First Stop Washington, DC, for an “Unstoppable” Career in Social Policy

December 18, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

Policy-track MSW students are a special breed. Not content to learn only direct-practice skills with clients, they spend a whole year immersed in data and policy analysis and the nuts and bolts of advocacy. And many of them dream of pursuing a career in Washington, DC, where they can put this unique blend of skills to work on advocating for change nationwide.

Earlier this year, two of our School’s policy faculty, Dean Irv Garfinkel and Professor John Robertson, traveled to the nation’s capital to meet up with about twenty of the School’s policy graduates who are now living that dream. Thanks to 2009 alumna Marisa Kirk-Epstein, who works as the associate director of research and policy analysis for Share Our Strength‘s No Kid Hungry campaign, the group was able to gather in a central location for some networking and conversation.

The occasion also provided a chance for Professors Garfinkel and Robertson to share their plans for enhancing the School’s policy concentration. At that time they revealed that they, too, have a dream—of providing all policy-track students with an opportunity to spend their entire second year in DC, doing both course and practicum work. Toward that end, they appealed to the alumni present to assist with expanding the number of promising practicum placements in the city.

Joining the group were two doctoral alumni of the School of Social Work: Jared Bernstein, who earned his Ph.D. in social welfare nearly 25 years ago, and Charles Lewis, who earned his social policy analysis in 2002. Drs. Lewis and Bernstein will be familiar to recent graduates of our School: Dr. Lewis served as graduation speaker in 2018 and Dr. Bernstein, in 2017.

Drs. Lewis and Bernstein said that they loved hearing about the dreams of the Columbia School of Social Work’s MSW graduates and faculty, as they would like nothing more than to see more social workers in Washington.

Dr. Lewis said he wishes more social workers would run for office. His organization, the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP), offers trainings for those with political aspirations.

Dr. Bernstein, who served as an economics advisor in two presidential administrations, said DC offers countless opportunities for social workers to make a difference. In particular, they stand to make a mark on organizations advocating for issues such as greater income equality; an end to power, privilege and discrimination; and reform of the criminal justice system.

“Bring on the troops!” he declared in an interview with CSSW’s communications team.

Most of the MSW graduates in attendance—along with one of our current online-campus students, who is enrolled in the reduced residency program—are working at U.S. government agencies and institutions like the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services or in think tanks and advocacy organizations such as the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Several of the alumni offered words of advice for current students considering the policy track. Rosenny Fenton (MSW’04) said the key to success is to work on your clinical listening skills from the first year and then get “really sharp” in the second with courses in statistics and economics.

By adding these hard skills, she continued, policy grads become “unstoppable.” They can lead teams, resolve conflicts, assess problems. build problem-solving tools, and essentially hold their own in high-level policy-making circles. “There’s nothing you can’t do,” she said. “Really!”

To learn more about the policy track and a second-year placement in DC, please contact Ericka M. Echavarria ( Dr. John Robertson (

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