Spotlight: Social Work Graduates Relate Gratifying Career Experiences to Undergrads

April 09, 2010

Spotlight: Social Work Graduates Relate Gratifying Career Experiences to UndergradsFor college students about to enter a challenging field like social work, career insights from young people already working in the profession can be a welcome gift. Three Saint Leo University alumni, along with a colleague from another university, generously agreed to participate in just such a session recently organized by the student Social Work Club.

Club members are generally studying for the Bachelor of Social Work degree (Saint Leo also offers the Master of Social Work degree) through the School of Education and Social Services. The BSW equips graduates for further study, or for entry–level employment in helping agencies. The panelists’ stories demonstrated that a wide range of agencies need social workers to carry out their missions.

Michelle Justiniano, BSW ’07, for instance, works in Tampa as a refugee case manager for Catholic Charities, and works exclusively with Cuban refugees who need help resettling in the United States. Justiniano is bilingual in Spanish and English. Her clients must demonstrate that they have endured political persecution in Cuba in order to be admitted to the United States. They need lots of guidance in finding jobs, locating places to live, and in procuring day care for children and transportation. “For them, coming here is a whole new world, it’s a big shock. Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand there’s a process for everything: getting cell phones, using day care.” Since they didn’t have such products or business services in Cuba, there were no sign-up procedures or contracts to sign.

Much of the satisfaction in her position comes from seeing her clients overcome the hurdles and frustrations they’ve encountered and start navigating their new day-to-day lives successfully. “They’ve gotten jobs, they’re driving, they’ve put the children in day care and gotten them vaccination shots.” Although she may not spend the bulk of her career in refugee resettlement, Justiniano said deciding to go into social work “is probably the best decision I ever made.”

Christina Cazanave, BSW ’08, went to work for the agency where she completed her internship, The Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County. Cazanave deals with many different agencies that can assist the homeless, and tries to advocate for the homeless as government policies are crafted. The population is growing, she said, and includes people who sleep in woods and in encampments, as well as families that are now sharing apartments with another family or even two or more families because of job losses. Although Cazanave is focused intently on homeless issues, she told the club she wants at some point to serve as a social worker in a school district, a goal she has had since college.

The third Saint Leo alumna on the panel, Tiffany (Simmons) Tunsil BSW ’08, has recently started a mentoring organization in Hillsborough County for young children at risk. She began her career at the Children’s Home Society, where she enjoyed her work with children in foster care. She is now working with a new non-profit in Tampa that matches adult mentors with children who are in foster care, with children whose parents are incarcerated, and with children from economically disadvantaged homes who can benefit from a mentor. Tunsil said the organization, called Benefit the Kids, wants children to feel that they are not alone and adrift in spite of their circumstances, and that, “Somebody cares about you. We’re here for you.” 

The fourth panel member, Christopher Howell, studied at the University of South Florida, and works with inmate programs at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The inmates are all there for a year or less, as is the case with county jails, and the average stay is 23 days. Even though the treatment window for inmates is consequently short, Hillsborough County has been able to find ways to offer treatment for domestic violence offenders and substance abusers, as well as some occupational programs. Few people want to work with the incarcerated, Howell said, but as most inmates are released back into society, social workers have important roles to play in rehabilitation.

All the presentations were interesting to Brent Coleman, a returning adult student due to graduate with a BSW next year. “It shows you how diverse the social work field can be,” he said.

Photo: Alumni Michelle Justiniano, left, and Christina Cazanave, center, listen as alumna Tiffany Simmons Tunsil describes her work in finding mentors for children living in foster care and other difficult circumstances.