A group of 50 students from The University of Alabama School of Social Work and Ohio State University College of Social Work participated in SSW’s first Policy and Advocacy Washington, D.C. Fly In held March 21-22 in the nation’s capital.
For the first day of the Fly In, UA and OSU social work students toured the U.S. Capitol building and were welcomed to Washington, D.C. by faculty from both schools.
“At the end of these two days you will leave a very different person,” said Vikki Vandiver, professor and dean of the UA School of Social Work. “You will think differently and you will act differently. Get ready to be transformed and be open to advice that these very wise mentors will offer you.”
Council on Social Work Education President Darla Coffey, Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, and Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, were among social work leaders and members of Congress who offered advice to students during the welcome reception. The reception was held at the Rayburn House Office Building, a congressional office building for the U.S. House of Representatives in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Coffey shared with students the moment she was inspired to pursue a career in policy and advocacy work. She told students that she met a man early in her career who was serving in the military while working on his medical degree. He discovered he was gay and struggled to be true to who he was while following through with his commitment to serve his country, she said.
This was before passage of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy, she said.
“It was in that moment that I realized that a clinical social worker sees his experience in a very different way than perhaps a psychologist or someone trained in another health profession,” Coffey said. “I saw it wasn’t my job to help him adapt to who he is but to empower him to change what could be and to know how I could partner with him in changing all of that.”
Coffey said having the power to advocate for others is a privilege that social workers have as part of their profession’s mandate.
“It’s part of our mandate as social workers,” she said. Quoting Dr. Seuss, she added, “Unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. This is really what advocacy is about.”
Her words were echoed by members of Congress from Alabama and Ohio.
Sewell also gave students advice on how to be effective advocates for our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
“The most moving stories are human stories. Tell us what you’re passionately advocating for and do it with vigor,” she said. “The best way to advocate is to talk about real-world problems and real people.”
Beatty added, “You’re in the helping business. One of the ways you can help us…is to use your voice,” she said.
UA MSW student Jennifer Brougham said hearing from members of Congress was invaluable. She is pursuing a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in children and families and is expected to graduate in May 2018.
“You learn so much in two days. It’s a hands-on experience you can’t get in the classroom,” said Brougham, who met with staffers from Sen. Shelby and Rep. Aderholt’s offices during the Fly In.
OSU student Leah Uhrig said Dr. Coffey’s talk was encouraging and has inspired her to share the experience with other social work students.
“All of the advice Dr. Coffey shared about continuing to promote social work throughout your career and the importance of identifying yourself as a social worker no matter what field you end up in is important,” said Uhrig, who plans to become a legislator in her home state. “We need to encourage fellow students and remind them to identify as social workers as they move through their careers.”
On the second day of the Fly In, students met at the National Association of Social Workers’ headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the workshop “How to Impact Policy Through Advocacy.” Students worked in groups to discuss and prepare for advocating bills: HR1290: Improving Access to Mental Health, HR253: Family First Prevention Services Act and S3434: Violence Against Women Veterans Act with members of Congress.
Heidi McIntosh, deputy director of programs at NASW, shared with students the important role that social workers can play in advocacy at the local and national levels. Students also heard career advice from Angelo McClain, NASW’s chief executive officer; Kathleen Waugh, chief operating officer at NASW, and others on the front lines fighting for passage of the three bills.
“Everything we do and everything social workers do and the decisions we make are political,” McIntosh told students. “The sooner we realize that and lend our voice to that, we begin to impact communities, children and families in special ways.”
During the workshop, Julie Shroyer, with the lobbying firm Polsinelli, also offered students advocacy tips and applauded them for learning about advocacy and taking part in it as students. Following the workshop, Ohio and UA students were placed into groups to visit with members of Congress or their staff to advocate for passage of bills HR252, HR1290 and S3434.
“Kudos to you for being here,” Polsinelli said before students dispersed for the Hill. “It takes a lot of hard work and being that voice in the room and fighting, fighting. You have to learn to work with both sides of the isle.”
Learning about policy and advocacy firsthand from people working in Washington, D.C. is a great opportunity for social work students, said Alexis Ferruccio, a MSW student in UA’s Washington D.C. Internship Program. Ferruccio is expected to graduate in May.
“I’m really passionate about policy, writing policy and impacting social work on the macro level,” she said. “The Fly In is a great way for students to work with Congress, further our education and gain experience in working for policy and with policy.”
- UA alumna Katy Cone, a psychosocial behavior specialist with the Intramural Clinical Management and Operations Branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
- UA alumnus Coy Stout, vice president of Managed Markets, Gilead Sciences
- UA alumna Amy Mansue, president of the southern region for RWJ Barnabus Health
- OSU alumna Eva Shinka, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
Students heard from each panel member about how they launched their careers in social work and used the skills they learned as students to become leaders in their fields.
“Every job that I’ve had came from the opportunity I had as a field student in the School of Social Work,” Mansue told students. “I will never be the smartest person in the room, but no one will out work me. I learned that at the University of Alabama.”
Cone added that students should commit themselves to an area in social work that they are passionate about. As a student, she shied away from research classes, but today she works at top research agency.
“Don’t let the little things become barriers,” she said.
Stout added that he was once a science and pre-med major before he changed his major to social work.
“Always keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to get up in the morning and meet new people,” he said. “Stay really well networked.”
— Adrienne Nettles, School of Social Work