an understanding from the very ground up.”
Having to navigate both scenarios, Emerick said, has been a challenge, but a welcome one. The opportunity has given him the chance to improve all aspects of his knowledge and skill-set as a clinician.
“I’m really thankful that I get both experiences,” he said, “because I think that both of them are very transferable to other institutions and jobs, and makes me more of a versatile clinician.”
A Clinician and a Researcher
One of the best things about an MSW degree is the variety of opportunities offered to students both during their time in school and after graduation. Emerick is no different. Along with his internship and coursework, he is also currently working as a research assistant under Assistant Professor Jenn Lilly, Ph.D.
In this role, Emerick is helping Lilly with her research on the sociopolitical and cultural determinants of health in Latina young people. Right now, he is coding Lilly’s interview transcriptions and searching for the major themes within the conversations, as well as drafting and preparing manuscripts for submission to peer-reviewed journals. Emerick and Lilly meet once a month to check in about how the manuscripts are progressing; they also communicate more frequently through email and online chat.
“Dr. Lilly has taught me a lot about the values of social work that I think are very important,” Emerick said, “and she definitely is somebody who, I feel, always sees me as a human being as well as her student, and was able to hold both of those things at the same time.”
Emerick said trust is a large factor in his relationship with Lilly. She gives him the same level of respect and autonomy he’s seeing at IHI, and the two positions have meshed well.
“Dr. Lilly trusts that I can get my work done,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m being micromanaged, or anything like that.”
Emerick—who hadn’t done too much in the way of research before Lilly gave him the opportunity—said Lilly would be very happy to hear that he is now considering a Ph.D. in social work as part of his future. It’s thanks to her that he’s fallen in love with the research process.
Emerick said that his plans after graduation involve finding a job that will give him the supervision and preparation he needs for the LCSW exam.
And while his coursework and IHI internship are preparing him for a life in clinical therapy, Emerick said his experience has him thinking about other career possibilities, as well. Seeing his LGBTQ+ clients suffer from systemic inequity has Emerick questioning if he can do something to help them on a broader scale.
“Something that I’m very much trying to keep in mind as I go forward is that connection between direct service and the policy side of things, and how both are necessary for any area of social work,” he said. “My clients are impacted by these more systemic forces, and it helps me to see that connection and be involved in both sides of it. You can do all of the therapy in the world, but if you’re still being discriminated against every single day, there’s only so far the therapy can take you.”
Luckily, with an MSW degree, Emerick doesn’t have to choose. His coursework at GSS has focused on the macro side of the profession, as well as working with individual clients. The experience sets him up to choose his path. The opportunities are endless.
“As a social worker, I don’t have to choose one very specific thing and follow it for my entire career,” he said. “There’s room for me to do multiple things, and sometimes multiple things at the same time. That possibility is very appealing to me.”