After spending a decade working on Wall Street as a money broker, I began the Master of Social Work program at Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare in the fall of 1990. This career change seemed to make sense at the time. I wanted a career that would not only be personally fulfilling but also give me better work-life balance so that I would have the flexibility to raise a family.
I embraced my social work education by attending school full time and had the good fortune of being assigned field placements that were both challenging and clinically rich experiences. My first placement, at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, involved working with adults in a locked, long-term ward with the goal of preparing the clients for discharge into adult-home settings. My second-year placement was at the Pederson-Krag Center, an outpatient mental health clinic that had a professional training program for social workers, nurse practitioners and clinical psychologists. We led counseling sessions for groups and individuals, performed intakes and assessments, and gained supervisory experience in each of those modalities as well as peer supervision and case conferencing.
This was the gold standard of clinical internships and prepared me well for future assignments. My internships also reinforced the value of good supervision and professional development throughout the course of one’s career. Meanwhile, classes were much more theoretical and augmented my hands-on experience.
My first job out of school was as the director of a case-management program for older adults with Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, which is a large multi-service agency that would consume me for the next 22 years. In the early years, I also worked evenings as a clinician in various mental health clinics and had a private practice. No doubt, much of the juggling was out of financial necessity since social workers are not well-paid. While I never quite achieved the work-life balance that was my original motivation, my hard work and cumulative experience in the clinical and administrative fields were well-rewarded. In 2004, I started my doctoral studies and earned my Ph.D. in 2013.
I worked my way up the organizational ladder at Catholic Charities, taking on various assignments, working with different populations and then working in government relations and public policy. I worked as the agency’s chief operating officer until I became the executive director in 2013. Shortly thereafter, the De Blasio administration recruited me in 2014 to be the commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging, which is the mayoral agency that oversees services to approximately 1.5 million older New Yorkers. DFTA is also the largest U.S. area agency on aging, which were formally established under the Older Americans Act.
DFTA’s mission is to end ageism and improve the quality of life and ensure the dignity of older New Yorkers and their diverse family caregivers though policy, advocacy and education. We do this by providing services directly to seniors and through service contracts with more than 400 community-based organizations throughout the five boroughs. My tenure has been exciting and challenging and has given me the opportunity to do big and bold things to enhance the lives of older adults through numerous services and initiatives.
Having worked for most of my career at community-based organizations, I bring that perspective to DFTA. In many ways, our community organizations are our main constituency. My goal is to support the funding, training and the assistance necessary for them to provide excellent services to the city’s older adults.
My education at Stony Brook, internships and professional experience provided valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my career trajectory, and I’m pleased to share those lessons:
1. Pick your field placements wisely because they often set you on your career path.
2. Network all the time because relationships are important if you ever want to get anything done.
3. Set goals, make plans and work those plans. Revise as needed.
4. Dr. Esther Marcus, my clinical professor at Stony Brook, once told me to never give up a license. Good advice!
5. Stay current. Professional development and life-long learning keep you relevant and engaged.
6. Never settle. Too many social workers settle for low-paying jobs, unacceptable work conditions and positions in which they are not supported or valued. Only we can set new standards for our profession. We must value ourselves before we can expect society to value us in return.
7. Working with and on behalf of vulnerable people, sitting with them in their pain, is hard work. As Dean Frances Brisbane, Ph.D., said in her speech at our commencement ceremony: However hard it is, do it anyway!
8. Find other passions outside of work. They will sustain you when the going gets tough.
9. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. You don’t have to go it alone.