CAREERS IN SOCIAL WORK 3: Kathleen Chiarantona (MS’12)

Kathleen CiarontaraThe following interview with Kathleen Chiarantona (MS'12) is the third in a series of posts on social work careers, which we hope will be of use to CUSSW graduates who are still job hunting or else are looking to tweak their career paths. We invite you to leave your comments under each interview. Suggestions for future posts? Please send to swcommunications@columbia.edu.

Hi, Kathleen. Before we go into questions about your career, I’d like to hear a little more about you. When did you know you wanted to be a social worker?
I grew up living around the world and felt grateful and indebted for the freedoms and privileges I experienced as an American expatriate. I took an ROTC scholarship as an undergrad with the thought that I would begin on a path that ended in working for a federal government agency in a foreign policy/political affairs capacity. While in college, I took a class that required 10 hours per week of volunteer work, which I chose to conduct at a domestic violence emergency shelter. I found myself drawn to this line of work. It made me recognize the importance of strong families and relationships, as demonstrated by my own family and the gratitude I owe for the positive influence they've had on my life. My experience in the military only strengthened my social work calling as overseeing personnel and ensuring they are taken care of involves a lot of unofficial social work. Once I’d fulfilled my military commitment, I applied to and was enrolled at CUSSW.

What made you choose CUSSW?
I was initially attracted to CUSSW because of its reputation in the social work community and its history as an institution, as well as the prospect of living and studying social work in New York City. Also appealing to me was the opportunity CUSSW provides to focus on specific methods and fields of practice. The other social work schools to which I applied offered a simple choice between macro vs. micro practice methods, and had fewer fields of practice.

What was your concentration at CUSSW?
My concentration was policy with a focus on schools and school-based services. I chose this method because of my interest in integrating social services and social/life skills education into the school system. I believe it is important to address children’s needs on a broad scale at an early age. By promoting healthy relationships and providing conflict resolution measures, we can improve the overall mental and emotional health of school-age children.

Did your field placements at CUSSW further your professional development in this area?
My First Year field placement was at the Urban Justice Center Domestic Violence Project, a law firm that provides legal assistance and representation to individuals who are victims or survivors of domestic violence who are involved in family law cases. My Second Year placement was at Turnaround for Children, an educational nonprofit that supports high-poverty, low-performing schools in fostering healthy, positive learning environments. Both opportunities convinced me of the need for healthy-relationship education and mental health services in American schools. I also learned about the current climate in the nation’s schools toward change of this kind, and where there may be opportunities for or barriers to integrating social services.

Have you ended up working in an area related to your studies?
I sought to join either the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services, as I wanted to work in the federal government and programs in both agencies cover school-based services. I ended up taking a job in HHS working for the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood program, which is situated in the Office of Family Assistance under the Administration for Children and Families. It's the only program to provide government funding in support of healthy relationship education for youth, a portion of which takes place in high schools. In fact, I'd already done some research on the program as it aligns very closely with my interests.

How did you find the job?
I applied and was selected as a finalist for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) Program. PMF lists job openings on its Web site. I saw the HHS posting for a Family Assistance Program Specialist and requested an interview. They arranged for me to be interviewed at the job fair PMF hosts for its finalists every year. (Once you get a job, you become a Fellow.)

What kind of knowledge and skillset does your current work require?
Accomplishing this kind of work requires:

  • general social work knowledge around serving the needs of client populations,
  • subject area knowledge of family dynamics and healthy relationships, 
  • at least basic knowledge/experience around program or project management and organizational leadership, and
  • knowledge about the regulations and processes that govern our federal grants.

Skills that I use every day include organization, time management, innovative thinking, independent decision making, teamwork and effective communications.

Can you give us an example of a project you have worked on at your current job?
I monitor 17 grantees (mostly consisting of nonprofit organizations) that are using grant funds to conduct programs encouraging healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood activities. Recently, I completed a project assisting one of the grantees with recruiting potential beneficiaries of its program, by building and carrying out an intensive technical assistance plan to refine their program design and outreach methods.

Overall, do you think the job is a good fit for a person of your background?
My skillsets and my interests are best suited to policy and program management work. In addition, I have a deep sense of patriotism for our country, which draws me to working within the federal government to support and advance programs that provide services to increase opportunity for the nation’s citizens.

What networks have you developed to support you in your work?
I believe that any network or connection is a positive one and can in some way be supportive no matter what line of work or area it falls under. This is especially true of social work because in essence we work with people—which makes any connection relevant in some way. I never network intentionally; instead I work hard at fostering relationships with individuals I meet in a variety of settings. When appropriate, I will ask my contacts about their interests and expertise. The most important aspect of networks are that they must be a two-way street—if you are eager to offer professional or networking help to others in need, you are more likely to gain those benefits in return. No matter how far removed it seems from my current occupation or project, I never consider any connection unhelpful, because time or setting can change that in an instant. That said, the network of supporters I rely on the most are the friends and individuals, including my colleagues, who share my values about the importance of social work and social welfare.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your area of work?
My best advice would be:

  • learn as much as possible about the field of work by staying current with recent research and strategies for service delivery;
  • become familiar with federal government operations, involvement in social welfare programs, and the factors that influence them; and
  • speak with one or several individuals who do work in this field to get a good picture of day-to-day work.

What was best part about your CUSSW experience?
The best part of my CUSSW experience was being able to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge and expertise possessed by faculty, staff, and administrators. CUSSW students study under leaders in the social work field, who are passionate and committed not only to teaching but also to working with students to achieve their goals and give them a solid foundation for social work practice. The support staff is readily available and eager to help provide students with guidance and administrative assistance whenever they need it. Whether through mentoring, advising, collaborating on research, or supporting student groups and events, the CUSSW team offers a student the opportunity for a unique and invaluable educational experience that will prepare them for any type of social work practice.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew while you were job searching?
Remember that deciding to take a position does not necessarily define the rest of your life; instead it gives you the opportunity to learn more about what type of work and work environment fits with your skills, interests, and personality. So if you don’t get it right the first time, keep on trying.

—Contributed by Sara Pellegrom, Intern, CUSSW Office of Career and Leadership Development and edited by ML Awanohara

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