By Leah Cunningham, as told to Sophia Vega
Leah Cunningham currently serves as co-chair for the 2020-2021 RUSSW Graduate Student Association Executive Council. We recently caught up with Leah to discuss her role within SSWGSA and how she looks forward to serving the SSW community.
In addition to her co-chair position, we also spoke with Leah on her move to social work as a second career after 20 years working in software design and technology, and how she sees these fields interacting in her work and more broadly.
Q: What drew you to study the field of social work?
A: I believe surviving shouldn’t be the high bar for those with mental illness. They have as much right to thrive as anyone else, but they need resources and skills in place in order to level the playing field.
Personally, I am fortunate to have found excellent care in the social work community. Knowing I’m the one in control has allowed me to excel without fear of the unexpected. I have learned when to ask for help and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. This has been the key to my own progress, and I have been so moved and so changed by the assistance I have personally received through the social work community that I now want to spend the rest of my career paying that forward.
Q: What interested you in transitioning from software design to social work and how are the two fields interconnected?
A: Social work will be a second career for me mainly because I always felt like it was my road not traveled. Previously I spent 20 years in the field of software design and in understanding how people interact with technology. As time passed, I found myself far more interested in the people than I was in the details of the technology. However, given the environment in which we are currently living, I now have the chance to combine the two ideas.
People are interacting through technology in new ways, especially in the social work space. While there may be those whose opinions differ, I believe tools such as telehealth services for social work actually lower the barrier to mental health services and can reach previously untapped areas and clients. Whether we were ready for it or not, the era of telehealth as a primary source of care has arrived. I believe that instead of resisting it, we should find its strengths, mitigate its weaknesses, and take it on just as we would any other challenge.
Q: Why Rutgers SSW to continue your education?
A: I chose Rutgers SSW for three reasons. First, this program has an excellent national reputation for having a very strong MSW offering. Second, I wanted to remain in the New Jersey area in order to ultimately serve my local community. Third, Rutgers SSW's quality of education that they provide to their students is exceptional.
Q: Describe your role and work within the SSWGSA and how it has impacted your academic career?
A: I’m just getting started with the SSWGSA as co-chair and am very much looking forward to serving the SSW community in the upcoming academic year. I am working with fantastic board members who have all been willing to pitch in during these uncertain times to make sure we get off to a great start for the year. We are all enthusiastic about what this year will bring.
I’m honored to be presented with this leadership opportunity and hope to serve the student body well by fostering an open dialogue among students, faculty, and administration. The experience I will gain from this can only bolster future opportunities that I may receive and I am truly humbled to represent the SSW student body.
Q: What impact do you hope to see for the future of social work?
A: I believe that the future of social work is dependent on two major achievements. First, we must lower the barrier of entry for services and support to individuals and communities. This can be achieved through meeting people where they are, whether that be within their neighborhood, their spiritual communities, or through their primary care providers.
Second, we must work fearlessly to continue to lower the stigma that surrounds mental health treatment. We must normalize it in any way we can so that people in need won’t think any differently about seeking mental health treatment than they would think about being treated for the common cold. This is my hope for the future.