Heading in a Different Direction

University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work graduates have found that a degree in social work can be useful in a wide variety of fields.

University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work graduates have found that a degree in social work can be useful in a wide variety of fields.

For many decades after the start of formal social work education and training, a degree in social work was seen as having two trajectories: going to work as a social worker or pursuing advanced degrees as a precursor to entering the world of academia. In recent years, however, University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work graduates have found that a degree in social work can be useful in a wide variety of fields and that their career options are no longer so narrowly focused. Some alumni have gone on to earn advanced degrees in other fields and used their social work skills and perspective to guide their careers in those fields. Others have found that their social work degree alone has been sufficient to succeed in a field that is seemingly unrelated to social work. Despite their many differences, though, these alumni agree that no one should be surprised to see someone with a social work degree in any field today.

I-Yu “Ann” Chen (MSW ’70) is now retired but had a long career as a computer scientist at a number of technology companies around the world, including Intel Corporation. While her degree was not necessarily directly applicable to her day-to-day work, she found it to be immensely useful when it came to tackling problems and working with others as she created and led teams in software research and development.

“People skills, group work skills, and problem-solving techniques from my social work training helped me build stronger engineering development teams and foster interpersonal relationships among team member engineers,” she says. While many people she worked with were surprised to learn she had a social work degree, she notes that they often came to see it as one of her strengths, and she credits it for her success as a manager.

In her role as the assistant operations manager for the medical marijuana dispensary goodblend, Samantha Buffoni (MSW ’19) uses skills in advocacy, leadership, and critical reading of empirical research that she learned in her degree program daily. Still, she finds that others almost always are shocked to learn of her educational background.

“We all know that social workers have been viewed as caseworkers and therapists or community organizers for decades—we have been put in a box,” she says. “But we also know that [the Pitt MSW program] gives us the tools to become powerhouses.”Samantha Buffoni

Buffoni is proud to be putting her skills to good use in advocating for an industry that she says has helped more than half a million patients and caregivers since medical marijuana became legal in Pennsylvania in 2016. “Advocacy has been a huge part of my role in this industry,” she says, “from educating patients to advancing employee-related concerns among our workforce to promoting knowledge of the scientific evidence supporting this plant.”

The interpersonal skills that are so integral to social work practice are similarly quite useful in other fields. Robyn Lawler (MSW ’10), who is the assistant director of Hillel at Pennsylvania State University, notes that she uses those skills and others she acquired in her master’s program daily in her interactions with fellow staff members, with students, and with others across the university community. Hillel is a nonprofit campus organization that works with college students on more than 500 campuses worldwide, and the Penn State Hillel works with an estimated 4,000 Jewish students at the school. As assistant director, Lawler oversees student life programming and works to encourage Jewish leadership across the campus in addition to maintaining partnerships and collaborating with other campus organizations.

“Much of my role requires me to listen actively to students, staff, and stakeholders and apply pastoral care when dealing with difficult circumstances,” she says, adding that her Pitt Social Work education “also prepared me for grant writing, referring, and practicing effective conflict management.”

Lawler says that while some people have been surprised to find a social worker at Hillel, she has found a social work degree to be highly desirable in her line of work and has even inspired several student interns to pursue a graduate degree in social work.

A degree in social work can be a natural fit with a degree or career in a related field; indeed, the Pitt Social Work MSW program has grown over the years to formally include several dual-degree programs.

Jessica Cohen (BASW ’17) found that much of the “big picture” focus of her course work meshed well with that of public health. As a program manager at the Association of Material & Child Health Programs, a professional public health membership organization, Cohen leans into her training as she analyzes and advocates for public health policies.

“My social work education infused health equity and social justice principles into my thinking,” she says, and both areas “remain strong pillars of my current public health work.”

Gretchen Benner (MSW ’11) came to Pitt Social Work with an undergraduate degree in music from Duquesne University and combined her two degrees in a career as a music therapist. In 2013, she founded Piedmont Music Therapy, an organization that provides musical instruction and music therapy and now has four therapists on staff. Like social workers, music therapists can be found in settings such as schools, hospitals, and clinics, though Benner has found that people are more familiar with the role of a social worker.

“My degree in social work helped my counseling skills and taught me about models of service delivery,” she says. “It helped me learn about community systems and obstacles that individuals and groups overcome with resiliency and perseverance.”

Beatrice Lors-Rousseau (MSW ’13) earned a master’s degree in public health from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health concurrently with her social work degree, and she finds that her educational background in both informs her work as a grant maker for a private philanthropic organization and helps to reassure some of the nonprofit leaders she works with.

“The leadership at many grantee organizations often have at least one social worker, particularly for those providing direct services, so grantees are often pleased to know that there is a social worker who truly understands their work and serves as an advocate for them in the grants decision-making process,” she says.

Prior to her current role, Lors-Rousseau was a licensed public health social worker for various nonprofit and governmental organizations, work that she says makes her current job easy “in terms of helping others understand how this career in philanthropy aligns with the tenets and values of social work.”

Law and social work are less-common bedfellows, but Jeffrey Fromknecht (MSW ’07) is making the combination work. He is CEO of Side Project Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization that serves as an incubator and developer of grassroots projects that seek to promote social justice and social change. He also serves as managing attorney of Lawyers for Nonprofits, an offshoot of Side Project that specializes in helping small and start-up nonprofits. He notes that Side Project focuses on community organizing and uses a strategy he first learned in a course with Tracey Soska, now an emeritus faculty member at Pitt Social Work.

Fromknecht says that many people are surprised to hear that he’s a lawyer with a social work degree, but “I often hear that they wish more lawyers had a social work background.”

These Pitt Social Work alumni show that it’s possible to achieve success in many fields with a social work degree and that a course of study does not have to
be limiting when it comes to pursuing
a career.

“It’s easy to wonder if you chose the right major,” says Cohen, “but there is so much you can do with social work, and you don’t need to know exactly how you want to apply your degree while you’re doing your course work.”

Lors-Rousseau concurs: “Don’t be afraid to rewrite the narrative of what social workers can do; we are multifaceted.” Beatrice Lors-Rousseau