We recently had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Pytlik, an MSW student and Dean's Excellence Scholar, about her journey to the field of social work.
Why did you decide to enroll in an MSW program?
I chose to enroll in an MSW program because I wanted to develop the skills and knowledge needed to become a strong and effective advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. I loved my BSW program and wanted to expand upon the experiences I gained during my undergraduate studies by taking my education to the next level. I plan to attend law school after obtaining my MSW with the goal of working with survivors in the legal system, so I feel that an MSW degree will allow me to become more effective in this career and make a positive impact in a system that can be daunting and retraumatizing for survivors of trauma and violence.
What drew you towards the Rutgers SSW? What are you most excited about at the School?
I was drawn to Rutgers SSW due to the renowned Violence Against Women and Children certificate program. My professional and personal life is driven by the goal of working with and creating change for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. I knew Rutgers SSW would be the best program for me because I could tailor my education towards these goals and learn from faculty that are experts in this field. Additionally, I grew up and attended college in rural Texas, but I have always wanted to live in a more urban area. I have been in love with New York City since I was about 10 years old, and I hope to live there in my future! Rutgers’ proximity to NYC is another reason why I was drawn to the School. I knew attending Rutgers would be the perfect opportunity for me to exit my comfort zone, and so far, moving to New Jersey and attending Rutgers has been the best experience - I have never been happier!
Are there any organizations you hope to be involved with, certificates you hope to pursue, or experiences you hope to have?
I am most excited about the VAWC certificate program and my field placement. I am honored that I was selected for the VAWC certificate program, and I cannot wait to engage in the coursework required for the program. It is the main reason why I chose Rutgers, and I know I will gain knowledge and skills that are invaluable for my chosen field. My field placement is at Legal Services of NJ in the PROTECT program, which provides civil legal assistance to survivors of human trafficking. This placement is a dream come true for me, as I will not only gain experience in working with survivors of trafficking, but I will also be exposed to the intersection between the law and social work. As someone who aspires to go to law school and combine these two disciplines, I know this opportunity is invaluable.
I hope to become involved with the Rutgers VPVA as a volunteer with the crisis response advocate team and We Organize Against Violence. I would also like to learn more about SCREAM Theater and become involved with Rutgers NO MORE. I have always loved the mission of the NO MORE organization, and I am so excited that Rutgers has a chapter. All of these organizations intersect with my studies in the VAWC certificate program. Lastly, I am working as a research assistant in the Center on Violence Against Women and Children.
Tell us about your background and involvement at Tarleton State University. Can you share a bit about your activities outside of the college as well, such as volunteering, research, etc.?
Tarleton is such a special place in my heart because it is where I found social work, and I am so thankful for the foundation the BSW program gave me to pursue my dreams in this field. I was named the Outstanding Graduate in Social Work for the class of Spring 2020, and I was also a member of the Phi Alpha Social Work Honor Society.
I was involved in a number of different activities, both within the college and outside of it. I worked as a supplemental instruction (SI) leader for Texas and federal government classes for two years. Through this job, I attended government classes (which I had previously taken and received an A in), took notes, and developed creative review sessions for the students currently taking the courses to help them learn and understand the course content.
I also volunteered at Foster’s Home for Children in Stephenville, TX as a mentor for children in foster care. This was my first experience with social work, and I learned so much about the importance of human relationships and the value of service through this experience. My coursework in some of my classes was connected to this experience as well, and my group members and I developed a mixed-methods research project on the effectiveness of the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program in teaching life skills to youth aging out of foster care. We used the results to inform a macro-level project for Foster’s Home for Children, which consisted of our group developing a library of resources to assist in teaching children and youth life skills.
I also became a trained volunteer victim advocate at Cross Timbers Family Services (CTFS) in Stephenville, Texas during my time at Tarleton. I learned how to best support survivors of violent crimes (most notably sexual assault and domestic violence) and became certified to answer the agency’s 24-hour crisis line and support survivors through accompaniment to the police department and sexual assault examinations. This experience helped solidify my desire to become an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and I currently still serve as a volunteer for CTFS by remotely answering the hotline when I am put on call.
During my junior and senior years, I conducted an independent study under the mentorship of Dr. Ebony Lang, the BSW program director, on alleviating barriers to justice for sexual violence survivors. This study was a systematic review of journal articles, documentaries, and initiatives developed by organizations that fight sex trafficking and sexual violence. I was accepted to present this research at the local, state, and national levels. Participating in this research was instrumental in solidifying my interest in dedicating my life to advocating for survivors of sexual violence in the criminal justice system.
How were you introduced to One Safe Place and what did your internship consist of?
I was introduced to One Safe Place during the field fair at Tarleton during my junior year. I was drawn to the organization because of the work they do for survivors of domestic violence, and due to their relationship with law enforcement and the courts in Tarrant County, Texas. My internship there was an absolute dream come true, and it has been my favorite experience in social work thus far!
My internship at One Safe Place was on the intake team, so I was involved with the initial meetings with survivors of domestic violence when they first came through our doors. One Safe Place is a family justice center, so it is designed to be a one-stop-shop for survivors, so they can be connected with all the necessary resources in one place. The intake team was essentially on the frontlines of creating those connections. The facility operated on a walk-in basis, so I was able to learn how to work in an environment that was frequently intervening in crises. During the intakes, the client would tell their story and discuss their situation, and the advocate (or intern, in my case) would provide validation and support to the client. Then, we would conduct a danger assessment of the individual’s risk of intimate partner homicide and provide psychoeducation on the dynamics of domestic violence. Lastly, we would assist the client in creating a safety plan based on their unique situation, needs, and goals, and connect the client to resources such as emergency shelter, counseling, and legal assistance.
By the end of my internship (which was unfortunately cut short due the pandemic), I had my own caseload of about 15 clients, and I learned how fill out crime victims’ compensation forms, assist clients with protective order applications, make CPS reports, and advocate for survivors in various systems. My favorite experience during this internship was when I advocated to connect a client with legal assistance for divorce and custody, and not only were they able to secure representation, but they also were further connected to an attorney who could expunge their criminal record. This internship was absolutely life changing, and although I spent many days heartbroken by my clients’ trauma and frustrated with the systemic failures that negatively impacted survivors, I woke each morning excited to go back and do it all again. I knew from that internship that my calling was to be an advocate for survivors, and I could not imagine doing anything else with my life.
Tell us about your work as a Crisis Counseling Program (CCP) Counselor at Pecan Valley Centers.
My job as a crisis counselor in the Texans Recovering Together Crisis Counseling Program at Pecan Valley Centers was my first social work job. The CCP was a disaster response program funded by FEMA in response to the COVID-19 disaster declaration in March 2020. The program was designed to bridge the gap between our communities and existing agencies and organizations in a time of disaster and crisis due to the pandemic. We provided free and confidential emotional support, crisis counseling, skill building, grief and loss support, resource referrals, and education on disaster preparedness and awareness. My position consisted of community outreach at first through emails, virtual and in-person meetings, cold calling, presentations, and other activities to spread awareness of the program to our communities. Once our program became established, we served countless clients in our rural communities by providing non-clinical, individual counseling and resource referrals. Our program had no eligibility criteria, so we could serve anyone and everyone who was affected by COVID-19 (which was essentially, everyone). This program gave me experience with micro, mezzo, and macro level social work, as I became more skilled in providing direct services, leading group crisis counseling sessions, and in community outreach activities. When I moved from Texas to the Northeast to go to graduate school, I continued to be a remote employee with the CCP, and I became engaged in our data analysis efforts, social media campaigns, and in creating our public media.
What was your reaction to being named a Dean’s Excellence Scholar?
I found out I was named a Dean’s Excellence Scholar when I was at work at my job as a crisis counselor. I had just returned to the office from lunch with my co-worker, and she was telling me something, and I looked at her and said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear any of that. I just got a scholarship from Rutgers!” We were both just so excited. I started crying because I was overjoyed. I called my dad immediately to inform him, and he cried too because he was so proud of me. I am a first-generation student, and my family has made so many sacrifices for me to pursue my education, so receiving this honor was affirmation that all of the hard work was worth it. It is such an honor to carry this title, and I will make sure to go above and beyond to do it justice.
What are your hopes for the field of social work?
My personal hopes for the field of social work are to use this field and my education and skills to create meaningful change for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and sex trafficking in the legal system. I am interested in working in the criminal justice system, and I hope to use my social work background to become trauma-informed and survivor centered, with the goal of providing an experience for survivors that is less retraumatizing and more empowering than what the current criminal justice system provides. I am interested in working for a prosecutor’s office and using my social work skills to inform my work as an attorney. I feel this particular office not only has the power to make a difference in the lives of victims of interpersonal violence, but it also has the power to address much of the oppression and systemic issues faced by various vulnerable groups.