This year’s Social Work Month celebrates the theme, “Social Work Breaks Barriers.” In keeping with that theme, we’re highlighting the barrier-breaking contributions of social workers to the mental health workforce. We reached out to two current students at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin (UT), Maria del Pilar Ciria and Alxis Turner, to talk about their experiences as students and hopes for the future.  

This interview was conducted by Ike Evans, communications manager. Responses are edited for length and clarity.

Ike: Tell us about yourselves. Where are you from and how did you manage to land at the UT Austin School of Social Work?  

Maria del Pilar Ciria

Maria del Pilar Ciria

Maria: I’m originally from El Paso, Texas. But I was raised in Chihuahua, Mexico. I first came to UT to do speech language pathology – so, communication sciences and disorders. And I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech language pathology. And then I started working for Austin Independent School District (AISD) for four years. 

And it was through working in the schools and in the special education area, and my personal experience in therapy working with a social worker, where I thought, “I think I want to do more of that.” And I also want to help Hispanic families especially, and provide mental health services in Spanish for families that might not have access to those services. So that’s how I got into social work. This is my first year getting my master’s in social work, and I’m doing my internship at AISD again through working with Cap City Kids. 

Alxis: I’m also from El Paso, Texas. I was raised in Dallas, then moved to El Paso to be in the foster care system, then later guardian-shipped by my aunt on my mother’s side. So I had first-hand experience navigating the foster care system, then later finally getting to be stable in a home and realizing the love I have for education, and how important it is for children in the foster care system to have self-care and have their voices be heard and spoken for. I immediately just kind of knew that I wanted to go into social work. I wanted to be a child advocate, an attorney. But I went into social work and realized I want to be a child therapist now, so that’s why I’m here in the bachelor’s program at UT Austin. I’m hoping to continue into my master’s program and later become a child therapist specializing in trauma-informed practices for children and their mental health. I’m in my field placement for my senior year. I’m working with AISD and Communities in Schools (CIS) at Pillow Elementary School helping second through fifth graders.  

Challenges and Breakthroughs 

Ike: How’s the semester going for you two? What major Aha! or breakthrough moments have you had? 

Maria: I’m at Sanchez Elementary. And there’s a lot of need there. Students are going through a lot of different situations, and even though there’s support, there’s never enough, because there’s so much need. And that’s one of the struggles – wanting to help all the students, but like knowing that it’s just not possible. So that is one of the biggest struggles as a graduate student. 

I feel like now, going back – because I was already working in the schools – and doing social work already knowing how the education system works, I feel like fostering that self-determination in students, especially when they’re younger. And at a personal level, maybe it brings up a lot of things about how I was raised to be more directive and more structured, especially coming from a speech therapist perspective, and then letting go of that. Really letting go of control and trusting the process has been one of the biggest challenges. At a personal level, it kind of forces me to reflect on my own values and my biases, and all these things that you know, to a certain level, but it’s very different once you have to actually do it, and how you kind of have to be constantly checking yourself. 

Alxis Turner

Alxis Turner

Alxis: Yeah, I agree with your assessment, Maria. I’m also at an elementary school, Pillow Elementary in North Austin, and trying to accept that CIS can only manage so many students under our case load – it’s difficult to come to that realization. You want to help all these students who in some way need help, whether they’re immigrants to the country, and they’re going through emergent bilingualism, or they’re going through posttraumatic stress disorder. Or they have needs for speech therapy, or just all these different needs. We could only fit so many on our case load, especially only having one social work case manager there and then myself as an intern.  

Last year the elementary school did not have a counselor onsite, so they were barely managing, and now they have one, and then we have our CIS people there. So just kind of learning, okay, who do we take in? Who do we accept? It’s very difficult to manage, and you just have to accept it.  

But on a personal level, and I hope I speak well on behalf of the social work students, but what I’ve experienced, and a few of my peers have experienced is, of course, managing our time. A lot of us have to work on the side because we don’t get paid. There are many placements for internships that we’re supposed to do in order to graduate without stipends or without financial packages, and we’ve had to quit jobs, or we have to carry a job on top of the time that we’re spending with our internship placement. 

So yeah, basically, just while sacrificing those financial freedoms as social work students, we realize that this came with a cost, and we’re still willing to do that to be that voice for our community and to advocate for them to reach that level. It’s something that almost every social work student understands going into it.  

Lasting Impact   

Ike: I’d like to know more about your long-term goals. What ongoing issues in the field are you hoping to impact?  

Maria: I still don’t know what I’m going to want to do. I go back and forth. But one thing for sure is, I would like to provide therapy and services in Spanish, because I feel like there’s not enough of that. So, for example, working in the schools you do see a lot of need and a lot of recent immigrants that are just going through a lot of change, lots of new things, and just being able to provide the information and the resources that they need in the language that they can understand, being aware of cultural differences, and how they perceive mental health. It makes such a big difference, and it’s not just providing services in a language that they can understand, it’s also offering those services when they need to be offered in ways that they can really understand what’s going on and promoting it in a way that’s culturally acceptable for these families. And to do that, you really need to be curious and want to understand different cultures, and just be aware that there will be differences in how these things are perceived and what that means. So the impact that I want to make, at least, is through the people that I work with, and to offer that for them. Obviously, I would like to impact more people, but if at minimum that’s what I can do, that’s something I’m definitely striving for.  

Alxis: Yeah, there’s something that Maria said that really struck a chord with me, and it was accepting the differences of individuals. So, as I mentioned, I want to go into trauma-informed practices. There are so many crises that happen in young children’s lives as they’re developing. And just recently, you know, this is my first internship. So I’m learning as I go. But just recently I was going through the understanding of, “This client Isn’t really responding to any intervention I’m implementing.” And I had this conversation with my supervisor, and he kind of just repeated what Maria just said, which is accepting the differences in how they respond to your interventions. Their response could be quiet, or it could be nothing at all, but it could still mean the world to them. So something that I wish a lot of people would understand, and kind of practice more, are different interventions for crisis and carrying out those trauma-informed practices. There’s so much to learn there. 

I have so much to learn. I’m still a BSW student. I want to go through my master’s. I want to research more in trauma-informed practices and carry out those best practices in schools, in hospitals – it could be anywhere, everyday life in community, in grocery stores. There’s so much to learn there it’s never ending.  

Ike: In my time at Hogg, I’ve had the experience of seeing any number of MSW students make an impact in the policy arena. An example is our own director of policy, Alison Mohr Boleware, which shows that there is a social work-to-policy pipeline. Have either of you had much time to learn about public policy? 

Maria: Yes, for sure. We have a class on social policy. I just haven’t taken it yet, but I will be taking it this summer. In this program at UT they really emphasize that all the levels – micro, mezzo, and the macro, help each other out and you need all three. You have to look at all of the levels and really work on all three to really make a change and impact the client.  

Alxis: Yes, absolutely, even at the BSW level UT Austin really implements the fact that policy is a big thing. As Maria said, it’s macro, mezzo, and micro – meaning clinical or policy, and in between you all have to work with each other. You at least need a foundational understanding because without that, then you don’t know how one is impacting the other. And a lot of students in the SW program do take that route into policy, and UT makes it very easy to do that.  

Breaking Barriers 

Ike: The theme for this year’s social workers month is “Social Work Breaks Barriers.” What kind of resonance does that theme have for you in your life?  

Maria: Definitely there have been barriers that have been broken before me. Even just now I feel like the awareness around mental health, it’s very different than what it was before. Do I think that there’s not more barriers that need to be broken? No, I still think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s just one of those things that you break the first barrier, and then you see there’s more, probably smaller, and not as intimidating, but there will always be more barriers, and that is part of the progress. I was also thinking of just my personal barriers, with the stigma around mental health, when I chose to go to therapy and learn about this. There are personal barriers that I have been working on that you have to break every day, with your biases and checking on yourself and being culturally humble.  

I know there’s a big barrier that they’re trying to break around what Alxis was saying regarding stipends when you’re doing internships and having that extra support, so that people don’t have to go to school, and work, and then have internships. All of that itself is really challenging. Putting them all together, and then trying to be that model and help others regulate when you are just dysregulated, because you have all these worries and struggles. So I think that’s one of the current barriers that they’re trying to break, providing more funding and paid internships, so that you don’t have to choose between one or the other. 

Alxis: Yeah, there’s so many barriers, personal and within the workforce. You know, Maria just mentioned the stipends, which was at the top of my mind, personally. To become a social worker you have to go through that, and you have to go through getting in the field in order to do so. You also have to fund yourself for a living, and without that, where is the foundation for your self-care?  

But as far as barriers through the community, I don’t know that Maria went through this, but COVID was one of the toughest barriers social workers had to navigate. Even students who were working with clients immediately went online. You could no longer meet with your clients in person, and especially navigating that in the schools is the most difficult thing. My first year in college I was working through my service-learning program with Project Meals, and that was elementary, middle- and high school, seeing clients. From going in person, we had to meet with the students online, and so many students don’t have laptops, don’t have Internet, don’t have wi-fi, or, you know, they just don’t have this private space to receive care, especially for something as sensitive as mental health. So it’s breaking that barrier; how do we navigate this pandemic and provide help through that?  

As far as the macro level, there’s so many laws that women are fighting for right now, that schools are fighting for with gun laws; there’s so many barriers that go unnamed. It’s continuous, it’s always going to be continuous. There’re barriers that have been broken before. I’m sure that decades ago decades ago women weren’t even doing social work because we couldn’t work right? So that was a barrier that was broken. 

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