Forgotten heroes of social work

They help people day in and day out for little pay or recognition

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Buried deep in recent news stories is the often unnoticed but heroic work of social workers. There, picking up the pieces of shattered lives in Haiti and Chile, or here, intervening in a violent family situation to save a child, salvaging the addicted from the new drug in town or a new casino on the river, are social workers.

Day in and day out, they work with the poor, the elderly, the incarcerated and those with disabilities, both physical and mental. The hours are long and unpredictable. The work is hard, tense, occasionally dangerous and mostly in the shadows of the limelight.

To perform this vital and unremarked work in Pennsylvania, social workers must earn advanced degrees and a state license. They go on to work with caseloads that are backbreaking and often heartbreaking for salaries lower than virtually any other professional group. The average masters of social work student will graduate with $28,000 in graduate school loans (not counting any that linger from undergraduate studies) and earn $35,000 a year.

Why do they do it?

The obvious reason -- the motivation to help people-- is true of many professions, including medicine, teaching and journalism. But without the benefits of most other professions, the motivation of social workers to help others stands in stark relief. It is sometimes invisible at first glance, as hidden as work in the field often is.

As graduate program director at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, I am constantly looking for ways to assess which prospective students have the intellect and skills to succeed in the classroom but, more importantly, have the drive to succeed after graduation in the field of human trials. There is an inherent tension between choosing the best and the brightest on paper and choosing applicants who might not have the best scores but might make the best practitioners in a complex and challenging world.

The vast majority of our students are accepted based on at least a 3.0 grade point average from an accredited undergraduate institution. But each year we admit about 30 provisional students out of an incoming class of approximately 240. Those 30 don't meet the numbers test but have allowed us to glimpse the burgeoning motivation in their lives.

For example, Kelly was accepted despite an undergrad GPA of 2.7. After having worked for a year in a social service job, she was drawn to the field and decided that she wanted to prove she was capable of utilizing her full potential as a social worker. Kelly said, "I have to find meaning and purpose in what I do in order to excel," and social work would provide that for her.

Sharon, who was ultimately accepted with a 2.5 GPA, told us she worried that she could not get accepted anywhere because of her low undergraduate grades. But she was determined that social work in a public health setting was what she wanted to do with her life. She came to Pittsburgh from Virginia to meet personally with our director of admissions and plead her case.

Both women talked about their undergraduate experience as a time to learn about themselves. Neither had a clear future direction when entering college immediately after high school. As a result, their grades were marginal. Kelly admitted that her social life was more important than her academics. Sharon initially followed her parents' dream in another field only to discover that it did not fit her own abilities.

Both women were ashamed of their undergraduate performance. Both had entered the workforce after graduating from college, but within a year they had realized the value of social work and they wanted to do it. Motivation.

We took a chance on both of these committed young women and both have rewarded our confidence in them.

Sharon was admitted provisionally and finished her first full semester with a 3.8 GPA. She was then accepted into a dual degree program for social work and public health. She graduated with a masters in both fields. She went on to do a one-year post-graduate fellowship and now has accepted her dream job. Kelly went on to graduate with a 4.0 and now works as an outpatient therapist with children and adults.

These young women are just two successes emerging from their own strong motivation and a school willing to factor it in.

As a highly ranked school of social work, we want to continue to open the door to students who may not meet every requirement on paper but who have demonstrated the real keys to success in our profession.

As we go about the humbling work of selecting graduate students, we remember the example set by those men and women whose path to the profession was driven by the motivation to live to their fullest potential. How better to inspire it in others than to live it themselves?

Lynn Coghill , in addition to directing Pitt's Masters of Social Work Program, has been a practicing social worker for more than 20 years ( ).


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