Claire Geruson leads an ice breaker activity

Second-year MSW student Claire Geruson leads an ice breaker activity.

“When-I-say-‘social’-you-say-work! SOCIAL!”
“WORK!”

“SOCIAL!”
“WORK!”

Claire Geruson leads more than 30 first-year MSW students in a rousing chant. The diverse group is gathered in a garden-level meeting room of the Walker Center for Ecumenical Exchange, a homey, old inn in the far west of Newton. Most of the students—the first-years as well as second-year facilitators like Geruson—will be staying overnight. Many of the rookie students have traveled here alone. The occasion, on a cool last weekend of summer, is the first-ever School of Social Work Summit.

The purpose of the summit, Associate Dean for Student Experience Teresa Schirmer wrote in an email invitation, is “to build community, establish strong connections for the incoming class, discuss the Jesuit Catholic tradition in the context of Social Work, and have fun!”

It can be hard to have fun and build community when you’re juggling classes, jobs, and internships, Schirmer explained to a visitor earlier in the evening, while the students shared a taco dinner and lively conversation in the inn’s small, dark-wood-trimmed dining room. Factor in the heavy subject matter of said studies and work, and a retreat like this—though the School is not calling it a retreat—is a welcome way to recharge the aspiring social worker’s batteries.

Now, Geruson, one of the facilitators, has arranged his charges in a large circle for an icebreaker. Everyone is standing with one shoe off. Geruson removes one shoe from the circle, then tells everybody his name, his hometown (Philly), and the fact that he’s an oldest sibling. At that, all oldest siblings in the crowd must rush through the middle of the circle to find another shoe. The student left shoeless (a la musical chairs) introduces herself, her hometown, and the personal detail of her choice (she wears glasses). And so it goes, until one student causes chaos by hitting upon a detail that describes everyone present: “wears clothes.”

Alumni panelists share stories and answer questions.

Alumni panelists share stories and answer questions.

Ice broken, the students move chairs back into rows and settle down for a sobering, heart-on-the-sleeve alumni panel. (Schirmer points out that Kleenex is on hand, and indeed it will be required.) Five recent graduates, all women, relate the struggles and setbacks they encountered as students. One alum describes her rocky adjustment to a new country. Another felt guilt as a family member back home dealt with mental health and drug issues. Others found that their internships or even classes triggered memories of childhood abuse or military trauma.

“If you’re not having a breakdown once a week, you’re not really in the program,” quips one alum.

But when help was truly needed, faculty and administrators came through—sometimes simply with a shoulder to sob on.

“This is not an easy profession,” one alum says of social work. “We have to lean on each other for support.”

Another common thread of the young professionals’ stories is: “Trust the journey,” as one grad counsels. Each panelist went into the MSW program with one target area in mind and now happily works in another. Tracy Bony, MSW ’18, for example, pictured herself in a “Pinterest-perfect office,” performing micro social work in a private practice. Instead, she has evolved into a mezzo-level social worker in Boston’s South End, thinking about equity and policy as she works with a marginalized population. “Social work is a vast open pot of callings,” Bony says.

In a Q&A, the alumnae provide practical tips about time management and other nitty-gritty matters. Jenna Maxfield, MSW ’18, says that eager students will sometimes be tempted to take on extra hours at internship placements, which might be more than they can handle. “Don’t be afraid to say ‘no,’” she says. Be honest with yourself and take time for self-care, echo the others.

After the panel, the students break into small groups for further discussions, which last far into the night.

The next morning, the students are treated to a no-holds-barred talk from Professor of Macro Practice Tiziana Dearing. The first woman president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston and a regular commentator on WBUR, Huffington Post, and other outlets, Dearing is here to discuss the Jesuit Catholic intellectual tradition and its strong connection to social work. The professor knows her stuff, and she quickly sketches the roots shared by the social work profession and the Jesuit spirit of scientific inquiry. But more important, she does so in a highly interactive and personable fashion, inviting—even demanding—the crowd’s toughest questions.

One student asks about the Jesuit order’s militant, even oppressive roots in the Counter Reformation of the 16th century. How does that square with the social worker’s duty to the oppressed?

“We evolve in our understanding of rights,” Dearing says. She points to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, a.k.a. Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, which encouraged preferential treatment for the poor, in response to changing conditions during the Industrial Revolution. And she stresses the role of nuns, especially in the U.S. “It’s because of the nuns that the Roman Catholic Church is the largest nonprofit health care provider in the country,” she says. “That’s no accident.”

Citing a priest mentor of hers, Dearing says that despite all the attention on the hot-button issues at the beginning and end of life—abortion and assisted suicide—we have a host of obligations to one another in the middle. “In that space, the people of the helping professions are the stewards of human dignity and sacredness.”

Students participate in Prof. Susan Tohn's exercises in facilitating “courageous classroom conversations.”

Students participate in Prof. Susan Tohn's exercises in facilitating “courageous classroom conversations.”

Later, Associate Professor of Clinical Practice Susan Tohn leads exercises in facilitating what she calls “courageous classroom conversations”—honest, uncomfortable, but empathetic discussions about race, gender, and other sensitive matters. In small groups, the students read aloud reminders such as “Social justice means everyone has the responsibility to say something, whether it directly affects you or not,” and “Regardless of intentions, we need to be accountable for the impact of what we say.”

The students discuss these points in the small groups, then Tohn moderates a whole-group discussion on the importance of such courageous conversations. She even admits that she once unintentionally said something insensitive in class, and was mortified but ultimately glad when a student called her on it.

Before the session is over, Tohn delivers a career pep talk, urging the young men and women to set their sights on the upper ranks of social work administration, where they can make a bigger impact. “We want you to take over,” she says. “We’re training you to think as change agents, and make the world a better place.”

After another full day of discussions, groups of newly acquainted students walk out of the inn into the sunlight. They’re lugging their overnight bags, but perhaps their loads are a little lighter.