Big Solutions Come from Big Ideas: A conversation with Goutham Menon

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Goutham Menon has turned his obsession with using technology to fix problems into a decades-long career. On the vanguard of technological development in the 1990s, he was among the first people in higher education to consider the Internet’s potential to revolutionize education.

Menon has nearly three decades of experience as a social worker, educator and technological thought leader. Here, he discusses how the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work (MSW) can help prepare prospective social workers for the challenges facing the industry, and he talks about some of the projects he is most excited to develop and implement in the coming years.

Why do you think social work is one of the nation’s most crucial and fastest-growing professions?
I think it’s because there are too many problems that still need solutions. We are one of the only professions that looks at issues holistically. It’s not just the person or their psychology or whatever, but we look at the environment, we look at the systems they are in, whether it is structural with regards to organizations, politics, policy, those types of things. So I think there is an interest among students to tackle those types of issues. Some of us call these wicked problems because they are problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because there are so many different or contradictory variable that need to be taken into account to solve them. For example, poverty. One of the main focuses in our profession is to alleviate poverty. And we’ve had the War on Poverty since the ‘60s, and we have not made any dent in it. I think students are gravitating toward those types of challenges in terms of trying to find solutions that can create a better world. So I think there is an interest in that way.

What are some of the most common challenges that social workers face today, considering that they may differ by practice setting?
Is it more to do with the organization, or just the general issue of social work? If a student wants to do social work and talks to his parents or his family about it, one of the things that typically they’re advised is that this is a low-paying job. There is a lot of negativity related to the profession. For example, social workers are awful in the news either because they have taken children away from families, or if something happens and they didn’t take the child away from the family — either way, you get to be blamed. But at that particular moment, they are trying to make the right decision to protect that particular child analyzing the realities facing the worker at that particular moment. People don’t realize that. So there are a lot of negativities related to the understanding of what exactly our purpose is in the organizations and communities that we serve. So I think that is a major challenge some people face in terms of getting over that.

I had a moment when I was growing up when I told my granddad that I wanted to do social work and work with the mentally ill, and he said, “Don’t do that, because you’ll become mentally ill.” It’s those types of misconceptions and beliefs that exist in society that create problems for people in terms of what they actually want to do and what is in their heart. They really want to help people and solve problems — that is what they want to do. I would say that would be one of the major issues that kids face with regards to making decisions. Apart from that, yes, the salaries are pretty low, but it is improving, and we are trying to change that through certain policy changes that we are trying to make system-wide so that people are recognized for the work they do. I think there’s also the issue of, this is a profession that is very difficult to just be an 8 to 5 job. You do take issues home with you in terms of seeing a major problem or seeing a difficult client, and that’s always playing in your mind. So if you’re not careful with self-care and those types of things, it could really wear you out. But then we do train people on how to keep aside time to yourself once a week to refresh and recharge and come back to face the next day. So it basically comes under the umbrella of self-care and those types of things.

In your opinion, what does it take to be an effective social worker? What skills, knowledge and temperament does somebody need?
I think the first need for any individual to get into this profession is to have a sense of kindness and humbleness within themselves. Once you have that, then the rest of it we can teach. We can teach how to build rapport, how to talk to clients, how to write grants. But the actual temperament in terms of who you are as a person is where you begin. You need to be a humble and kind individual who is concerned about people, who is concerned about what others are facing, and be ready to stand up for them. You’re standing up for people who do not have a voice to stand up for themselves, who do not have the opportunities to stand up for themselves, so we are there to help them stand up for themselves. I think they have to be grounded in that. If somebody is grounded in the belief that, yes, we can help someone regardless of what happens to them, the rest of the skills and knowledge we can take care of through our courses and through our field settings and field practice. I would say a lot of it is to do with the heart. But then you also need to have an analytical mind so your heart doesn’t run away from you. You have to make decisions, but those have to be very analytical decisions and sort of overcome what your heart is telling you. So you try to find balance and then know what to do.

What goals might students have after they earn their MSW?
I always say the sky’s the limit. Currently at the pinnacle, we have two senators and seven House of Representatives social workers who are in Congress. But it’s up to the individual. I mean, if there is a person who really wants to change systems and policies, we have avenues for that. They can really do well in those areas — run for office and change from within. Others who are good with conversations, building rapport, they can create their own organizations in a passionate area that they have to work in. There are so many opportunities that they can have access to once they have the MSW. And they’re more holistic in their approach to solving problems, so I don’t see any limit — just what is in their mind and the creativity they have in creating a path for themselves.

What trends do you think students need to prepare for in the next five years within the field, and how do you foresee the field changing?
Like in many settings — whether you’re looking at academy, university, agencies, nonprofits — one of the things that students will face in the next five to 10 years is more cuts in funding from federal government and state government sources. They will be more dependent on public philanthropy. The U.S. is the leader in the amount of money people donate to causes. And when you put both those things together, students really need to be prepared to be entrepreneurial, need to be creative, need to come up with very creative ways of finding the sources to meet their agencies’ and their clients’ needs. This could be social entrepreneurship; it could be developing businesses within nonprofits which will employ their own clients. There’s a whole variety of things that they really need to be ready to do and be less reliant on any sort of steady stream of funding coming from government sources.

And that is the challenge. Because right now, everybody’s so used to, “Oh yeah, this grant comes out, we’ll write it and we’ll get some money.” I was at a meeting yesterday — we had a proposal from an agency that said, “Our operating budget, we have to raise $700,000 every year to take care of these 40 kids who are in the shelter every day.” And my thought is, imagine the effort that you have to put in if that is your business plan. If you have to raise $700,000 every year for the rest of your life, you are wasting a lot of time. Is there a way for you to creatively start something using those kids who are there, those adolescents who are there transitionally, the youths who are there, which can find them meaningful jobs at the same time you’re bringing revenue to your organization? In the next five to 10 years, those things are really going to change with regards to how we fund our own needs, our own programs, and take care of people.

It seems as though a key thing throughout competitor programs is the idea that students learn evidence-based practice. So what does this look like in the University of Nevada, Reno’s program?
Most of the curriculum — I’d say all of the curriculum — is based on readings, articles, anything connected which has empirical data or studies done in the various subjects that are taught. That move came around maybe five, 10 years ago, that in all of our work — not just in social work but in psychology and psychiatry and everything else — we need to have evidence on the practice that we are doing. And because of that emphasis, there are a lot of studies which have come out where very rigorous analysis has been done on experimental groups and control groups to really study the types of treatment modalities that will help a particular type of issue or problem.

For example, if you look at schizophrenia, you know that psychosocial rehab is pretty good with that particular population. There have been studies done in that. So then we do introduce that in some shape or form within our curriculum. All the material that we cover has to be linked back to research and data. There’s no anecdotal, “Oh yeah, I think this is going to work.” You don’t want that. You want something that is based on empirical studies, federally funded grant studies, and so on, so that the students are more confident when they get into the field. We know that this particular treatment modality works. If you look at cognitive behavioral therapies, most of them are empirically validated. It works for these different types of populations. And for each different type of population, there might have been certain modifications that were done to really make it effective for that specific population. So we tried to cover the gamut of that whole range of options, which are empirically based.

What courses or topics do you think the students will be most excited about in the curriculum?
For me, at least, I’m more of a macro social worker, so I have a bias to that. But my most interesting classes have always been policy-related classes. Our student body is as diverse as it can come, so we do have very liberal students and very conservative students. And of course you throw policy in there … it’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen after that. Each one will have their perspective, worldview or what their families told them about certain things, and that shapes the discussion. “I don’t agree with this, or I don’t agree with food stamps, or the poor are like this …” and then the liberal students will say, “Hey, structurally, there are no jobs for these people …” You have this intense debate that happens, and then your role as faculty is to bring in the facts and say, “Look at this research. This is what this does, or this is what that does,” and get people to come to a consensus agreement on what is good for that client or community. So I find policy classes to be the most exciting, because you can never plan for it. My first 15 minutes of class is current events, so I bring a headline from the New York Times or something like that and throw it to the class so they can talk about it. It creates a sense that they are in touch with current events across the country or across the world. And then we start the regular class. I always enjoy it. You can never expect what will happen.

What do you think employers in rural and urban settings are looking for in social workers today?
I think a couple of things. One is that it is pretty common that social workers within the first two years of their employment as beginning social workers would get into supervisory roles. And that is a given, in terms of the amount of turnover within certain organizations and so on, so you do go up the ranks pretty fast. But what happens with that is that you do need to have those skills. You do need to have supervision skills, you need to have grant-writing skills, you need to know the lay of the land of organizations and so on. The other side of it is licensing. Employers would look for somebody with a license, especially at the LCSW level, which is around two to three years after you get your master’s, because the LCSWs are eligible to draw down money through billing, take care of whatever the services are — insurance and things like that. So that is the revenue stream for an organization. So employers would definitely look for somebody who is interested in getting a license and continuing on with the job in the organization, because that becomes a secondary revenue stream for the organization. I would say those two would be the main things employers would be looking for in social workers.

If there’s one thing you want a potential student to know about this program, what would that be?
I would say the quality the faculty. They are all experts in their own fields. They are very caring. They are very open to understanding student issues. The students will get a very strong, quality program because of the expertise the faculty have. All of them are competent researchers who are constantly doing research and bringing that research back into the classroom to teach the students. Faculty are very much professionally engaged — they know what is happening in the field, they know what is happening in organizations. Students do get that real-world experience of hearing from expertise that the faculty bring into the classroom.

I think unlike other programs, the way the online program is structured — there are about 16 courses that are offered in the two-year program. And there are about 16 faculty members. Each course is led by full-time faculty, which doesn’t happen in many other programs. In many programs, many faculty will not teach in the online program. They’re always doing the on-the-ground program. At the University of Nevada, Reno it’s important to work with faculty to make sure that everybody is responsible for one course in the curriculum. So they do get that attention of expertise of that course. There are multiple sections with facilitators in those sections, but they will be under the guidance of a full-time faculty member of the program.

What advice might you give to a potential student to be successful in this program and in the field after they graduate?
The main advice I would give is to stay focused. You need to have a goal. You need to have a goal of what you really want to do. I meet a lot of students, and I always have some fun with them, because whenever you ask a social worker student, “Why are you in social work?” they always come up with, “I like to help people.” My thing is, that is not enough. You need to have a larger purpose. You need to think about, “OK, I want to alleviate this issue,” or “I want to make sure that there is no poverty in my community.” It has to be a bigger purpose than “I want to help someone.” Once you have a much loftier goal, then you start working toward that.

You will easily meet your low-level need of helping people. Very easily. Within the first two months of your work you will get there. Then you’re going to get bored. You need to have a higher purpose. What is it that you really want to achieve? “I would like to change the life of veterans in this country.” OK, now how do you go about doing that? They need to start thinking big. They need to have big ideas. Big solutions come from big ideas. Once they have that way of thinking in place, the students will be more focused in getting there — rather than just, “I want an A in my class.” Try to push yourself to think big, think outside the box, think in ways that it has never been done before — and why has it not been done before? Let’s try to do it different. So that is my main advice I gave during my orientation when students came into campus for social work. “You folks need to think big.” I mean, there are so many problems that we need to solve. We can’t just be about just helping people. It has to be bigger than that.

And what would you tell them after graduation? Would you tell them something similar?
Same thing. They need to go for their passion. They need to go and get things done. I always tell them it’s not a job. You need to look at a career. You need to look at how you can climb every two years. Have I climbed? For example, once I recruited a faculty member, and I was having breakfast with her, and one of the first things I asked her was — she was already employed at a different place, “Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?” And there was this long pause, and she said “Nobody’s asked me that question before.” You need to know where you’re going to go 10 years from now, 15 years from now. You need to have a long-range goal, and that’s what I tell my students when they graduate: You need to go out there and change things and have a vision of where you want to be five, 10 years from now. Getting a job is very easy. But you get very bored very fast just doing the same thing over and over again. How do you push yourself to grow and be a thought leader in the field? “This is my expertise, this is what I do, and I do it well.” Hopefully, some of them, it gets into them.

Do you have questions? Learn more about your role in social work’s future with the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program today. The School of Social Work at University of Nevada, Reno has a long history of educating Nevada’s social workers and professionals in the United States. Its focus is to educate, advocate, and empower.