Why I Became a Social Work Major
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"Why social work? As a career? You know how terribly they get paid." These are the questions I get asked every time I tell people I am a social work major.
While it may be true that social work is a demanding and undervalued career, there is so much more that social work has to offer — and that does not stop me from wanting to be a social worker.
Honoring the Legacy of My Step Mother
My love for social work came from Tracye, my late stepmother. Trayce was born into a very successful family. Her brother was an executive at Bank of America, and her sister is one of the top attorneys in her field in the nation. Then there was Tracye, a social worker in central Kansas City just scraping by. To her, it has never been about money or family prestige; it has always been about the people.
Trayce worked at an elementary school in the central Kansas City School District before her passing. She worked with the students and families no one wanted to work with, putting her all into a system that did not care for them. Her motivation was being that person for someone, the kind that was the only one who showed up and one of the few to care.
After decorating her office and going through the intensive preparation for the new school year, she won the Faculty of the Year Award for her entire district. She then suddenly passed away several hours later. Since then, her elementary school has sung songs in her honor and planted a tree in her memory.
Seeing everything she accomplished made me want to be that person. Despite the pay, stress, and hardships, I want to leave a trail of happiness and greatness so big I'll have a positive effect even after my passing.
Deciding Where My Work Matters
School social work is an incredibly hard specialty, especially in an underserved area. And it's one I certainly crossed off my list after shadowing Trayce during two high workload times.
Once I became a social work major, I decided that I wanted to specialize in international social work with a focus on rural assistance and humanitarian action. This specific area of social work helps with emergency response, behavioral health, and the re-establishment of community and individuals. It's an oddly specific desire, but it is one I am incredibly passionate about.
In my experience, rural areas are not only geographically diverse but also have unique needs. Big cities and metropolitan areas have skyscrapers, high-density populations, and easy access to resources and emergency services — everything that rural areas do not have. In Alaska, a lot of rural areas and villages are mostly Indigenous populations. The biggest issues facing rural areas are generational poverty, lack of transportation access, severely underfunded social programs, and low cultural competence.
Did you know that to properly serve a rural community, you have to already be educated and willing to learn more about its culture and community, otherwise your job is never really done? I certainly didn't.
As the largest state in the U.S., Alaska is a mostly rural state. Anchorage is the city with the biggest population — a whopping 290,000 people in 2021. Alaska does not have a big population, and everything is very far apart; a drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the next largest city, is over six hours. Access to resources is low for many rural populations, especially those far from Anchorage and even farther from Fairbanks. The job security may be there, but social workers are underpaid and rural social workers often have huge workloads.
Regardless, rural communities pride themselves on being tight-knit communities. From my experience, many urban areas aren't like that as much, so it makes sense that you would need to educate yourself on the community, befriend the community, and then provide services. This is one of the many things I've learned while pursuing a bachelor of arts in social work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
Choosing a Path That Works for Me
In my degree program, I am learning what the needs of my general area are and the national need for social work. In Alaska, that need outweighs the number of social workers in the state.
Social work degrees can be very expensive, just like any college degree. I wasn't sure I would get as much out of my degree as I could, but the University of Alaska Fairbanks proved me wrong. As a public research university, UAF has provided me with multiple opportunities to grow in the social work field.
The BA in social work program at UAF emphasizes working in the rural community, which perfectly suits my future career interests. My coursework has allowed me to shadow and interview several rural social workers, meet vital organizations in the community, and participate in an Indigenous culture festival. Alongside that, I also get the opportunity to attend an International Rural Social Work conference and see social workers from across the world present on their profession.
My passion for social work has also allowed me to get involved on campus. Being president of the Organization of Student Social Workers and Students for Disability, I've blended my interests in disability rights and clinical social work. UAF has made all of this possible, and I cannot be more grateful for making the hard but worthwhile decision to attend the school.
I chose to pursue a social work degree so I could explore opportunities and learn as much as I could. From my perspective, social work is a challenging yet rewarding career path. I feel confident that my degree program will teach me valuable skills I will need once I graduate.
I want to become a social worker because I want to be that person, like Trayce. I want to see the light on someone's face when I show up to help after a disaster, or ongoing hardship occurs. I want to travel the world and learn about all the diverse cultures and languages that it has to offer, serving the underserved in places no one else goes. Money, although helpful, at the end of the day, is not what makes life worth living. Helping people and giving people what they deserve is what fulfills me.
Meet the Author
Paradise Porter is a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks working toward her BA in social work and Japanese studies. She is an out-of-state, first-generation, and low-income student who works on campus and is an active student leader. In her free time, she enjoys relaxing, reading, and playing games.