As an MSW student, studying for exams, juggling multiple tasks, and navigating your job search pre-graduation can get stressful. Surrounding yourself with the right community can do wonders for your mental health, and your success.
As one of the largest schools of social work in the nation, the Graduate School of Social Service offers many classmates with whom you can share your experience. The GSS Student Congress is making this connection easy, fun, and meaningful.
Making Time Outside the Classroom
Classrooms are a great atmosphere for meeting new people.
However, classes are only so long, and lives off-campus are busy. A lot of people don’t have time to stick around in the hallways after a lecture to network and create community. This has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone learned virtually and personal health took precedence over everything.
“When first thinking about joining Student Congress, I thought, this pandemic has been so stressful; it’s been very isolating,” said Gillian Sobocinski, current Co-Lead of Student Congress. “I thought it would be really helpful to have a support group.”
Other students saw Student Congress’s weekly newsletter, posts on Instagram, or the 2020 US Presidential Election Why Do You Vote campaign, and said it piqued their interest to join a meeting. What started as a new outlet for stress relief quickly progressed into friendships.
“I’m a [fully]online student, so it’s difficult to make friends,” said Stephanie Porto, Co-Lead of Student Congress. “Also, social work is a complete-180 career change for me, so I was feeling very out of my depth. I was like, okay I’m going to make friends.”
Porto is in a similar situation as many other fully online students enrolled in the MSW program. Classmates live all over the country, and, according to Ilona Silva, Co-Lead of Student Congress’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism (IDEA) Committee, extra exposure to peers through Student Congress allows her to educate herself on how the profession is changing throughout the country.
“I have good friends who are in California, I’m in North Carolina, and I have a good mentor in New York,” Silva said. “[At Fordham GSS], you not only learn about what’s going on in the field of social work with the backdrop of New York, you also realize what is happening in other states.”
Bringing Students Together with Purpose
Although friendship will always be a vital component of Student Congress, it’s not the only goal. As budding social workers, Student Congress members are advocates seeking to bring change to the profession and their communities.
One of the ways in which they’ve accomplished this during the spring semester is a monthly Anti-Racist Film Club, created by the IDEA Committee. The Club asks students to view a movie centered around anti-racism, and attend an accompanying panel discussion with social work experts to discuss the thematic issues of each film.
“Film is an accessible entry point for people to engage and join these important conversations,” Porto said. “We introduce these themes and connect it back to current-day work and current-day conversations, and invite people who are in the profession to facilitate the discussion.”
So far, panelists for the series have consisted of faculty members from UNC Charlotte, Sarah Lawrence College, and Fordham GSS (Dr. Christopher Curtis); the president and CEO of Communities in Schools; as well as artists, actors, and activists. Student Congress members say they are also planning to schedule “Teacher Talks” in the near future, informal sessions with GSS faculty and administration, where students can learn outside the classroom and pick the brains of GSS’s finest.
Having Their Voices Heard
GSS Student Congress members want their classmates to know that their top priority is to improve the student experience for everyone. This includes online, on-campus, and hybrid students. Meetings and events have added to this assertion; additionally, members are also doing work on the inside, receiving positions on GSS’s institutional committees.
There is student representation on all of GSS’s affinity groups, as well as the Action Committee for Racial and Social Justice and all of its subcommittees. Students are now also included on GSS’s Curriculum Committee, Field Curriculum Committee, and on GSS’s Strategic Advisory Committee. These groups are charged with determining how the school functions, as well as future planning throughout all facets of the academic experience.
“It gives an opportunity for more student voices to be heard,” Sobocinski said. “We also had our first town hall in December, where we invited GSS students to come and talk about any challenges they might be experiencing in the program or things that are going well. This way, we make sure that we’re advocating for the things that students really want us to advocate for.”
“The events that we’ve had, in addition to our ongoing communication with the deans and professors, have built trust in the Student Congress,” Lina Agbai, Co-Lead of Student Congress, said.
This collaboration with many different stakeholders—including Student Congress Faculty Advisor and GSS Associate Professor Dr. Laura Wernick—has also added valuable experience to Student Congress members’ resumes. The opportunity to serve on committees and facilitate events has afforded them the ability to say, I was an advocate for change, and did so in a way that resembles real-world policy and advocacy work. That experience, members have said, is invaluable in the job search.
“I’ve been able to use some of the things that I’ve done in Student Congress and put them on my resume,” Silva said. “A lot of what Student Congress is doing comes back to social work principles and social work values.”
Leaving the Work in Good Hands
Many of the Student Congress leaders will graduate this May, ready to bring what they’ve learned throughout their entire academic experience into the profession. However, they are now taking the steps to ensure Student Congress is set up for success even after they’ve gone.
The first action item was to create the “Student Congress Bylaws,” a set of guidelines and procedures to provide a structure for future generations. The seven-page document outlines committee and meeting structure and recommendations; notes on required equity training; and the election process for its 20-member Steering Committee.
Members of the Steering Committee are elected by their peers and act as spearheads of all Student Congress initiatives. They also hold positions on other Student Congress committees, as well as the GSS Dean and Faculty committees.
The good news for GSS students: All enrolled students are eligible to serve on the GSS Student Congress Steering Committee, and the election is coming up!
If you’d like to nominate yourself for the Steering Committee ballot, all you need to do is fill out the Intent to Run form before the March 28 deadline.
If you’re looking to expand your network and sense of community; add valuable, real-world experience to your resume; and make friends that will last a lifetime, be sure you attend the next Student Congress meeting and get involved at GSS.