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Two GSS Students Find New Paths in the NYC Mayor’s Office

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Social workers need to be flexible. In this profession, there are many different paths.

You could work as a clinician or a policy-maker, in a government office or a local foster home. Either way, as a social worker, you play a critical role in whatever route you choose.

But picking a trajectory can be difficult, even when you’re already committed to graduate school. This is where field placement can serve as a vehicle to show you your options — even some you may not have thought possible.

When Akila Thomas and Jennifer Dutan, two MSW students at GSS, signed up for field placements this year, they didn’t know they’d wind up in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Neither of them had experience in government. But like any good social workers, the two adapted in real-time.

“That’s the great thing about social work,” Dutan said. “It’s so diverse.”

A Different Kind of Policy

Through her coursework at GSS, Akila Thomas found that policy was her calling.

However, she’d never considered climate policy. That is, until now. Thomas kept her mind open to opportunity, and now has an internship in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Resiliency (MOR).

Akila Thomas

 Contributed photo

“This was something new to me,” she said on her role advocating for climate protection. “I didn’t know much about the climate. I knew we were having climate issues and I would see discussions on the news, but it wasn’t something I was really interested in.”

Thomas works remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most of us, her days are filled with agendas, research, and meetings.

But it’s never mundane. Her team’s research on flood resiliency is currently headed toward publication, and she collaborates with a medley of different city agencies on a daily basis. Her role has a real impact.

“This is an amazing experience, and I love it because I’m learning so much. I’m learning how the government really works,” she said. “It’s not an overnight process. It’s a long, tedious process and it can get frustrating at times, but … you get to see the start of a project — from the beginning research, the dialogue with many different agencies, getting the work done, and then the project comes to life.”

It seems she’s made her policy dreams a reality.

The Student Ends up the Teacher

Jennifer Dutan is a student at GSS; however, as of this year, she’s also a teacher.

Jennifer Dutan

Contributed photo

Dutan’s field internship is within the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), facilitating classes for their English language learning program We Speak. Her role is a shift from her last internship, which was clinically focused — Dutan helped patients in a one-on-one dynamic. She’s grateful for the chance to see the macro side of the profession this time.

“This opportunity has been really helpful and a great experience,” she said. “It’s good to see different perspectives because there’s different levels in social work.”

The classes she facilitates are free over Zoom and anyone can join. Dutan said attendees range from 20-year-olds to 75-year-olds, and accessible information is vital to the program’s success. We Speak offers 12-14 classes per week, and people from all over the city, state, country, or world can join.

“It’s great because it’s a starting point, there’s no commitment, and it’s free,” Dutan said.

And the content of the class isn’t limited to vocabulary and grammar. Dutan also informs students of the city services available for immigrants — whether that be mental health, immigration assistance, or obtaining citizenship. The information has been so valuable to attendees that Dutan is trying to get one class a month dedicated to a particular service.

The Social Worker Perspective

As social workers, Thomas and Dutan bring a unique point of view to their organizations. But why is it so important?

The answers — from both of them — seem to revolve around human connection.

For instance, Thomas’s team works with many historic New York City buildings, and to see them ruined by a natural disaster is devastating. But she is always quick to remind her colleagues to think about protecting the residents, too.

“It’s not just the building you have to fight to protect, but you have to fight to protect the people that live there and their residential mobility due to flooding issues,” she said. “We need to see these people for who they are and what they’re losing, and not just think about fixing the issue to protect the landmark.”

Connection forms the foundation of a great social work education, and putting that into practice is the crux of field work. Dutan forms those relationships through language, finds out what these vulnerable people really need, and ensures that they get the information. The process has left a severe impact not only on those who come to class, but Dutan herself.

“It’s a great feeling to be part of that process with them and make that change in their lives,” she said.

The Long and Winding Road

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, one experience can change everything. So, even if you’ve made it to your master’s program (or past it), don’t be afraid to accept new challenges.

Dutan is interested in foster care, and there’s nothing stopping her from pursuing that goal. However, she now has the experience to play multiple roles in many career paths.

“I can use this experience toward my own social work career,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be a supervisor at an agency, and I’ll already have the experience to excel in that.”

As for Thomas, she’s found a new passion.

“I’m just going to put this out there for all students: never shut anything out. Because you will never know,” she said. “In the social work profession, we’re always taught being uncomfortable is OK, and to figure out what’s making you uncomfortable so you can deal with that. I’m here to serve. And if I’m not serving those I’m supposed to be serving, what’s my purpose?”

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