How do you MSW?

Illustration of politicians at podiums.

 Illustrations by Jennifer Rademacher

Our alumni demonstrate the versatility and applicability of the degree today

Published October 25, 2018

By: Jana Eisenberg

From Mosaics Fall 2018


Once you had your MSW, did you know exactly what you wanted to do? Has that remained the same, wherever you are or got to in your career? And, in the more breathless vernacular of recent articles and school marketing campaigns: is the MSW the new MBA? The new JD?

Earning an MSW equips people with myriad skills—so many in fact, says Dean Nancy J. Smyth, that they often don’t even know how much they know. Right now, across the country and around the world, in all kinds of business segments, organizations and employers are coming to realize that these “social work” skills are applicable in a huge range of work environments—not just what we think of as traditional social work jobs.

“Social workers are trained to work with diverse people across differences; to understand on many levels what contributes to identifying problems and solutions,” Smyth said. “We’re really good at listening and communication, at understanding both the context of and influence on what’s being said. And, we’re not afraid to get in there.”

The emotional motivations that drive most social workers’ choice of career—variations on wanting to help people and wanting to be a part of change—are also becoming more obviously essential in a variety of unexpected business settings.

“Technology is becoming much more prevalent,” added Smyth. “We need social workers to keep the human in the tech—not to eschew its benefits, but to remember that it’s not about the machine, it’s about what it allows people to do with it.”

The world will always need social workers in traditional jobs; their work is essential and time-honored. However, many people start out their social work education thinking they know exactly what they want to do, and end up in their careers with shifts, both minor and major.

Taking risks to find the right fit

Jennifer Dunning, MSW ’09, “fully intended” to be a medical social worker; she’s now a senior staff member for New York State Assemblymember Sean Ryan in Buffalo.

Politics and social work? “A natural,” said Dunning. “Each of my boss’s advisors has a different background—some in legal or government. He seeks my opinion as a social worker,” she said. “Whether working on things like policy and budget or in the office or community, I’m dealing with different personalities every day—as a social worker, I have patience, and the ability to put the pieces together for folks. It’s important to have a social worker’s voice.”

Her original goal was fueled by an early internship at the VA hospital women’s wellness center. Her eventual switch to politics was driven by several factors, including the lack of a job in her field immediately upon graduation. After several months of looking, she lobbed a Facebook post about needing work. “Assemblymember Sam Hoyt responded, and said, ‘Come to my office, we love social workers!’” she recollected. She began volunteering, which led to more volunteering, political involvement and, eventually, a job. She loved it.

Now she advises others considering a social work education—even if they think they know what they want—to try and be “well-rounded,” willing to take risks. “Your trajectory can change quickly,” Dunning affirmed. “If I had known where I’d end up, I might have taken a policy class; learned more about political advocacy.”

She also points out that the NASW encourages social workers to run for office—precisely because of their training and ability to work with communities. She’s convinced she’s found the match for her energy and her goals. “I care about community, about social and economic justice,” she said. “Everybody who goes into social work wants to make big changes. Working in government and politics, I believe I actually am.”

An affinity for administration

Kathleen Callan, MSW ‘03, found her entrée into social work through a love of politics and an early teaching experience. During her final year earning a bachelor’s in “Interdisciplinary Studies: Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics and Government,” and noticing that the subjects aligned with the high school social studies curriculum, she did a semester of student teaching.

She repeatedly found herself referring students to the school’s counseling office and going there herself, seeking answers as to why some kids weren’t succeeding. It made an impact, and when she joined her husband in a move to Buffalo for his PhD, she decided to pursue an MSW.

The first thing she’ll say about the decision is that, with an MSW as a base, “you can do anything!” The next thing she notes is that those who choose the field frequently share common qualities.

“People who go into social work are concerned about other people,” Callan said. “Concern and empathy are a good start, but I value the skills I learned in the MSW program about how to engage and support client-driven outcomes. That, combined with true compassion and interest in people, can translate to many positive factors, including workplace coalition-building and even political campaigning.”

Callan has always known—and attests that her teachers at the School of Social Work recognized—that her strength and interests were in the administrative arena; she is now chief of administration for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, where she writes and administers grants among other duties.

“Social workers can be effective in a government setting—I’ve used the example of former [U.S. Senator] Barbara Mikulski, who is a social worker—because we’ve been exposed to so many things; we can analyze the programs that government is trying to administer,” said Callan. “We’re at the intersection of all these orbits.”

Teaching and learning through storytelling

Bonita (Bonnie) Winer, MSW ’74, is an associate professor of instruction at Columbia College Chicago, in Cinema and Television Arts.

Winer earned her undergraduate degree in Education and found herself teaching in a special education classroom—with no training and less help from the system in which she was working. She became aware of the potential of social work education and decided to pursue it. “What we studied—understanding the systems that affect people, whether their needs are being met—felt in line with what I was looking for,” she said.

She worked in the field for a while, through a residential program for troubled youth and their families, and found that system troubling. “The schools didn’t want to adjust, the parents wanted their kids ‘fixed,’ and the kids remained identified as ‘patients,’” she said.

She shifted to private practice, and had another realization: “I was helping others, but something else was pulling me,” Winer said. That “something” turned out to be storytelling; she headed to California, earning an MFA in Cinema and Television at USC.

“Because of my social work background, my orientation to story content was very different,” she said. “The arts are often driven by the artist’s need to express themselves…my need felt more holistic.”

“Through stories, we can experience people, places and events we could never otherwise experience, and see new possibilities for ourselves and the world in which we live,” she added. “Storytelling is a potent vehicle of change, therapeutically and in everyday life.”

She was an editor on TV shows, feature films and documentaries in Los Angeles. “Working in Hollywood is exciting and creative, as well as challenging,” she said. “It’s not always about mutual care.”

Now, as a teacher, her experience and education benefit her students and herself. “My social work education is a powerful foundation, a guiding orientation,” she said. “It’s helpful that I can advise students, and analyze their stories, with a deeper sense of the human process.”

Helping with major decisions—from adoption to home-buying

While Mary-Jean Gianquinto, MSW ‘86, knew there was flexibility in a social work degree, she’s been surprised about how it’s opened doors for her throughout her career, which has spanned traditional social work roles (working with geriatric populations, very young children, and an eventual specialization in adoption), interior design, real estate investor and, now, a Brooklyn-based real estate agent.

Gianquinto’s lifelong interest in people is a strong through line, and she appreciates social work’s broad-based versatility. “Unlike so many fields where you learn one thing and apply it in one area, social work affects everything,” she said. “It’s ‘social’; you can be a manager, run a company—it’s about learning to work with people.”

Post-MSW, she earned a degree in interior design; despite being a recent graduate in the field, Gianquinto was welcomed partly because of her social work background. “I was given a lot of responsibility right away,” she said. “As an interior designer, working with people in their homes, very personal issues can come up. I also continued to consult with New York State and private adoption agencies. Throughout that intense work, there’s a continuous theme of enjoying people and their stories; it’s been a gift.”

She believes that being in real estate with a social work background is the “best combo anyone can have.” “Real estate is also a highly charged and emotional business; I give a lot of support and have intuitive feelings about how to work with clients and other professionals,” she said. “For many people, these are among the biggest decision they’ll make in their lives—I’m attuned to and in tune with what that is about.”

(People + data) x (analysis + application) = real change

Brian Pagkos, PhD ’11, MSW ’03, is now a vice president at M&T Bank, in the Office of the Customer Advocate; he also played a significant role in the development of the evaluation department at Community Connections of New York, a nonprofit which partners with organizations and agencies to improve services and outcomes.

His social work educational experience led to a deep realization; how powerful it is when the people behind the research data, and the community or organization that needs the analysis actually experience the resulting positive change. He became so passionate about it that he went on to earn a PhD in Social Welfare, cementing his knowledge base and skillset.

He didn’t start out seeking the macro-sphere though. “I wanted to be a clinical therapist. But early in my social work education, I realized it wasn’t my path. I wanted to make more change,” said Pagkos. “Phenomenal faculty and staff, including Zoe Koston and Kate Kost, guided me towards a community concentration.”

Working with Erie County and the Departments of Mental Health and Social Services to recruit, train and certify foster families led him to a lightbulb moment. “I began to understand the intent of our work, to improve the effectiveness of social programs,” Pagkos continued.

“You start where people are, collect and analyze data and look at policy,” he said. “Then start asking questions, like how do we inclusively advocate for what we learned? We put it back into a narrative to make actual change.”

At the bank, says Pagkos, his viewpoint and skillset are welcomed.

“Bringing a social work point of view is well received; there is a thirst for it,” he said. “It’s easy to be a social worker around other social workers—here, I’m a social worker around people who aren’t…and we’re still advocating for people who need it.”

The write way to make an impact

Like many others, Shannon Traphagen, MSW ‘07, decided to become a social worker because she wanted to help people and make a difference in the world. After 10 years in the field, where she specialized in child trauma therapy and domestic abuse, “something changed,” she said. Rather than working one-on-one, she wanted to be doing something where she could reach more people and be more effective.

She went to work in politics, doing research and advocacy that helped draft the groundbreaking New York State Strangulation Bill, which passed in 2010. She also spent time in marketing, before her passion for writing led her to publish several articles that had a broad and positive impact on others. She has now turned that passion into a successful career as a writer.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, a social worker turned writer, has had a huge international impact—and has influenced Traphagen’s own work. Walker was a social worker before committing herself to the civil and welfare rights movements, then to her own writing as a way to get her messages out.

Traphagen is now the associate publisher of Buffalo Healthy Living magazine, where she writes articles about health and wellness, often through social justice and policy lenses. “In this economic and political environment, there’s no shortage of ways to write about social work and related issues,” she said. She brings in healthy eating, wellness, the environment, workplace health and more. When a piece she’d written on adult bullying got national attention, it meant a great deal to her, and proved that she could have a wider effect.

 “We are all globally interconnected,” said Traphagen. “Writing about these issues, globally and regionally—and how human behavior impacts these issues—is my passion, and how I best utilize my MSW degree.”

Illustration of the Hollywood sign, camera and film.