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Your Remarkable, Magnificent Social Work Journey Has Begun

Welcome Social Welfare Graduating Class of 2019/2020/2021!

We are delighted you are here!  As the airlines say, we know you have a lot of choices and it is a true privilege to have you here at Stony Brook.  The fact that you chose us and we chose you is already a match made in heaven.

I know something about first days of school.  They are both exciting, filled with questions, and not a few worries.   I still remember the first day of my social work program.  I recall how excited I was to begin classes (no more math or so I thought), how terrified I was to meet my first client, and how proud I was to be called a social worker.   Every year at orientation, I think about that skinny little kid who dreamed of changing the world. Well, I haven’t change the world yet, but I haven’t stopped trying either. Rather than changing the world, I found that it was me who was fundamentally changed by social work —by my classes, teachers, my peers, my field supervisor, and especially by the clients and community residents with whom I was honored to work. I began school one person and I came out a dyed-in-the-wool social worker.  

If you have a cell phone, take it out now and take a selfie… and post it on your facebook page, post it on our Facebook page.  I want you to remember where you are today, what it feels like to be here, and who you are right now.  Someday you will think back on it, like I do, and compare it to who you have become.  

I want to tell you a little about what you will learn in social work school and how I think it will change you. You will learn that the mission of our profession is the pursuit of justice.  It is a noble calling.  All our work, from our respectful interactions with individual consumers of service, from programs that ensure the fair and equal treatment of all, to our advocacy for policies that level the playing field without regard to race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, social class--   is about the pursuit of justice. That obligation is connected to what I believe to be the most important skill a social worker possesses—the ability to feel and display empathy for others.  Like the stethoscope of a doctor or the law books of an attorney, the most important tool we have is the ability to step inside someone else’s experience even when their life story is totally different than ours. You will develop the ability to feel deeply for the predicament of others and to truly seek to understand people whose lives and perhaps values are very different than our own.  You will learn how to be respectfully curious about people who are very different than you—different religions, different races, different sexual orientations.  You will learn to communicate well even with people it is difficult to care about -- perhaps batterers, or child abusers, or people whose political views are opposite to yours. Your ability to hang in with them will be your greatest challenge and your greatest success.  

Emerging from our mission to pursue justice AND our empathic skill set is our zero tolerance for hate, bias, or discrimination. That means when someone or some population is being treated unfairly, it is our obligation as social workers to stand up.  As the saying goes, if we see something, we say something.  I’m counting on you to learn how to do that in your agencies, your communities, and in the school.  You will learn that people are born and live in social and environmental contexts where they are either nurtured or wounded.  We are obliged as social workers to BOTH motivate the environment to be more supportive and nurturing for people, AND to work with individuals and communities to use the resources in their environment, including you and their own personal networks, to improve their condition.    So that means we do things like work on improving health care policy, AND work with women to get their breast cancer screenings regularly AND we work with women to have the emotional resources to go through treatment when they need it.  It means we work on policy that supports supportive housing for families, AND we help families to access that housing and to work towards stabilizing their lives. 

You will learn how to partner with your clients so that they can improve their lot in life. You will learn that people are mostly better able than we are to identify what hurts them and what they need, and to figure out the solutions.  You will learn that true change can only happen if they are engaged in it. Though we only assist in solving people’s problems but that assistance is necessary and significant. You will develop the habit of being relentless and inventive on behalf of your clients, just as you would want someone to work hard on behalf of your family members.  You will learn to be courteously persistent and how to make things work with little money, few staff members, and zero time.  You will be creative.  For me, this has been the most fun.  Every time I pull off something that is really difficult, I feel I’ve won in the face of so much adversity.  

To assist you in this learning, the School has made what I believe are some important changes this year. First, we have a new MSW curriculum that is based in the most current research about how to help.  MSW students will be learning cutting edge practice in one of three specializations.  Every problem, be it a population or community or individual client, requires us to learn deeply about the issue and evaluate our actions.  Ignorance is as recklessness and dangerous in social work as it would be in medicine or engineering. No one wants to go to a doctor who isn’t up on the latest research or cross a bridge designed by an engineer who doesn’t know the science.  No one should have a social worker who isn’t working with clients according to the latest research findings.  Stony Brook graduates will be among the most knowledgeable and skillful social workers that clients will encounter.  Equally important in our new curriculum is to equip you with the skills to pursue justice.  Today’s subject is voter registration, but as we used to say “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”  So over the year you will learn too about the skills of community organizing, how to bring people together, how to persuade elected officials and write regulations for policy change, and ways to create and communicate messages that are convincing.  You will become skillful advocates for justice.  

Second, we have instituted Community Learning Days where we will come together as a school- faculty, staff and students, to learn and grow.  Those days will focus on two things:  1) the pursuit of justice that concerns all of us as social workers; and 2) activities that help launch you into your social work careers.  We start that process today - you will learn about the importance of voter registration and some of the resources you will have here to make you successful.   

Your social work journey will not always be fun or easy.  I am extremely saddened that we live in an era of incivility and deep divides—there are probably some even amongst us in this room—and it is going to be so hard to get past them.  It is going to be so hard to empathize, to respect, to make change, to have courage, to be resilient and resourceful.  But the hardest lessons often generate the deepest learning. You will get tired.  You will get angry.  You might cry.  You will occasionally feel sickened.  But I can promise you that this will also be the most exciting and exhilarating ride of your life.  And we will be a School that is there with you in every hairpin turn.  You have wonderful faculty, wonderful staff, wonderful field liaisons and field instructors.   And yes, you will have wonderful student peers (the folks sitting next to you and behind and in front of you) who will be a tremendous source of sustenance and support on this trip.  I too, am in this moment with you, every step of the way, still trying to get better at what I do.  

I thank you again for coming to Stony Brook, for becoming our social work colleagues, and I will look forward to hearing from you in the year ahead about your own remarkable magnificent journey.  

My very best wishes,

Jacqueline B. Mondros
Dean and Assistant Vice-President,
Social Determinants of Health