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Social Workers Are Essential Personnel on the Frontlines

social work students

GCU’s future social workers had a strong presence at the annual New Jersey Baccalaureate Social Work Education Association Policy Symposium, hosted by Rutgers University, in February. Pictured above from left to right are Sonya Serrano-Soto; Mary Kay Tuohy,B.S.W. program coordinator at GCU@Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus; Colleen Diveny, instructor of social work and coordinator of field education; Beverly Merritt; Jennifer Amoscato; Shaviahnah King; Melissa Santana; Katie Borghesi; and Shataya Boswell. The students presented posted on youth homelessness, refugee asylum, and immigration.

This story is part of a new ongoing series called From the Frontlines. We hope you enjoy reading these stories during our time apart.

Social workers often find themselves on the frontlines during times of crisis. Their primary goal is to meet the basic needs of all people, so they can live life to their fullest potential—and that’s never more apparent than when millions are unemployed and home situations are stressful.

“Clinical social workers play a pivotal role in responding to the psychological, social and emotional complications of the trauma experience,” says Megan Callahan Sherman, Ph.D., LCSW, assistant professor and chair of the GCU Department of Social Work and Gerontology. “We work with individuals and families to better manage the various symptoms that manifest from challenges like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress.”

The New Normal

For GCU alumna Kristen Cladek ’14, a licensed social worker, the new normal began to sink in around March 17. That’s when New Jersey officials, in early efforts to contain COVID-19, indefinitely closed the adult day program where she normally worked with about 35 adults with disabilities.

“About three weeks after day program closed, I was asked to help at one of my agency’s group homes. It was a bit nerve-wracking because it was a new job for me, and it would be the first time I would be leaving the comfort and safety of my home after having been locked down since St. Patrick’s Day,” says Ms. Cladek. “I was scared, but I went where I was needed—a thought that probably could be echoed by every single essential worker right now. I was pushed forward by the thought that ‘These are my clients. These are my friends, and they need my help.’”

Ms. Cladek notes that the residents in the group home are spending the majority of their time in their bedrooms to social distance and reduce the chances of passing any illness.

“It’s difficult for them, but they know it’s necessary for now,” she adds.

What’s also difficult is the precautions staff must take to keep everyone safe. Staff wear masks during their shift, often more than 12 hours at a time, along with gloves for food preparation and direct care and arm sleeves and clothing coverings when entering residents’ rooms.

“It’s extra work, but it’s for the safety of everyone in the home,” says Ms. Cladek. “We are working with the new normal.”

A Growing Profession With Growing Need

The social work profession is rapidly growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 788,600 people will be employed as social workers by 2028, an increase of 11% since 2018. Georgian Court has seen an even greater interest in the field, with a 63% increase in social work majors since 2016–2017.

Mary Kay Tuohy, B.S.W. program coordinator at GCU@Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, explains why the profession is attracting students.

“People want to be part of the solution,” says Ms. Tuohy. “There’s that saying, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’ I think that social work is a calling.”

Social workers directly interact with those facing various challenges, including poverty, substance abuse, discrimination, sexual and domestic violence, immigration, and mental health. By assisting individuals and communities to work through complex issues, social workers shape a stronger nation for generations to come.

This is a profession all about human rights and social justice,” adds Ms. Tuohy.

Social workers are found in all parts of society to empower others. The profession is at the forefront of change, working alongside lawmakers and organizations to bring equal rights to all.

“I often think of it this way: our first responders save lives. Our social workers help people keep living,” says Dr. Callahan Sherman. “Both take bravery, strength, and an unparalleled devotion to the well-being of others.”

Kristen Cladek social worker
Kristen Cladek at GCU’s 2019 Reunion & Homecoming Weekend, during which she was presented with the Young Alumni Award

Ms. Cladek believes that the need for social workers is only going to increase after the pandemic is over due to increased demand for mental health counseling and family and children services. She notes that frontline and essential workers, especially those working in hospitals, are going to require increased mental health counseling and support.

“Social workers will also be aiding those who are struggling financially or with housing from the aftermath of being unemployed for several months,” says Ms. Cladek. “Social workers will be there to assist Americans in getting back on their feet after this is all over, just like they always have.”

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About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, GCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.