Fairly recently, I found out that I was accepted into the University of Cincinnati's Master of Social Work program. Needless to say, I'm over the moon about my decision to further my education and am grateful for the opportunity to do so. This doesn't mean I'm going to stop being a photographer. I am a visual storyteller, it's an integral part of me that I will never be able to get rid of. This decision to go back to school is just one step closer to the direction I wanted to go with my career. Honestly, I've never felt more at peace with a decision.
I decided to post my "personal statement" (slightly edited) that I submitted with my application to the program, because I've been getting so many questions about why I would do this. I thought that the best way to answer this is, to share the words that got me into the program to begin with:
When I was in college, I consistently kept a journal to write down my thoughts, ideas, and goals. After looking through those journals, I notice a phrase I scribbled constantly: “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience - Colossians 3:12-14”. I think I wrote it down so often as a reminder to always have a soft heart, full of love, with whatever I do. I majored in photojournalism in college, because I wanted my photos to make a positive difference. My experiences as a photojournalist, led me to the decision to pursue a career in social work because I want to continue down the path of making an impactful difference in the lives of others.
A few particular experiences stick out as the sparks that lit the fire to pursue a career in social work. One was when I was working on a group project with two other photojournalism students. Each group had to pick a theme to base their project around. My group chose poverty; 31.5 % of people living in Athens County, Ohio live in poverty as opposed to the 13.5% that live in poverty in the United States. The extreme poverty was something that we had all noticed while living in Athens, and it was a story we wanted to explore; if only, to bring awareness to the issue. We connected to a family who was an example of the type of poverty many were living in Athens County. The family lived in a small trailer without running water. One of the first things that happened when we got to the trailer was one of the daughters, a little 6 year old named Hayley bounced up to me and said, “Do you want to see my room?” For me, that was one of the most important parts of the story, to tell it through the eyes of the children. Her room was in the back of the trailer and it was simply a dirty mattress with no sheets or blankets, that she shared with her 2 sisters. She showed me her favorite toy which was a broken umbrella. It broke my heart, but the only thing I could do was play with her and listen to her as she told me about her life. I remember she was very interested in the camera that hung around my neck, so I taught her how to use it and she took a picture of me that I still treasure today. Right before I left, she picked 3 tiny little pebbles off the ground and said, “keep these with you forever to remember me.” I wouldn’t need the pebbles to remember her, but I still have them. It amazed me how positive this little girl could be, even without knowing whether she would be able to eat dinner that night, or when she would be able to take a bath again. I thought to myself, “This little girl could move mountains if she was given the opportunity.” She was so creative and shone like a little light in the bleak environment she lived in. That experience forced me to think about my own childhood, one full of comfort and love. One where I didn’t have to think about if I would eat dinner that night. One where I could climb into a soft bed to sleep in every night. One where I could dare to dream to be anything I possibly wanted to be. I just wondered what little Hayley could do if she was given the same opportunities I was given, if her family had been more financially secure. I hope that she is still thriving in spite of it all, and I hope that she keeps that wild, imaginative spirit. Hayley inspired me to pursue a career where I can more directly help children like her and make sure that their sparkle never dulls.
Another experience that led me to the decision to pursue a career in social work was when I produced a short documentary for a video class I had to take in college. I had been fascinated with PTSD, especially in war veterans; partly because my grandfather was a Purple Heart recipient and veteran of WWII. Near the end of his life, my grandfather would have flash backs to being taken prisoner by the Nazis. As a senior in high school at the time, the only thing I could do was hold his hand as he cried. When I got to college and started studying photojournalism and storytelling, I thought, “What if my grandfather had told his story? Would his PTSD have been better if he had been able to talk about the demons that haunted him?” Thus, I began searching for ledes to veterans willing to tell their stories for my video class. I knew that I couldn’t help my grandfather, but it somehow felt like if I could help other veterans, I would be honoring my grandfather’s memory. On my search for veterans willing to share their stories I met Karla. Karla was a veteran of the United States Coast Guard. Her story was not one of war and valor. She was suffering from severe PTSD from being raped multiple times while serving in the military. Karla’s story was not an isolated incident. Through research I discovered that in the year 2012, an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military and only 1 in 7 of those victims reported their attack. Karla contacted me and wanted to tell her story because she had never told anyone what happened to her before. I spent an entire semester with Karla, going to her house at least twice a week, sometimes to do filmed interviews and sometimes just to sit, listen, and cry with her. On the last day I spent with her before finals when I would be turning in my final project, she baked me chocolate chip cookies. I sat in her kitchen and watched, thinking about how it was such a blessing and a privilege that she would trust me with the story that shaped her life. Building a relationship with her is something that I will cherish forever. That human connection is what I seek in pursuing a degree in social work.
My goals in this career are to help people; to let them know that they are not alone and that their voices are heard. I hope to able to use my skills I have learned as a photojournalist to show compassion and empathy towards people and to use photography as a form of therapy for healing. Through my years at Ohio University, I noticed a pattern with every single one of my subjects: that telling their story and having their photo taken was healing to them. They all thanked me for the opportunity. It always seemed ironic that they were thanking me, because I felt like I was the one that should be thanking them, for placing so much trust in me. I think a large part of being a social worker is advocating for society’s oppressed and seeking to give them a voice and equal opportunity, which is a goal I seek to achieve. I have read about the VA in Palo Alto, California which has started a photo recovery workshop for veterans with various issues, such as trauma, PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. Participants in the program take photos that represent their path towards recovery and during the workshop explain in words what the photos mean to them. They have found that taking photos is another way for veterans to process their emotions and work towards recovery. The photos can act the catalyst towards facilitating a conversation about their trauma and experience leading to recovery. One of my career goals is to facilitate a program such as this, that leads people on a path to recovery. There is also a photographer named Wendy Ewald, whom I greatly admire. She started her career by teaching photography to young students in the Appalachia community, a community where 1/3 of families were living below the poverty line. She taught them that the camera can be a “tool of expression.” Her book Portraits and Dreams, features the work produced by the children, ages 6-14, from the years 1975-1982. In reading that book, I saw how honest and pure the work by the children was and it inspired me. What if more children were given a chance like this? A chance to tell their stories and have a voice. Another career goal I have is to work with children, possibly in a school setting. I believe that every child deserves a quality education and I would like to be a part of ensuring that for all children.
A particular challenging life experience that sticks with me, occurred the summer in between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My uncle is a man with a history of having a short temper. One day, he lost his temper on my grandmother, shoving her to the floor, leaving her with a broken wrist and a bloody nose. The next week, my mother was the victim of one of his fits of rage, leaving my mother covered in dark purple bruises. Seeing my own mother barley able to walk, with grotesque bruises covering her face was heart breaking, especially knowing that her own brother was the one that caused her this much pain. My mother reported the incident to the police, much to the distain of her siblings, who believed that if she just forgot about it, the family could move on. My mother wanted to see her brother get better and she knew that staying silent would do more harm than good. I went with my mother to court to tell her side of the story. The judge ordered therapy for my uncle so that he could begin the process of healing and silence whatever demon raged inside of him. This incident was a defining moment for me. It was the moment I think I really became an adult, because I suddenly saw how quickly everything can change. When my entire family stood behind my uncle and offered no support to my mother; that was when I really understood the culture of “victim blaming”. For me, that summer flipped my world upside down. When I went back to school in the fall for my sophomore year of college I suffered from panic attacks and nightmares. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face, paralyzed with fear. Photography became a therapy tool for me. I learned that by focusing on the details I captured in the frames, I could find a sense of peace in the world around me. I could learn to see the world as a place of beauty rather than a place of fear. I also took a journalism class that semester and chose to focus many of my projects on the issue of domestic violence. Talking about the issue and being able to research it detail was a soothing process for me. Although the incident is still something I think about from time to time, I have to say that I don’t feel the all consuming fear I once felt. Nelson Mandela once wrote in a letter to his daughter, “There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into personal triumphs if you have the iron will and necessary skills.” That incident inspired me to want to pursue a career in social work, so that I could help other victims and families turn their own lives around after their own misfortunes.
I think that one of my biggest strengths that will make me a successful social worker is my passion for people. During my undergraduate career, many of my photojournalism classmates would make comments about how easily I seemed to connect with my subjects and how quick they were to trust me. I always pursued projects with the intent of helping someone tell their story. It was never about gaining a perfect grade, but about forming vital human connections. One of the other personal strengths I have is my ability to cooperate with others. This seems like a fairly basic life skill, but during college, I was a member of the Ohio University Women’s Crew team where cooperation with others took on a whole new meaning. In rowing, all 8 rowers must row in complete synchronicity, united together to achieve the common goal of crossing the finish line. I could probably write an entire book about how that experience shaped me, but by far the most important thing it did for me was make me realize the importance of human connection. I hope to carry that same compassion, harmony, and magic I learned in the boat into my career as a social worker.