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Turning Grief Into Action: How a Dancer Became a Social Worker
March 8, 2020

By Samuel Leibowitz-Lord ‘21 

DSW alumna Kanako Okuda ‘19, Director of Field Education at Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work, had no idea she would become a social worker.

Originally a dancer from Japan, Okuda came to the United States in the 1980s to live every performer’s dream – to work in New York City. Immigrating to America with only 50 words of English, she experienced difficulty acclimating to the culture. Okuda also had no idea she had arrived during a crisis that would fundamentally alter the country’s social fabric.

“My lack of English prevented me from fully understanding things at first,” Okuda recounts. “I started to notice many of my friends and colleagues in the dance world were getting very sick, but I didn’t know what was wrong with them. I finally learned that there was a crisis going on – the AIDS/HIV epidemic.”

To deal with life in an unfamiliar country and the heartbreak of losing her friends, Okuda turned to an interfaith ministry. She obtained her green card by studying to become a reverend and thought about ways she could combine her passion for dancing with ministry. “By the time I got my green card, I faced many losses. I realized it was time for me to move on from dancing,” she says. “I asked myself what I wanted to do, and I decided that I wanted to help other people in a more meaningful way.”

Okuda enrolled in ESL classes and soon became drawn to social work as a career option. She decided to pursue a bachelor of social work degree and later an MSW. Her first job in the field involved working with children and families. Eventually, she found a position as a social worker in the pediatric oncology wing of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, where she would spend the next eight years. While working at the hospital, Okuda taught social work classes and worked as a field instructor, which reconnected her with the academic side of social work. Soon, she was approached by Hunter College, and Okuda quickly accepted their offer for the Director of Field Education position.

With a variety of new responsibilities on her plate, Okuda realized she needed to return to the classroom once again – but this time as a student. Searching for doctoral programs, she learned about Rutgers School of Social Work’s Doctor of Social Work degree. Rutgers’ program is one of a handful that provides education on the ground and in real time to seasoned professionals seeking an advanced practice degree. It transforms students into experts that unite scholarship with practice experience. Students are able to work full time while completing the degree in three years.

With interest in the program, Okuda secured an interview. “One thing I really liked about Rutgers was that the interviewers saw the possibility in me. They felt like they could help me and not the other way around. I was completely sold,” she says. “When I enrolled in the program, the support I received was amazing,” Okuda says. “I felt from day one the DSW faculty, advisors, and students were incredibly supportive. They were always available for anything I needed.”

Okuda felt immediately at home in the program and, as a result, took an active role in her education. She appreciated the ability to question established theory at the doctoral level and was given the opportunity to publish research during her first year of study. In her third and final year in the program, Okuda and her cohort were tasked with creating a website to disseminate their research, a project that seemed daunting but had the potential to be an incredible learning opportunity.

“The website project forced me to think about how to make my research more approachable to a wide audience. My advisors made it clear that in order to be helpful to people, whatever knowledge I create has to be easily digested by my audience. I had never thought about the importance of keeping my audience in mind when writing in the past, but so many journal articles I had previously read were extremely hard to read. I always thought, ‘If I’m a doctoral student and I can’t read it, who is this for?’ So, the website project gave me the chance to think about how to best articulate my work.”

Okuda’s website addressed the language barrier in academic social work publications by offering simple, easy-to-read guides for social workers in the field to help them deal with the daily anxieties of the job. She provided direct, actionable responses to common issues in social work pulled from high-level academic sources.

The website was an instant success. “Within three days of my website going online, 17 schools of social work and three organizations had already endorsed my project,” Okuda says. “I was very grateful that my hard work was shared so widely and was seen as meaningful.”

Okuda’s experience immigrating to America shaped her view of social work and secured her desire to be a better communicator. “Rutgers’ DSW program helped me express my passion,” she says. Now Okuda is encouraging others in the field to do the same. 

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