Paths in Progress

Melanie: Social Worker, Community Organizer, University Professor

March 11, 2022 Carrie Young Episode 22
Paths in Progress
Melanie: Social Worker, Community Organizer, University Professor
Show Notes Transcript

Melanie started her college career as a French Horn player in the Music department, but soon realized that she needed to change paths.  Eventually landing in a Journalism major, Melanie became involved with the LGBTQ student organization and was one of the first students to graduate with a minor in LGBTQ studies at her university.  After a pivotal internship and becoming interested in policy that impacted her life and those in her community, she knew she needed to pursue Social Work.  Join us for this inspiring conversation about Melanie’s path, but also learn about how to become a better human and member of your community.  


Carrie:

Thank you for joining us today on Paths in Progress. I'm your host, Carrie Young. On this podcast, people in a variety of career fields, talk about their journey from choosing their college, deciding which majors and minors to pursue, their first jobs out of college, and all of the hurdles, detours, and victories along their path through today. Our goal is to help students hear about a variety of exciting opportunities out there and understand what day-to-day life is like in these careers. I hope you enjoy and learn from our story today. Thanks for listening. Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. We are here today with Melanie and Melanie is an educator, she's a community organizer, a professor at a major university and a social worker. And Melanie has an incredible story to tell. So I'm so glad she's here with us today. Thank you so much for being here, Melanie.

Melanie:

Thank you, Carrie. I appreciate you so much and thank you for the invitation. Oh,

Carrie:

you're welcome. So can you take us back to your high school years and tell us a little bit, I know, right. But can you tell us about what you were thinking regarding college and your education and what you thought you wanted to do with your career?

Melanie:

Yeah, oh, high school. Um, when I think back on my past, I think it's important to recognize the context. So I grew up in Missouri city, Texas. I currently am an out queer Asian-American woman and back in my youth, I was a unaware of a lot of the world and also just kind of unaware of just how unique my home life was in some regards and actually how common in others. So I will just say that like growing up, I experienced a lot of trauma watching a lot of verbal and emotional abuse happening around me. That really shaped a lot of the ways that I viewed myself and how I viewed the world. All I wanted to do was escape that. So in high school, band and music became my whole life because I had a very musically gifted mother who would play guitar for us piano. And just like could listen to a tune off the radio and like, Belt it out later. No problem completely on pitch. And I was just like, so in all of that and just how much joy that brought to our lives. And so I wanted to be a band director through and through. I was like, this is giving me the escape I need. I'm sure there are other people in the world who need this, like escape from their realities. And so, it was really not even high school was probably my, the first time I even picked up a French horn in sixth grade, that I knew I wanted to do.

Carrie:

I'm so glad you just said that because I think there are so many students out there who plugged into the arts in high school as their safe place. Right. You know, trying to escape a wide variety of things, but, I'm sure that there's a lot of students listening who feel like that's me. That's what I did. That's what I do. So, I love that that's something that you spoke out specifically about. Cause I think a lot of students out there can relate to that.

Melanie:

Yeah. And this was even before my awareness of my own identities. I felt like music and band, different from other arts, kind of had this strange, like meritocracy that like, somehow it didn't matter who I was, as long as I was good at something. Which kind of has some myths to it that I could debunk or not debunk by, I think for me at that time, it was important to me that I found something that I could Excel in that also brought me joy. Within that, the structure of arts programs, like you kind of have this built-in family or this built in place of belonging, even if you aren't exactly the same as your peers, you at least have this, joy or something in common. Yeah, absolutely. And that helped me emotionally, mentally, probably physically being out in marching band. I know, but it was like a lot more physical activity than I ever expected. You know, it was very healthy for me in an environment where I did not feel very healthy. So I auditioned for state competitions and I was very fortunate to have private lesson teachers who knew that I couldn't necessarily afford their hourly rate, but I also had band directors who were my advocates and helped pay for those lessons from time to time. Without those small kindnesses, I don't know where I'd be today. It's a two way street. Like I had to put in the work, and they were willing to put in their resources and through that, we were a team in that sense. Right. So I felt very, very lucky to have educators who saw how much I wanted to reach my goals, and that they were willing to help me get there.

Carrie:

Yeah. Shout out to all the educators out there who were doing that for their students, because those are not the things that are broadcast publicly, they're not things that they're publicly recognized for. They're doing them largely under the radar. Right. And right. But they're doing them. They're making huge, huge impacts on the lives of these students. Like you said, it made on yours.

Melanie:

Right. And from their own pockets, right. Like we know educators don't make a lot of money already. Right. And so for them to provide support to students that they see are financially struggling is like, you know, a whole, not all heroes wear capes situation. So yeah, exactly. Yeah. So I set that stage up to say that I really, really thought I was going to become a music educator. Then when I was applying for colleges, I was like, well, one of the best music education schools, The University of Houston, is like right here, 30 minutes away from where I live. That's far enough away from a tumultuous home life, but close enough to be affordable and also be able to stay in touch with my mom. And so I only applied to the university of Houston, which was really putting all my eggs in one basket. I was not a stellar student. I was more of a B's, sometimes A's, sometimes C's student. I was like, it's it's U of H or nothing. Honestly I disliked school for almost the entirety of my life. I really did not like school. I did not want to have to do an undergraduate degree in anything that I wasn't as passionate about as I was about music and that scared me a lot. When I was accepted, by U of H and I auditioned for scholarships, they were super generous and they gave me a full tuition room and board paid for four year scholarship.

Carrie:

Wow.

Melanie:

I am pretty sure I cried multiple times about that. I'm sure I squeezed my mom real tight because she had been my champion and advocate throughout all of that process, you know, the person to drop me off early in the morning and pick me up late cause I wanted to stay at school practicing. Meanwhile, my dad was not supportive of my music dreams. He was like, this is not something you're going to be able to support yourself on. I don't want you doing this anymore. And his, compromise was fine. You can do it, but don't expect me to come to concerts. Don't expect me to pick you up, take you anywhere, all of that. Having that champion in my life to say, whatever it is your dream is, I believe in you and I want to help you do it. Like. There's there's no substitute for having a champion in your life. Okay.

Carrie:

Yeah. And I have to save through my experience advising students in the arts, unfortunately there are a lot of students who pursued degrees in the arts who do not have supportive parents. As you just said, they have this idea that, oh, you can't possibly do something with your life with that. Even though being a teacher in education, a lot of people are not in the arts and that's what they're doing. So it makes you wonder, you know, if you were a math teacher where they say the same thing? But, there's just so many students who are in the arts because they know that's where they belong. They know that's what they're passionate about. They know that's what they want to do. And it's made that much harder for them because their parents are not supportive. So I think that's something also that resonates with a lot of people, unfortunately.

Melanie:

Right. And my parents are immigrants. Right. My mom, mom's from the Philippines. My dad is from China. I don't think that they ever wanted to dissuade me from music because it was something I loved. I think they were trying to dissuade me from it because they saw how much struggle. It was for them to make it right in America and be able to provide for their own for themselves and for their family. So anything that seemed risky in that regard, I can understand why you would discourage somebody. At the same time, having a dream is what helped shape who I am. All of the hard work that was put into that is transferable, right? Like, oh yeah. Having the self discipline, learning how to work with other people and collaborate with people whom you may or may not really get along with. You know, prioritizing the needs of the group over your own. Like these are all things that the arts teaches you. To some extent I would say has taken me a lot farther in my life than any one single subject has ever brought to me. I'm really building up to I'm like really building big dramatic thing, which is that after I got these wonderful scholarships and, I felt like I was on top of the world, moved into my dorm, you know, Experience of independence and really, honestly, probably the even bigger goal, which was to get out of my house. So it was like a ticket to freedom. And so I get there and then I sit down with my advisor and he's like, okay. So you're behind in a few classes and you're basically going to have to graduate in five years and you can't take any other classes except for the ones that are on this piece of paper. My heart just sank. Because I was like, I thought college was about broadening my horizons, making my world bigger. Right. Like I had felt so small my whole life up until that point. I got scared again. And I was like, oh no. Like if this is truly what I have signed up for? So I was like, you know what, I'll give it literally a college try and stick it out a year and see if this is really for me. And in true Melanie fashion, burnt myself out so hard, joining every ensemble, auditioning for every possible thing, doing the basketball band, the marching band, the concert band. I tried it all and then leading up to my second semester, I auditioned for a higher band level. I went from the third band to the second band and then middle of the semester, I got scooped up into the top band. So I really felt like I immersed myself in that experience and got to explore what it might look like to be a musician or a music educator. And at the end of that year, I was like, I'm going to have to change my major. I cried for days. Because I didn't know any other identity up to that point, other than I am good at music.

Carrie:

And again, that's so relatable to artists I think because the arts specifically, students have that as part of their identity, often from a young age, right? Some people started elementary school. If you're playing, if you're playing violin or piano or something, or you're a dancer, a lot of that starts really early. Some people are starting in middle school, some are in high school, but most of the time you're coming into college with your artistry as a huge part of your identity where, you know, if you're majoring in accounting or something, you're not like identifying as an accountant right at 18. So it might be a little easier for you to separate yourself from that. But I think it makes it so much harder for students in the arts, because if you're a musician or an actor or a dancer or a visual artists, it's not just changing your major. Right? You feel like you're letting part of yourself go it's, it's a really hard thing to do.

Melanie:

Absolutely. It feels like you're unplugging from a whole family unit as well. Like you're in a different community, honestly. Any time you're moving into a new field, there's like vocabulary and language that you have to learn all over again and, you know, music world, boy, do we have vocabulary, right? Yeah. So it's like, wow. I feel like I'm moving to another country, I feel like I'm that football player who got that life changing injury. And now I don't know what I'm good at anymore. So I just had to lean on, okay, well, what's the other thing you like to do, Melanie? And I was like, I'm a decent writer, I guess. So I changed my major three times, had to give up all my scholarships, with the exception of a band grant, which I was very grateful to have and I, and was able to still be a part of the marching band. So I got to keep my family and learn something new. And I'm so, so grateful, to the UH program for that, because without the family piece, the work just gets that much harder. Right. So I changed my major three times and I landed on get this: print journalism, basically at the rise of digital, are people really picking up newspapers in, uh, 2009? You tell me. But, yeah, I gave up all my financial stability to bet on myself and say like, okay, we're gonna really try and make this happen. I'm committed to journalism. I did some reporting with the Daily Cougar so the university's newspaper. I remember I was sitting in one of the classes and they said, who would like to write the cover story for the Daily Cougar, which was, Barack Obama's presidential run. And I was scared out of my mind, but for whatever reason, I was like, I can try. That was like the start of learning, how to communicate ironically, concisely. I'm not being very concise today, but, I will say that is at least writing. It's not speaking. So I cut myself some slack. So yeah, that was where I learned about the power of communication and the power of words. I really did enjoy it. I still didn't quite feel like the spark that I felt with music. Around that time, I was learning more about myself. Turns out when you're not spending all of your time with an instrument to your face, you can actually like ask yourself some hard questions. Actually like contemplate what world you live in. I, you know, came to the realization that I may not be heterosexual and, Of course like college being a place to like expand your worldviews. I started going to the LGBT group on campus. At the time there was a poli-sci major who like really loved to talk about policy and politics. And I just, I didn't know about all of those things. Like in high school, when people would talk about politics, I'd like put my hands over my ears and be like, go away. You know, I didn't want to hear anything about it. But because this was relevant to me, and how I was going to live my life. Like at that time, marriage equality had not become the law of the land yet. And so I was like, what does my future look like as a person who may end up with a woman for the rest of her life? So I felt that spark again, of like, this is urgent and important and, I started to develop a passion for advocacy and activism. Just because I went to a student group one day. In Melanie fashion went like from zero to 60 in being like, okay, how do we grow this group? How do we find other, LGBTQ students who are just finding themselves and like need each other? And so we ended up growing that group from like 12 people to 140 people, by the time I left. Wow. We pushed for things on campus, like an LGBT studies minor and an LGBT resource center, which are actually very prominent in the student center today at the university of Houston. And I ended up being able to graduate as one of the first two students with the LGBT studies minor at the university of Houston. My passion may have not been like all consolidated in my major. But I was able to kind of like use these different components of my life. Right. Like learning how to collaborate with people from music and trying to find harmony and coordination. And then also using my journalism skills to like advocate for the things I want on paper and push policies. And then having this like additional minor to have that expertise and be able to talk about LGBTQ issues in a space that was really shaping the university. Of course there were students before me and professors before me and after me who had been pushing for this all along. But you just never know what moment you find yourself in. So I graduated with my print journalism degree and my LGBT studies minor, hot off the press and, was like, okay, cool. I guess this means I need to look for wait, what kind of job? And applied for a few like reporting jobs, but there was something I noticed about myself, which was that I could not crank out articles on a daily basis. Like this is where, the musician in me came out real hard. Cause it was like, I have to feel the moment. No, they have hard deadlines in journalism. And I was not suited to meet them at that time. And so I was like, cool. I don't think I have any marketable skills. Which was not true.

Carrie:

I was just about to say, I'm a thousand percent sure that it was not true, but.

Melanie:

It was not true at all. It was a lie I had told myself.

Carrie:

Which is easy to tell yourself, right? When you feel like you don't really know where to go or what to do, that is a very easy thing to tell yourself.

Melanie:

For sure. And it's very easy to put all of the blame on yourself as well for like everything you don't know, which doesn't make any sense. But in any case, I was required to do a communications internship, in order to graduate. And my professor was the one who helped me find it. He pushed a piece of paper toward me, and I was like, I think this might be up your alley. It was also because I was broke. Hey professor, do you know of any paid internships? And I found one with the Houston food bank. They were looking for someone to basically document people's stories about how they came to need food assistance. And at that time I was not very familiar with the food bank or what they did. But I did know that growing up, we often ate leftovers for a very long time. I knew that growing up, we oftentimes didn't have money for new school clothes or band trips and things like that, or even my own private lessons. Right. So some things started clicking in my mind of like, there's this community resource that young Melanie probably could have benefited from. Interesting. So I interviewed for the position and it was the most embarrassing interview of my life. I had never interviewed for an internship before. I worked at like Chilies throughout college. So I had never really like worked in like an office setting in a consistent way. I just didn't know how I was supposed to show up. And so I showed up and they said, great, what can you tell us about the food bank? And, you know, they had websites by this time. This was like 2009 ish. And I couldn't tell them the first thing about what the food bank does at that moment. Then they started asking me other questions about my work experience, and I submitted a writing piece in advance and they said, okay, we'll give you a call. And at the end, the person who was interviewing me said, and just so you know, for future interviews, you may want to at least look at the website. And I like melted into the floor and like it oozed out from under the door, I think.

Carrie:

A good tip for students listening. But back in 2009, that would probably wasn't as common of a tip that students were given in class. Like it is now.

Melanie:

You're just trying to make me feel better. But thank you. And feedback comes to find out is a gift. In that moment felt like, you know, staring at myself in the mirror and like shaming myself. So I went home thinking there's no way they're going to call me back. Then the next day I get an email in my inboxes. Hey, Melanie, we'd love for you to join us. And I was like, wow. The other people they interviewed must they must not have had other interviews. So in any case I gratefully took it. It was a summer internship, and it changed my life. The first day on the internship, we went to a food fair, which for those who are not familiar, the Houston food bank will bring food to a location that's easily accessible for the community to come and receive like a certain portion of food that's been donated. So neighbors can come and bring like whatever bags, boxes, they might need to carry the food home in. They open their gates at a certain time and they close their gates at a certain time. This one particular place we went to was on the east side of Houston. And I'd never really been to the east side of Houston, but I was like, how did I not know that these exist? And the food bank was like, oh yeah, we do like three to 500 of these, any given Saturday across the Houston region. We're like, wow. Okay. So not even in my backyard, it's happening right in front of my front yard. How did I not know this was happening? Because privilege. But anyway, we get there and there are people standing lined up around the block. I mean, you've got children with pillowcases, you've got seniors holding their laundry baskets. And I'm interviewing folks. And I asked one of the people who organizes the event, is this a typical Saturday for you? And they were like, oh yeah. We'll see anywhere between a thousand to 1200 people every Saturday. I was like, that's unacceptable. Right? Throughout the internship, I was able to talk with so many different people who told me about job losses, about family losses and all the reasons why making ends meet that month was really difficult and how grateful they were to have access to groceries to get them by for a little while. One of the key things about journalism is that you're supposed to report things as they are. After hearing so many people's stories like that, I realized I couldn't stay in the space that was just about an observation or a space that was just about reporting things as they are. I mean, it's very important for that to happen. Right. So that there's awareness. But I was like, I have to do something about this. And so, Took my writing skills and my experiences in life as an LGBTQ person. And then also as somebody who has bared, has witnessed so much suffering, and applied for the university of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work program to get an MSW. Now, this was also a very hard decision because I told you before I did not like school. Undergrad was very difficult for me. I took out the maximum amount of loans that was offered to me to make it after I had to give up my scholarships. So with all of that debt, I had to make the decision to take on even more debt because I was just working hourly jobs at that point. I didn't have anything full time. I didn't have health insurance the entire time I was in undergrad. So this was another risk, but I was very determined to make it happen.

Carrie:

With the financial comments you just made some people listening may say, well duh, then don't do that. You know? And I don't mean to say it that like that flippantly, because I know that sometimes there's a calling so deep within you. Right. Or you're so sure that you're supposed to move in a different direction. You just know that. So, is that how you felt? I mean, it was a choice, but it almost like wasn't a choice. Like you knew that this is what I need to do.

Melanie:

Yeah. I have a stubbornness in me that won't allow me to do things that seem purposeless. I mean, I laugh about that, but I think that that can be true for all of us, right. That like sure, there will always be elements to our day-to-day life that we have to do because we have to do them. But for everything else, I mean, life is so short and precious, right. That we would give any part of our lives to something that is unhelpful or un-useful, also known as useless, see journalism, helpful, you know, that we would spend any of our time wasted. It just feels unnecessary. Taking on a financial risk, as opposed to what I felt like was risking my life of potential for happiness, or even just purposefulness. The calculation was easier when I looked at it like that. So fast forward a bit. And I'm in the graduate college of social work. I think I know what I'm doing. I'm thinking I miss America and I'm here to help people, you know, this waving to the audience.

Carrie:

Can we say briefly, you said before you haven't liked school and everything. Can we talk just a second about how graduate school is different from undergrad when you're choosing a specialization? Cause it does feel different, right?

Melanie:

Absolutely. It feels elite. In a way. It brought out a lot of imposter syndrome for me in terms of not feeling like I was ready or prepared. I felt scared out of my mind that everyone around me was going to be so much smarter than I was. Cause remember B's, sometimes A's sometimes C student, mostly focused on music, which I didn't do anymore. And had just taken all these risks. But with graduate school, you at least got to choose, or I at least got to choose how I was going to spend most of my time, instead of like having to do basics all over again. Right. So it was only a two year program, an intensive, but two year program. And it was only going to be focused on social work. On trying to figure out how to improve the systems in our world and help people live with more ease. I was like, you know, that's a thing I could spend more time on. When I actually did start my coursework, which was talking about social justice and it was talking about policy change and a lot of the activism that I had done in LGBTQ spaces, like was suddenly relevant. The things in my life were suddenly relevant pieces of the coursework we were talking about. I lit up and it was the first time I actually loved school. It took that long for me to finally get to a place of loving an educational space.

Carrie:

The journey, like, especially what you've described so far, it sounds like you had to take these other steps on your path first, you know, before you could land there. There's no way you could have guessed that, back in that 18 year old self with your French horn. Right?

Melanie:

Right, right, right. And that internship at the food bank, then I didn't even know I needed. Right. That was some experience that I needed to have to even be able to apply to the College of Social Work. It all just sort of fell into place because I was trusting my gut and I was taking calculated risks.

Carrie:

Can you talk a little bit about what a master's program in social work is like? Like what types of classes did you take? I'm assuming you had to do some field work of some kind during that degree. Can you talk a little bit about just what that type of program looks like?

Melanie:

Yeah. In social work today, which I hope this can change over time, but in social work today, there's usually two tracks. There's the clinical track and the macro track. So your first year in the program is usually spent just kind of orienting you to what social work is. Throughout that year, you would be in like a field placement. So you would spend, it varies from program to program, but like a couple hundred hours each semester in a field placement while doing your coursework. That usually aligns together so that you can get a more robust experience with like what it looks like on the ground, as well as what it looks like theoretically. Then your second year is fully student guided. So you would be interviewing and the agency would interview you and it would be like a matching process. So, yeah. So then the second year is called the concentration year for us. And that's where you would designate whether you planned to be clinical, whether you plan to be macro social worker and then more of your coursework is more specific to those two tracks. Then your field work would also be more aligned with your concentration.

Carrie:

So there's some classes that are more generalized toward what is social work? And then is there like non-profit organization?

Melanie:

Yeah. So some of the classwork is more theoretical or philosophical. For example, one of the classes we have right now is confronting oppression and injustice. Wow. Then there are other classes that are like, Social policy analysis and that's my class. And then you have others that are like administrative work. Like, how does grant funding work? How does organizational leadership is like another class? There's a whole set of skills, a whole set of knowledge, and then practice, practice, practice that goes into being a social worker. Before I even got on that big thing about curricula, I was making fun of myself earlier about the whole, like miss America mentality people. Yeah. And yes, we have to get back to the part where I was making fun of myself because it's not just that it's unrealistic, it's that it is actually counter to what social work ought to be. So I had to go on this journey, right? Where like, after seeing other people suffer, I thought I need to help them suffer less. A bigger, more powerful question that I could have asked myself or, you know, I was on a journey. So I'm glad I was asked it eventually. But a bigger, more powerful question I could've asked was: why are they suffering? And how is my own suffering tied to theirs? The way the history of social work is talked about is oftentimes very much steeped in Jane Adams and these white women from a long time ago who had the resources to devote, to quote unquote giving back to the community. Which seems like an admirable goal. However, there's still a structure of giver and receiver, right? Yeah. If we look back at that history differently, we realize there's tons of social work happening that wasn't called social work back then. The underground railroad, the civil rights movement. I mean, I can't think of anything that's more social worky than everything Martin Luther King did. Why isn't he hailed as one of the big leaders of social work? Right. And I say all this to say that if you want to join the profession of social work, and your perspective is that you're coming in so that you can help others or save others, that may feel good, but the truth is it actually disempowers the person that you think you're helping or saving. Because actually they have power. It's just that they aren't able to access it because of either some type of barrier or some type of discrimination or some type of systemic reason. If you want to be an effective social worker, you have to get to the root of those problems if you ever want to make a dent in alleviating the suffering that's going on in the world. Non-profit work is super important. Super, super important. And it helps to alleviate the suffering that's in the world today. But ultimately it will not end it. In my opinion. Nobody really needs a social work degree to work in the nonprofit space. There's nothing stopping us from just generally learning about injustice and oppression and doing something about that wherever we are. Right.

Carrie:

They can step into that as a volunteer, as an intern, as anything, regardless of what degree you're in. Right? Everybody has a place where they can step into that and their community in some capacity.

Melanie:

Absolutely. I never thought I would be doing what I'm doing today.

Carrie:

So once you finished your master's degree in social work, where did you go from there?

Melanie:

I had held some jobs while I was in school too, just so I could keep myself afloat. But after I graduated, I was still looking for full-time employment. So I had had internships under my belt. I had awards and all these little accolades through my time at the university. Everyone I had showed my resume to help me prepare for my interviews. They all said, it's a great resume. You're going to be great. There's going to be tons of jobs for you. It took me a solid five or six months before I got a job offer. I applied for 30 jobs. I got callbacks at five of them and only two of them interviewed me. And I got an offer at one of them..

Carrie:

I've heard so many people say something like that though. Like I applied to 30 jobs, I applied to 50 jobs. I mean, I've heard people say if I do a hundred jobs, cause it comes down to this. I don't want to see a calculation, but you know, kind of the breakdown you just said. I applied to this many, this many called me back. This many actually got an interview. This many actually got a second interview. And then I finally got the one. I think a lot of college grads, like, I've got my degree, I'm just going to get a job and they go out there and it's like, well, you will get a job. But it's probably not going to be the first one you applied to.

Melanie:

Yes. Thankfully because the mSW program had me in a field placement. I mean, I really tried to work my networking at that point. I didn't even know I was doing it. I just was trying to like make friends with every person that I met in the field. The one job that I was offered was actually a person from one of my internships. She had seen how I'd worked before. And I remember we were sitting in the interview and at the end of the interview, she said, you know, Melanie, I know that this place is not your like first choice. I know this isn't your passion. Cause I know you, but if you're willing to take a chance on us, we're willing to take a chance on you. Because I know now I should back up even further that I had a lot of biases back then and a lot of fears. So keeping in mind, my LGBTQ advocacy was like front and center on my resume. And here I am applying for these like very religious institutions and nonprofits. My first fear was I shouldn't go into a job that doesn't accept LGBTQ people. Like I'm scared to death that I'm going to get fired for that. Two: I didn't want to work with children. Cause I thought they didn't like me. I just, I don't know. It was a thing that was a thing I thought about myself. And then three, I was just really scared to work in a place that I didn't have a ton of experience in. Cause life is hard already. It wasn't like just like Melanie stick with what you know, try to find people who are like already accepting of you and like good luck. So then, I applied for all these jobs and then can you even guess. Well, what job this was the only one that wanted to take me.

Carrie:

I'm trying to think. I read through all your jobs a few days ago.

Melanie:

This was Catholic charities working with unaccompanied refugee minors in foster care. Wow. So checked all of those boxes. I was like, okay. Catholic charities. I don't know what they think of me. Two: unaccompanied refugee minors in foster care was like a population I had never worked with or even was aware of. I was like, minors. They're children. They're not going to like me. But you know, they said if you'll take a chance on us, we'll take a chance on you. I mean, each job I've had has just been even more impactful on me. I've grown so so much. And had I not taken that chance with Catholic charities? I just, again, it's like, I would not be who I am. I would not be where I am. I met refugee kids from all over the world who were placed here in the United States. Who are given basically minimal resources to try to be successful here. I remember refugee kids coming at the age of 16 who spoke very little English and then were expected to graduate by 18. This and see how those are not individual failures. Those are systemic failures. They're not setting people up for success. And I got very frustrated with that. If you know anything about the foster care system in Texas, is very fraught and very under-resourced and the system is not working. After kind of hitting my head against a wall several times and realizing that it it's not my organization that can't make the change. It has to come from a higher level. I was like, okay, I have to get more involved in politics. I have to get more involved in advocacy work.

Carrie:

So that first job working with unaccompanied minor refugee kids in the foster care system. Like my first thought, when I hear that is, the empath part of me just feels like, oh my gosh, that would just break my heart and make me cry every day. How emotionally taxing as a job like that? How did you work with that every day? I mean, balancing what you want to do to work for these kids, but also just with your own mental health.

Melanie:

It's a really good question. And one that I think every social worker is always trying to answer, which is like, how do I take care of myself? Amidst all of this chaos in the world. Self-care is something that is talked about a lot throughout the social work program. But it's extremely difficult to implement, especially if the system is not set up well for you to take care of yourself. Similar to musicians, how musicians bodies are their instrument, social workers, too. Like our bodies are our instrument. So our minds have to be as healthy as can be. Our bodies have to be as healthy as can be so that we can help other people make choices for their lives. For example, When I was working with the salvation army, I was working with people who were experiencing homelessness. If I am so stressed out and unable to think about what a good next step might be for someone to take, who is in that situation, in that crisis, am I even really being helpful? And so the responsibility to take care of oneself is especially high, in the social work field or anyone who's working in nonprofits or working with people who are in crisis. For deep empaths, it is very hard, but for deep empaths, sometimes it is the exact work that you ought to be doing. Because you understand another person's suffering. And you can understand how hard it might be for them to make the change that you're asking them to make. I'll talk a little bit more about how hard it is, but I will definitely get to the part where there are rewards.

Carrie:

So after working with refugee kids, you went into a different nonprofit?

Melanie:

Yes. So in working at Catholic charities with unaccompanied refugee minors who were placed into these homes and systems in foster care, it was really hard to watch them struggle. It was really hard to feel like my hands were tied and I couldn't do more. But I also got to have this up close look at how resilient people truly are and how lucky we are to be able to be among people who have walked a different path who have experienced so much. I mean, I learned so much from kids on my caseload that I could never have learned from a textbook. One of my kids on my caseload who had a brother who had come here, he usually has the stellar attitude he's super positive. And one day he was really down and I asked him, oh, is everything okay with school? Like, is the family life here? Okay. You know, trying to check in to make sure he was safe. He was like, yeah. Yeah. All that's fine. And I was like, well, what's going on? Things like, oh, well, my brother's sick. Like as a case manager at the time, I was like, oh no, do you need to go to a doctor? I started to kick into the mode of, okay, we need to make sure he's okay. The kid was like, no, when my brother's not well, I'm not well.

Carrie:

Oh, wow.

Melanie:

What would our country be like if more people felt that way, you know, have that much empathy for someone else. If my brother is not well, I'm not well. And what would we change about the way that this country functions, if that was enough to motivate us to move, make us do something right. That's part of the advocacy passion that I have is Once we were aware of all the ways in which we are complicit or that we participate and perpetuate things that are unhelpful for other people. Once we know those things, how do we not do anything about them? You know? And I think that people are inclined. I think people do want to do something. They just don't know how. And that's where social workers and advocates and activists and people in the nonprofit space, like have an obligation because we know we have a very up close and personal view of all the ways that these systems fail us. Right. And so the rewards and the redemption piece is that, I mean, I have seen so many people turn their own lives around just because they believe in themselves again. I remember I had this one client who at the salvation army. Was $2,000 behind on their rent. They were just waiting for this check from IRS and it just kept getting tangled up, tangled up. For whatever reason that the check never made it to the mailbox. So this person who is taking care of their elderly mother, and a son, was just like, I'm at the end of my wits. I don't know what to do. And I sat with her and we called the IRS and we waited on hold together. We've worked it out. And the check came over and I said, okay, well, okay, the check is on its way. What else are you going to do? And she said, well, my sister, she usually has the food stamps that my mother should be receiving, but my mother lives with me. So I feel like it would only be fair if my mother got the food stamps that are owed to her. And I was like, yes, that does sound fair. And she was like, yeah, but I don't know if I can have that conversation with my sister. Talking it through with some of the social work skills I'd gained and it's like, I think you can have this conversation in a way that's not confrontational, but also like firm and say, you know, this is fair. I take care of this person and this person deserves to have enough food to eat. No, she came back to me the next week and said, I talked to my sister and she was totally fine with making sure that she got the food stamps to her mom. That's amazing. It has nothing to do with me, has everything to do with this person, remembering that she has her own rights. She has her own agency. She has her own power. My work later started to transition away from this one-on-one work, you know, case management and stuff, and more into working on systems and policy advocacy. And that too is about reminding people that they have power, right. That speaking up whenever they see injustices happen. That voting, that is about power and reclaiming it. And honestly, I am just a person who is holding up a mirror and saying, do you like what you see? Do you like knowing that these things are happening and do you see what you're doing about it? And that's all that is needed most of the time. It's like, I just hold up a mirror. I'm not telling you what's right or wrong. It's for you to decide whether or not your actions are lining up with your values.

Carrie:

So you mentioned you were doing case on case and you moved to like bigger policy type work. Which track had you chosen in graduate school?

Melanie:

I actually chose macro social work cause I had a great professor at the time who saw that in me. She was also a mirror for me. She would never tell me directly you macro. That's the great and frustrating thing about social workers. We're all like, we're going to talk to you, like where Yoda and you're going to be like, just tell me what to do. She definitely reflected back to me, my strengths and the things that she saw me talk about. Most of them were about preventing suffering and not as much about dealing with how do we fix it today? I became really focused on policy advocacy and trying to push for non-discrimination clauses at the city level. So to be able to include things like sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in policies like citywide, statewide, because there still wasn't at that time, a national push, or policy in place to protect us at that time. So in 2016, I got hired back onto Salvation Army doing data and program evaluation. Which I had never done before, but the person who hired me back was actually a former classmate. So again, you just never know who in your life you may make a connection with, who may help you in your career.

Carrie:

That person reached out to you to ask you to look at that job, or was that something that you applied to and they just happened to be there?

Melanie:

No, he texted it to me. I applied. Got it. And didn't know what on earth I was supposed to do.

Carrie:

Somebody felt like you belonged there.

Melanie:

Right? Right. And I made this mistake again of pigeonholing myself and thinking of myself differently and being like, I'm not a maths person. I don't know how to maths. That was so unhelpful because as I've learned from meeting other wonderful geniuses, They were like, data is not as much about the math. It's actually telling you a story.

Carrie:

That makes it much less intimidating, doesn't it?

Melanie:

For someone like me? Yes. Especially because advocacy work is about elevating people's stories, you know? And so I was like, oh yes, done. I can click with this. So in my data and program evaluation role, it was my job to look at the data that we were collecting from folks who were experiencing homelessness. So how many of them secured housing? How many of them have stayed in housing for how many years? How much longer does this person have on their grant before they'll have to transition out of their housing and potentially have to like find work? And how long are they staying off the street? The power of social workers is that we get to ask those questions. We don't always have to have the answers for them, but the fact that we even know to ask them is part of the magic. Programs can keep operating how they operate forever and not even know if they're making a difference. I took this job to mean that this is about seeing if we're actually making a difference. Just as I felt like I was starting to know what I was doing, hurricane Harvey hit and all of my advocacy work up to that point, I had been doing a lot of work with elected officials and things like that. So salvation army was like, Hey, you know the mayor, we have this like disaster liaison position where basically you're going to relay information from the city to us and we can then like deploy our food trucks to make sure people get food. Can we send you up there? And I was like, oh, that sounds like a lot of fun. Yeah, let's go. So I go to the emergency operation center for the city of Houston and I'm like surrounded by TVs that have every part of Houston just submerged in water. I am sitting at a table with all of the head CEOs of all these corporations. There's the mayor of Houston over there. There's the mayor special advisor on homelessness sitting over there. There's a red cross and everybody's like running around. We've got people on two cell phones and a laptop in their lap, like doing everything they possibly can to get every possible resource out. You've got police and fire and 911 all on the phone with checking in frequently about who needs what help and where. You have just random neighbors bringing their boats out of their garage is trying to help their neighbors. It is just all hands on deck. In that moment I tapped into my journalism skills. Right. So I'm documenting everything that I'm seeing around me. Okay. Is red cross in this neighborhood? Okay. Are they in that neighborhood? Okay. Let's not duplicate resources. So let me make sure there's other neighborhoods that are getting coverage. There's a call at 7:00 AM. Another call at 11 another one at two, and then another one at 7:00 PM. And then there are people who are sleeping in their offices, on cots, just so that they won't miss the call. It was that for like two weeks straight. The adrenaline rush of it is how I survived. I mean that on top of the fact that I have this incredible wife who, while our apartment is flooding, I'm over here at the emergency operations center and she's like pulling the carpet off of our floors and like pushing everything to the center of our living room.

Carrie:

Which I'm guessing a lot of people who worked in that emergency center were experiencing that too, right?

Melanie:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we were in between all the calls, we were like scarfing down food and talking about where we were going to move. it was wild. Thankfully I had the privilege of having a wife who had a flexible job at the time and could do all of that while figuring out where we were going to stay with our two dogs. We had friends who opened up their homes to me. And I'm just so, so grateful. And again, those small kindnesses were what helped move me forward because otherwise I would have had to say no to that role and just keep going about my life. Right. So I said yes to that role and they thought I did a fabulous job and they moved me into the emergency disasters manager job, which was a significant increase in pay and a significant increase in duties. Especially during one of the biggest disasters Houston has seen in years, decades. Just to recap my trajectory here. Didn't know what I was doing in my data and program evaluation job. Didn't think I'd ever become a social worker, had a journalism background, and now I'm over here and inheriting a warehouse, six employees to supervise, like six additional temporary workers. And I have to provide as much services as possible to four counties. So Harris Fort Bend, Montgomery and Waller, during a historic natural disaster.

Carrie:

Can I ask you? Cause you're not going to say this on your own. You're saying like, oh, I have a journalism background. I had no idea what I'm doing, blah, blah, blah. But obviously people are offering you positions, Melanie, you were doing well. So what are the skills that you learned about yourself through these experiences that you can say: yeah, this is what I did well, and this is what I know I can do. Even when you walk into a specific job, you can say, oh, I don't know what I'm doing. That's fine. But you have particular skills and things that you do well or that you pick up on well, that are transferable across a lot of different situations. So what, what are those kinds of things that perhaps students listening could identify within themselves? You know, and think about projecting those onto a lot of different types of positions.

Melanie:

Yeah. I'm glad you asked that because I also need to practice modeling that better. Cause I, you know, I want for other women, for other Asian people in general, to be able to own the great work that they do. And so I need to model that.

Carrie:

I don't mean to be hard on you and asking them, but I could tell, I was like, she's not going to tell us what she's good at here. So I'm going to ask them the question.

Melanie:

I appreciate it. That's a good question. I think the skills that have been the most, like consistently useful throughout all of this have been open communication about the things I don't know. Asking questions is so important. And especially asking the question you're afraid to ask, because somebody already said what the answer was like last week, but you forgot. That question is probably super important and having the courage to be able to say, I don't know something, but I will find out and then actually go and do it. Right. It sounds really basic, but there are so many times where I've messed up something or something was unnecessarily difficult for me. And if I had just asked someone for help or ask someone for clarification, it would have been avoided. I think that candor and that vulnerability, it doesn't sound like a hard skill, but it's like a thing to practice, right? Like getting used to saying that you don't know something, but you want to learn. Even when people are being condescending to you, as they teach it to you, right? Take the lesson, take the lesson. Even if that lesson is that person's a jerk and I never need to go back to them for help like that. You still learn something. I think the other things are like dependability, reliability. People thought of me for jobs, period, because I was always there. When I cared about something, I showed up. Whether it was an event or if I could volunteer for something, if I cared about it enough, I showed up and people knew I would show up. And that's what they were looking for in someone they could depend on someone who would have the drive to do as much as they could. Other things that I'm good at gosh, I would say helping people to get started. So a lot of times people would come to me with an idea or a question or a concept, and I would ask them the question that might help them get to their first step or just help them get unstuck. My teammates oftentimes would come to me and say like, can I just talk through a challenge I'm having right now? And I would just bounce those ideas back up and then, and say like, well, what would happen if it worked out? Or what would happen if you owned up to the fact you didn't know? And putting things into writing, I think is sometimes hard for folks. It's like they have these big ideas, but then when it comes to like, how do I communicate this? Something I've gotten to practice so much over time is like telling that story.

Carrie:

To tack on to that last point was that you listen to people. And I think people know that you're actually listening genuinely, right? Because you're not going to put people in these type of positions who are not going to listen and have their reaction and their response be directly based off what they heard. Right. Cause there's some people that walk into leadership positions that may be say they care about what other people think or say they listen to people, but they don't. They just do what they think that they should do. And they don't really listen to a team or people with more experience. But, based off of what I know about you, but also what you just said, you will listen to people and work collaboratively in that way and respond to them.

Melanie:

Yeah. And listening takes openness, right? Like you can't be super rigid in your own idea of how something should get done or how something should be. Yeah. I walk into almost every scenario with no assumptions because anytime I have come in with assumptions, I've always had them dispelled like, oh yeah, I was totally wrong about that. Or, I brought up an issue and everyone was quiet. I was like, oh, well that must be a dumb idea. And then actually when you follow up with people afterwards, they were like, no, I was just processing what you were saying, because it was so deep. I just didn't know what to say in the moment. Having an openness to other people's perspectives of the world is everything about the work I do today. Yeah. After after hurricane Harvey. I did experience a lot of burnout. I had like the number of 533 always sticks with me because I remember there were like a couple of nights in a row where no matter how long I spent on the laptop, I could never get my inbox to be less than that. It's just constantly 533 emails. A lot of them filled with people's stories of how much they were suffering and how much help they needed. I had to take my own advice and take advantage of the fact that I know about my own professional field and I sought therapy. It was the best thing I could've done for myself. I had compassion fatigue. I had really stretched the limits of what I could do as a human. And my wife was there for me, and I was so lucky. I just feel so lucky that I was able to climb out of that hole. Like I was talking about with social work, you really can't come into it with a savior mentality because the other part of it is not only can you not save people, the ones you think you're saving, you can't save all of them.

Carrie:

Yeah. And with a natural disaster layered on top of that, you're not just almost adds that extra feeling that you need to do that. Right. Because it is such a wide scale devastating event that reached all socioeconomic status. I mean, you know, it was just like, I'll use footage of all kinds of neighborhoods and all kinds of communities underwater. And it was just, some people who had never experienced that in their life. And some people who felt like, why is this the 43rd thing that's happening to me? You know?

Melanie:

Yes, yes. It's really just raining and pouring on everyone. I needed to take a step back. And so the very same person who was in my interview way back in my internship at the Houston food bank, reached out to me and said, Hey, there's a position opening up as a government relations officer, if you're interested. So again, I wasn't even seeking out a job at the time, but someone knew, someone intuited, that I might be open to a new position. And so she sent it over to. Was a huge cut in pay, but it was a huge increase in my sanity, and self ability to care for myself. And so I took it. And so I'm over at the Houston food bank and I was able to do a lot of government relations work, a lot of education internally, even with my own teams about like how people come to need food assistance. It felt like coming home. It was like a full circle moment of like, I went from internship to government relations officer and then I was eventually promoted to director of advocacy. And COVID-19 happened. And so you have people who are still recovering from hurricane Harvey today, who then were unable to fully fully recover, because now we have this added layer of economic challenges and health fears and risks and a lot more food insecurity. In that position, we worked with various teams throughout the food bank to talk about how we were going to innovate the way we deliver food so that it could be safe. And so this drive-through model came about, and then we were providing food to like 9,000 families and individuals every Saturday at NRG. At bets that one single location, whereas we would be providing typically that much across Houston. Right? It was very demanding and very difficult, but I started to learn even more about the roots of food insecurity and how that's linked into poverty and how racism is linked into poverty. And so then when the tragedies and killings of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, and so many others came to light, we started to have those hard conversations around racial equity at the food bank. Fast forward to 2021 was really when I moved over to this new role at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Now I actually get to have conversations all the time about racial equity and poverty and what our role is in that, as a professor.

Carrie:

That's awesome. So looking back on all of this, I'm assuming that part of your motivation to want to go back and teach is to help the next generation of people coming into social work really understand a lot of these things that you've learned. What are the most pressing lessons that you're hoping the emerging classes of social workers are going out there with an awareness of?

Melanie:

Just on a like nitty-gritty level, I think being comfortable with paving your own way, could go a long way. I had always thought like, if A then B, right, like if I choose this, that puts me on this path. And then I become that.

Carrie:

That is one message that I just get so frustrated with. Because we all know that is not how real life works. Right. I mean, there's maybe a few fields where that is more common. But for most of us, it is not, you go get a degree in A, which leads you to B, and then everybody ends up at C. That's not how it is. And yet that's almost how we talk to students about it. Right. So I just don't understand why we still have those kinds of conversations.

Melanie:

Right. It's more like you're walking around with a shopping cart, and all of your experiences, you're just kind of putting them in your cart and you're just going along your way. You might park your cart at the end of the day at a job, or you might. Who knows.

Carrie:

And your cart is different from everyone else's, and that is a good thing.

Melanie:

Right? And there are some things you can afford and somethings you can't.

Carrie:

Why are you? You don't need them girl, just keep on going.

Melanie:

Pass it on by. The things that are good for you. Some things that are not, you know, and some things you can return, some things you can't. So just take all those experiences with you to help guide where you go next, as opposed to trying to look so far into the future, because your future is not written yet. Just embracing that your path and your journey is just going to be yours. If you're in a field where you do have to kind of look ahead, like if you want to be a doctor and you have to set that path now, like, obviously I'm not the person you should be listening to, but

Carrie:

you can still learn from this conversation.

Melanie:

That's true. But if you want it to be doctor, I assume if you're making that commitment, then your passion is like through the roof for being able to do that. And for me to have gotten where I am, I have let my passion lead me and I have never regretted it. The other thing that I would recommend to people is just becoming more aware of the systems they're in. We know that we are in the United States of America, which has a storied past of colonization and slavery. Also we get to live in such a privileged way in this country that is unlike any other, right? Like there are all of these contradictions that we have to hold at the same time. And so just remembering that when you work for that multi-million dollar company, don't forget about the people who make that wealth possible. Question why things are the way they are. And then once you start to see the truth of that would that motivate you to do something.

Carrie:

Yeah, absolutely. And being mindful of your actions and how they're contributing or not contributing to that, right?

Melanie:

Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I didn't want people to have to escape their lives. I wanted people to be able to be free and live them wherever they were, however they want to live. Not all of that is through money. A lot of that can be through just acknowledging people and giving them a sense of belonging and love. And also money helps.

Carrie:

Right. I was going to ask you, is there a misconception about social work out there that you would like to break in this conversation? Is there something that either you had a certain perception of social work that later you learned like, oh my gosh, this is not what I thought it was, or that is common among your students?

Melanie:

Yes, many. Are there are many misconceptions about social work. I think one of the ones that you see in the media a lot is that like, all we do is take people's children. Not a helpful narrative. And I think also that, like the foster care system, there's just a lot of things going on with it that have racial implications too. I think that the biggest misconception that I could just put into like a broad bucket would be always question if you are being of service or if actually your help is more oppressive. We tend to think that our presence is social workers. Like we'll make things automatically better. Because we will like somehow Robin hood, every situation, like bring the resources of the rich to the poor and like, yay. Isn't everything better. But actually that's how things stay the same. For people who are going into social work, I think it's awesome to want to help your neighbor. I think the thing that is going to help us survive as a species, and it is not cultivated enough, this like love for our humanity in one another, like, of course, of course let that drive you. But just know that while you're doing things in social work, there are times when we should question whether or not our presence is actually needed or wanted and helpful. There are a lot of times when social workers or non-profits will just come into a community and do research and be like, oh, this community has a lot of problems. And then they just start making all these initiatives and then they wonder why isn't this community accessing all of these beautiful resources we've given them. And the community is like, we never asked you for all that.

Carrie:

What we actually need is over here.

Melanie:

Right. But you're not listening to that because we're not saying it the way you want it to be heard. It's definitely very complex sometimes, but it can also be as simple as have you asked them. Absolutely. And who have you included in that conversation?

Carrie:

Yeah. So for students listening, who may be in high school, who may be an undergrad, cause social work programs are primarily at the graduate level, right?

Melanie:

Primarily, but there are bachelors of social work programs out there.

Carrie:

For students who may be in a place that don't have them. I know you've jokingly mentioned your print journalism undergraduate degree. If students are in a position where they haven't yet decided on a major or they're thinking they need to switch their major, because this is their area of interest, what are the types of programs that are most recommended for them to look into? Would like sociology be one? Between the skills that you need and the knowledge that's helpful, which ones do you feel like would be the most helpful to students moving forward in this field?

Melanie:

Yeah, that's a great question. I think psychology and sociology are some of the common degrees that we see. But honestly, I think the more compelling experience or like background a student could have, would be anything they've been engaged in outside of the coursework. So if you have done volunteer work extensively, even just having done a summer or two and being able to speak very or write very compellingly about that experience can be really helpful.

Carrie:

So really it could be any major, as long as they're seeking some of these experiential opportunities outside of the classroom?

Melanie:

Absolutely.

Carrie:

Well, that's really encouraging for students to know, like, don't feel like you have to have a degree, A, B or C, to get into a graduate degree in this area because the experiences the important part, which any student can seek that out.

Melanie:

Right. I mean, when I was doing data and program evaluation, I had really wished I had taken more stats classes and had more of a background in how to make pivot tables in Excel. You can have whatever skills you have. I think first the social work degree it's are you interested in humans? Like, are you interested in how we think and how we organize and how we divide power and share power? Those are kind of the bigger drivers. And so if you can prove to an institution of learning that is around social work like that, you have taken some kind of initiative around making other people's lives a little easier, you can make that compelling.

Carrie:

We've talked a lot about the field work that you did in the early days of your career and then through hurricane Harvey, and through COVID, and now you're teaching. So what has been really rewarding for you regarding teaching students? Like seeing the next group of students who were coming into this field, what's been rewarding for you with this experience so far?

Melanie:

So what I'm teaching currently is a class called social policy analysis, which, is on the macro track, but it's required of all students. A lot of times I'll get clinical students who are wanting to do therapy and they're like, why am I taking a policy class? And so I have so much fun. I'm teaching this course on policy analysis. Because when they first come in, they're like, I don't know Jack about policy. I don't understand how this affects my life. Right. And then we start talking. It happened so naturally, Carrie, like we'll just talk about the world and there's policy in everything. Policy governs everything about our lives. One of the assignments of the class is for them to write a paper that compares a policy, in one country, in another country or one state and another state. And so they're comparing, you know, student debt in the U S to student debt in the UK, or they're comparing refugees ability to access transportation in Houston versus in Austin. They go from saying, I'm a therapist and I don't care about this stuff to like, sounding like a policy wonk, sounding, super nerdy about it. And then having so much expertise because they've talked to actual people who are having struggles with these policies. Yeah. So they're like, how many times can I meet with you on this paper? I really want it to be good. I can see their passion for the lives of the people this impact coming through in their policy analysis work. Like so rewarding to me because if you can combine competency with compassion, like there's no stopping you, in being able to change the world. I love seeing those moments. I love seeing students transform the way they think about power, because first they're like, well nothing's ever going to change. And then by the end of it, they're like, how do I keep staying involved in this? How do I keep going? How do I make sure that there's change? And also like apologies to all my past professors for late papers. Cause like this is rough.

Carrie:

Well, and I'm sure that compassion factor is different in your department than it is in some others probably with whatever's going on in people's lives that they need an extra day or something like that.

Melanie:

Yes. Social worker, like, especially because of the pandemic, our program has been very flexible and honestly I would love for it to continue to be that flexible. Cause the world is changing. The struggles are very real, and asking students to take on field work on top of a job potentially as they're going through their programs is like, it's a big lift. So. You know, as much as we can try to partner with organizations that have paid internships, keep pushing for scholarship money and everything we can do for students to make this more manageable is really on our radar.

Carrie:

We had a lot of those conversations during the first year. Gosh. So we'll say that the first year of the pandemic, because, you know, we started to ask, why are all of these exceptions only made now? Because you know that because there's this global situation. But for some students, their pandemic happened three years ago or their pandemic hasn't happened yet, you know, for them. I think that this pandemic is hopefully, like you said, will help institutions recognize that this type of trauma and this type of struggle is happening all the time to someone. We need to be listening to that more and be more sympathetic. And obviously there's some filters that have to go with that and everything, because their lines have to be drawn somewhere for larger institution reasons. You have to get a grade at some point, right. It can't be left to blank for five years. But yeah, I hope it's helping people to think about that more.

Melanie:

Yeah. And you said it beautifully. Because one of the things that I did want to mention was how I talk about disaster relief work in the framework of natural disasters, but poverty is essentially a slow moving disaster. Something I learned from my colleagues at salvation army was just like, You know, someone losing their job. Who's the breadwinner in the family. That's a disaster, right? Someone falling ill and then staying know for any amount of time. Right. The ways that that takes a toll on us emotionally, financially, is so damaging. If we only think about disasters as if they're things that happen to us because of natural causes, like we're missing out on a whole other opportunity to improve people's lives. If we could just break out of the box of thinking that, a rule is here, because it's supposed to be as opposed to like, why are we doing this this way? People like to couch that as innovation, I couch that as trying to seek out the compassion in something, right? Are we doing this this way for a good reason, or are we doing this because it's just what we've always done?

Carrie:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, Melanie, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been just a really incredible conversation. We've covered a lot of ground here. So thank you for your vulnerability and telling your own story, and also shedding light on so many things throughout your field. And I know that any student who's listening and considering this at all has learned a lot from this conversation and can really take that moving forward. So thank you so much.

Melanie:

Thank you, Carrie.

Carrie:

And thank you for the work that you have done and that you continue to do. I hope people are looking around and noticing the people that are doing this kind of work in their community because it's so needed. And like we said, it is very taxing, emotionally, physically, everything. So you have done a lot for the community that we live in and the community of friends that you have. I just thank you for the work that you do and you're now inspiring the next group of students to go out and do, too.

Melanie:

Well, I've had a whole lot of help along the way. So thank you very much for the kind words. And, I appreciate you creating this community of future learners and I think it's awesome.

Carrie:

Thank you. Do you know someone I should interview? Please DM me on Instagram @pathsinprogresspodcast and let me know who I should talk to. I would love to hear about how these stories are impacting your journey. Please follow Paths in Progress wherever you download your podcasts and leave a review to let me know what you think. You can also follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn at Paths in Progress Podcast. Our music is by John Grimmett and the artwork is by Edgar Alanis. Thanks again for joining me today.