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Alumna Puts Social Work Education into Action in Response to COVID-19
April 22, 2020

We're checking in with our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends on the front lines of social work during this historic time. We hope their stories will provide many lessons for future generations of social workers. If you would like to share your story, please contact our communications team at lzazenski@ssw.rutgers.edu.

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We recently had the chance to speak with Colleen Myrie who is a graduate of Rutgers School of Social Work’s Intensive Weekend MSW Program. She is currently working as a Licensed Social Worker/Program Specialist at Rutgers School of Nursing – Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center and shares how the current global pandemic is affecting her both personally and professionally. 

What are you currently doing for work?
I am currently working as a Licensed Social Worker/Program Specialist at Rutgers School of Nursing Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center, also known as FXB Center. The FXB center is a pioneer in healthcare and treatment of pediatric HIV since the early 1980s by discovering and developing antiretroviral treatment to reduce the mother to child transmission of HIV as well as providing treatment to children who acquired HIV perinatally. The FXB department is made up of several teams that include clinical, research, AIDS education, and child healthcare. I am a part of the clinical team that consists of advanced practice nurses, nurses, social workers, and dieticians. As a social worker, I facilitate psycho-social groups, mental health counseling, community outreach and case management, linkage to community resources, home visits for treatment of adherence, and supportive care among various other things.

Have you noticed any positive things that have come out of the pandemic?
I think this pandemic is going to force us to literally stop and smell the roses so to speak; to make more time to spend with family and friends and have more empathy towards each other. From a social work standpoint, I believe this will change the way in which we provide service as well.

How has social work prepared you to handle this crisis?
I have never experienced a global pandemic of this magnitude. The last global epidemic was in the 1980s, which was the discovery of HIV/AIDS, and I was a child at the time, so I had no concept of the magnitude of the situation. However, having a career in social work definitely has equipped me to know how to deal with my own stress, anxiety, and fear but also to be in a position whereby I can and am able to continue to reassure my patients that things will improve, to help them lessen their own anxieties, fear, and stress. As a social worker, I do not simply focus on the psychotherapy aspect of treatment. I also pride myself on being the resource “expert” and having that knowledge of community resources has been extremely useful in a time like this. I can connect my patients to food pantries, helping them apply for unemployment online, letting them know where to go in the community for masks, and more all while providing that reassurance and mental health care. We literally wear many hats.

Are you doing anything specific – from meditating to reading a book or watching a TV show – to help you cope?
I have had more time to exercise, so I have been using my rowing machine a lot more. It’s a good distraction for when I am feeling anxious. I talk to my therapist – yes, I do have one, too! I read and incorporate some yoga as well. Trying to stretch and bend is not as easy anymore, but I enjoy it all the same. Finally, I have reduced how much news I watch. That really has helped.

What advice would you give to our students who are dealing with a variety of challenges caused by the pandemic?
The first thing I would say to students about classes being online is to not look at it as a set back because whether you are in a physical environment or online, your experience is what you make it. Additionally, the issues that students are now facing are the same issues that their future clients and families will face.

Many years ago, before I had any thoughts of becoming a social worker, I found myself unemployed for two years during the financial crisis. Even though I had an MPA degree, companies had hiring freezes. I had to turn to unemployment and government assistance and that was not easy by any means because of the mental anguish I experienced. I found local food pantries to supplement my government assistance. I was worried about being evicted, so I found organizations and resources to help me with assistance. My point is I did not know that going through that difficult time was preparing me to be the social worker I am today. So, to current students, this is a very difficult and stressful time, but it is also a powerful moment as future clinicians and social workers.

Students must remember to breathe and take care of themselves first. And while It might not seem that way now, they are going to be in a much better position to help their future clients and families because they, too, will have experienced the same difficulties (lack of housing or fear of losing their housing, the uncertainty, not enough food, etc.) and will be able to relate, understand, and help their clients navigate resources.

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