By Jana Eisenberg
Paige Iovine-Wong represents a student who takes the initiative and who is willing to take risks. That list of qualities, flexible, assertive and possessing an awareness of both possibilities and consequences, is an admirable one. She’s earned two bachelors’ degrees, and took three years off post-undergraduate to both decompress and gain workplace experience.
Iovine-Wong, who earns her dual master’s degree in public health and social work (MPH/MSW) in the spring of 2020, grew up in Rochester, with the conviction that she loved people and wanted to work with them, having a wide variety of interests, yet uncertain of her specific career path.
“I wanted to be a lot of different things,” she said. “They included biologist and music theorist.” At the University of Rochester, in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences program, she studied music cognition, and also music/vocal performance, receiving a BS and a BA in the process. “The brain is fascinating; I was thinking that I might be a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist…but then I wasn’t sure I wanted a PhD at all.”
After those early studies, Iovine-Wong took various jobs, including at a day program for people with brain injury—that was officially her first foray into social work. She also was an activities program coordinator at an agency that performed restorative neurology services, which gave her experience designing programs and working directly with clients.
While working as a research assistant through a combined, grant-funded position at the University of Rochester Medical Center/Canandaigua Veterans Administration Medical Center, she solidified her deep interest in the veteran population. “I learned that the veteran population is particularly marginalized, and that they experience a lot of trauma. I’m especially interested in how people recover from trauma,” she explained. “Also, before I took that position, my husband enlisted in the military, which gave me even more initiative to pursue working with veterans.”
At the VA, a colleague noticed her interests and skills and suggested an MPH/MSW. “I Googled nearby programs, and the first thing that came up was UB,” Iovine-Wong reports. “When I was researching it, I also noticed their Joining Forces-UB program, which hosts a focus on work with veterans and military families through the School of Social Work. It was one of the main reasons I selected UB. I applied and was accepted.”
The dual program is becoming more popular, and it’s turning out well for Iovine-Wong. “I started with a year of public health studies, and have completed the year of social work,” she said. “The last year of the program is a combination of both.”
As a result of her immersion, she’s developed a new understanding of many issues and approaches to them. “What I learned through the Public Health concentration is in line with what I already understood—this field comes from a more theoretical, ‘population level’ focus on research and community engagement,” she said. “Social work and people who practice it dive in to the nitty gritty. Studying both reshaped the way I think…from public health’s more macro perspective to social work’s strengths-based, trauma-informed approach.”
“After getting over the culture shock of the transition from the public health to the social work program, I love both fields now,” she added. “One result of this new perspective is that I’m a little more thoughtful, and I will listen more. When I want to respond to something, instead of immediately jumping in, I’ll step back and think about how to meet whoever it is where they are, and not try to change them. That’s a huge point of growth for me.”
“It’s exciting to see the way the fields of public health and social work fit together; they are two sides of the same coin,” she marveled. “They both are committed to human rights and social justice. I feel so much freedom with the dual degree—it’s a great alternative; you’re trained to be adaptable, in these times of changing environments and information. UB does a really good job with it.”
In her time at UB, one of her aims was to get as much experience as possible. “The public health program doesn’t require field work with the dual degree, but I did it because I wanted that field training experience,” she said. “I worked with veterans again, in suicide prevention. It was great.”
She also participates in UB’s Joining Forces-UB program and is currently in the Social Impact Fellowship, which is a joint program between the Schools of Social Work and Management, and the College of Arts & Sciences.
“[School of Social Work Associate Professor] Lisa Butler encouraged me to apply for the Social Impact Fellowship,” said Iovine-Wong. The program assigns a team made up of a student from each school to an organization in the community to creatively address an issue facing that organization or the population they work with. “I was placed with Habitat for Humanity, where I used my program development skills and learned more about one of my huge interests, housing rights and access.”
Joining Forces-UB focuses on training students within the School of Social Work and School of Nursing, offering both academic and field training experience specific to people interested in working with veterans and military family members. Iovine-Wong began attending their research colloquium series even before applying to UB, knowing that’s where her interest lay. She ended up interning with the project; participating has helped her to dive into program development.
“Being a part of Joining Forces UB provided a great transition from public health to a social work context,” she said. One result of her experience is the realization that many community providers who work with veterans don’t know how to screen for veteran status. “We came up with the idea of developing an in-service training, for community providers to learn the importance of knowing if a client or a family member has served—and to learn about their specific needs.”
All of the UB faculty have been “above and beyond” supportive, said Iovine-Wong, “UB helps you feel invested in a career—you have so much opportunity.” She’s become an ambassador for the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and even attended an American Public Health Association conference to help recruit students.
Her interest in the veteran population seems certain. “Veterans aren’t a monolithic population—I have a particular interest in women and LGBT veterans. Even though they are over-represented in the veteran population, trans service members can be invisible,” she said. “Both social work and public health focus on intersectionality, and that’s really important with this population.”
“Erie County has the highest veteran population in all of Western NY. There’s a lot of them and they have a lot to offer; we need to be ready to develop their trust, and collaborate with them and the organizations which work with them,” she added.
With her shifting ideas about how to do this work, she weighs the options continually. From clinical care combined with either research or program development to her current stance, considering macro care, she is undaunted.
“I’m excited to be at the Buffalo VA this year, where I’ll be doing micro level clinical work, one on one with clients. Part of me is a little scared,” she said. “I always joke that I’ll be leaving grad school with less clarity but more opportunity! Whatever I do, though, I feel like my job is to provide what I can to help people get where they want to be. People don’t want to be saved, they want to be empowered.”