Faculty Spotlight: Autumn Straw, Social Work Program
Autumn Straw is the Assistant Director for the Graduate Programs in Social Work in the College of Graduate and Professional Studies here at the University of New England. In this post, she talks about the importance of mentors, her experience with changing careers within the field of social work, and what skills are most important for a social work career.
Can you tell me a little about your background and what drew you to UNE Online?
I attended Simmons for both my BA and my MSW, and left inspired to work with children. Soon after graduation, I took a job at a local hospital in their Community Based Acute Treatment Unit, which is a step-down psychiatric unit designed specifically for children.
After a year, I was offered a position at Judge Baker Children’s Center, where I had done my specialization year internship. The Manville School, where I worked, is a therapeutic day school for children with emotional and behavioral issues. I was there for six years, in which time I worked my way up to the position of clinical coordinator for their high school program.
I genuinely enjoyed my position, along with the children, families, and colleagues with whom I was lucky enough to work. Therapeutic work is not just about the big “ah ha” moments with clients, but also about supporting people through the small steps and slips that are inherent in all our lives.
When my family started to grow, my husband and I decided to move back to Maine to be closer to family. While therapeutic work is extremely meaningful to me and is the cornerstone of my career, I decided the best way for me to give back to the field of social work was to help provide an exceptional educational experience for future social workers.
Can you tell me about what you do at UNE Online?
I am the Assistant Director for the Graduate Programs in Social Work Online at UNE. This is an inaugural role for the program, requiring that the Director and I collaborate to adapt the position to what the department needs. This role is exciting because there are always new problems to solve and projects to begin.
When I first started at UNE the social work programs were undergoing their Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) re-accreditation process, which all social work program accredited by CSWE are engaged with every eight years. The re-accreditation process requires a complex and in-depth self-study, as well as a site visit from CSWE representatives. We successfully completed our re-accreditation process in the spring semester of 2018.
Now that re-accreditation is over, my role has transitioned to working on internal program evaluation and enhancing the student experience.
How do you primarily interact with students?
I work directly with student support to ensure that students’ individual needs are being met. For example, I am the person who reads student petitions and works with the Dean and other departments involved in the petition process. I also write letters for students who are nearing their degree completion, or just waiting for degree conferment and need a statement as such for work or licensure. Some employers require a letter from the school that confirms that the student is in good standing and is on track to graduate.
I also work with alumni to help them complete their licensure forms. Licensure in the social work profession varies state-to-state and each has its own licensing board and subsequent requirements. We encourage students to research their state’s licensing requirements frequently as they are subject to change. I am always happy to advise students if they have questions or concerns about their state’s licensing requirements.
I am also the faculty advisor for our chapter of Phi Alpha, the international social work honor society. The director and I are starting to work with peer-voted student representatives in an inaugural student advisory committee, which is really exciting!
The wide range of potential careers in social work can be overwhelming at times. What advice do you give individuals trying to figure out how to translate their interests and skill sets into a social work career?
Having worked in several facets of social work myself, I think that those interested in the social work field should be aware that a career in social work can be flexible. The core social work concepts and values remain the same across the field. As someone who has redirected her own social work career from clinical work to higher education, I was surprised at how transferable my skills were.
For those providing direct care, it is important to fully understand burnout and vicarious traumatization, two big issues in this field. Sometimes all you need is some better self-care mechanisms, but sometimes it is time for a role or career change. Clinicians and crisis providers often feel like they need to continue to do work that is extremely challenging because it is meaningful and the impact on clients is huge, but we are no good to anyone if we cannot first take care of ourselves. People grow and change over time, and if something is not fitting for you anymore, you shouldn’t be afraid to look for new opportunities.
My advice for people new to the field of social work is to pick an area that interests you and build off your existing strengths. If you are passionate about working with a certain population, then try and find a way to do that.
What are the most useful, applicable, and fundamental skills to develop early on in a social work career?
One of the biggest things I looked for when I was hiring in a clinical setting was authenticity. We also looked for people who were self-reflective; people who were being honest with themselves and others about what their strengths and challenges were. We are all great at something, but nobody is good at everything. Each one of us always has room to grow in many different ways.
Additionally, within social work we have the code of ethics, and that’s one of the hallmarks of the profession. We wanted people who are going to fully understand, honor and embody that code.
Mentors are invaluable in the quest for a fulfilling career path. What do you think are the most important qualities to look for in a mentor, and how can you find one?
Find someone who connects with you. I think often we try to force a supervisory role to be a mentorship role, and that’s not always going to be the case. Your supervisor may just be your supervisor, and not be your mentor. So, be open to looking elsewhere.
I’ve been lucky to have some good bosses in my career, so several of the mentors that I’ve had over the years have been people who have been my supervisors. That’s been fortunate, but I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum, so I encourage students to widen the scope of their mentor search. A mentor doesn’t have to be in a specific role or place. For example, I’ve had a mentor where we shared the same title, but she was older and more experienced than I was, so I looked to her for wisdom and advice.
To have a good mentor-mentee relationship you need to be able to be honest – with yourself and with the other person – because the point of having a mentor is growth. If you think you’re perfect and don’t make any mistakes, having a mentor is not going to be beneficial for you.
Your mentor is someone who you can be vulnerable with and they, in turn, are vulnerable with you.
What do you like best about working with UNE Online students?
I’ve found UNE students to be eager, enthusiastic, and dedicated to becoming a part of the social work profession. I love the wide variety of types of students that I work with as well. Working in a fully-asynchronous online program has allowed me to interact with some phenomenal people who I wouldn’t get to meet if I were to be working in a more traditional program.
We have students who live all over the world, and people who come from all different environments who simply may not have had access to higher education before online was available to them.
I love that I get to work in such an exciting place, and at such an exciting time in the evolution of education, as we continue to make education more accessible to a wider range of people.
How do you want to advance your social work career?
Like Autumn, are you looking to change careers or gain additional skills? Let us know in the comments below, or download our program guide to learn more about earning your Master of Social Work online:Master of Social Work | Social Work