In foster care from the time she was 14, Rhonda Brown '12 has moved above and beyond her challenging beginnings to become the voice for those in need. Brown has been working since she was 16 and is now an employee of the New Jersey Department of Social Services working in the capacity of family service specialist, where she has been for the last 10 years. In her current position, she works diligently, traveling across the state to find forever families for youth who are legally free and waiting to be adopted. Brown has also worked as a behavioral assistant, residential and domestic violence counselor and preventive services case manager. She is currently studying for her license and her dream is to become a school social worker. She is an advocate, a mentor, a parent, and a mediator for those who need a voice. She offers her five professional tips for young alumni in the field of social work.
1. Take care of yourself. After my graduation ceremony, I went with my family and friends to Houlihan’s and then, still wearing my cap and gown, ran off to work as an overnight counselor at a group home in Clifton, New Jersey. In retrospect, I should have allowed myself to enjoy the moment. On that day, I missed the opportunity to be celebrated entirely. I was in such a routine with work that I didn't think about taking care of myself. We work in a field where we are care givers and the needs of others are vast. However, it's just as important to value what you need.
2. Take risks. I'm very passionate, because as a youth, I was in the same position my clients are. Recently, I met a women who didn't have children and was thinking about becoming a foster mom. I had three siblings in need of a home. For different reasons, the case was put on hold and so were the kids.They thought they were getting a home, and it wasn't happening. I spoke up to say we needed to take action.This specific example led me to realize that the system doesn't always work, especially if you sit back and wait. My speaking up was a risk that was necessary in order to be the voice for the children. As a result, the youth were moved to the home where the single woman most wanted them.
3. Maintain your optimism. Decide how you're going to look at your life. Challenges allow you to build your character. You will absolutely make mistakes. Learn from them and keep your head up. What you experience will prepare you for what’s ahead. Every day is a gift for us to learn from and an opportunity to grow. My internship with a domestic violence shelter, Shelter Our Sisters, is where I met women who were transitioning from their residence to another place where they would secure their own apartments. Some did not see their situations as hopeless; they started their job searches, sought child care, did the laundry, and reclaimed their self-esteem.
4. Become a professional mentor. I mentored a freshman when I was a senior and she now works with the Department of Children and Families. I didn't have a mentor as a student, but I was connected to Associate Dean Hunter, Dr. McMahon, Dr. Findley, and Professor Scali. They were my informal mentors. Now, I mentor students because I want to pay it forward.
5. Stay connected with the Rutgers School of Social Work. Remember that the school is there for you beyond graduation. They can connect you with other professionals in the field, offer advice, and give support. I've found the faculty to be open to hearing my ideas. You have family and friends, but they can't necessarily relate to the difficult work we do while other faculty and alumni can.