Social workers are as diverse in background, characteristics and life experiences as the communities they serve. What does it take to thrive in the field of social work? According to Dr. Shadi Martin, director and the founding dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno, a social worker’s most important quality is compassion.
Having the leadership skills to serve a community’s neediest members without judgment is the foundation that elevates social work from a mere job to a true calling. In this interview, Dr. Martin explains how the University of Nevada, Reno School of Social Work’s focus on leadership prepares students for successful careers at the forefront of this vital profession.
Why do you think social work is one of the nation’s most crucial and fastest-growing professions?
Social work is growing very rapidly. We know that the demand for social workers is expected to increase by 16 percent in the next eight to 10 years. This is exciting, but it’s also a reflection of the complex problems we face locally, nationally and internationally. Social workers solve complex problems. They are uniquely equipped to tackle these complex problems because of their multidisciplinary education. Our multidisciplinary approach prepares students to understand problems from multiple perspectives and pursue creative approaches to solving these complex problems.
Though it probably differs by practice setting, what are some of the most common challenges you believe social workers face today?
Being a social worker is challenging, yet very rewarding. It reminds me of the old slogan for the Peace Corps, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” That’s how I think about social work. It takes a lot out of you, but it’s also enormously rewarding because of the difference we make in the lives of individuals through our micro practice, and the larger population through our macro policy practice.
If you’re up for the challenge, if you really desire to make a difference, social work is for you. While it is difficult, challenging work on many different levels, it is truly meaningful. You can talk to any social worker, and they’ll have numerous stories of great satisfaction when they helped turn someone’s life around. That’s what we’re here for — to really make a difference. And I think social workers have proven that they are change agents.
Over the years, the social work profession has gone through some soul searching about its goals and missions, particularly in higher education. Are we really in a business of creating radical systemic changes and developing change agents or are we simply training clinicians? In my opinion, we should be doing both.
The best social workers have one foot in the field and another in the world of policy, advocacy and research. While some schools are becoming more specialized, ours is staying true to social work’s generalist practice roots while recognizing the importance of offering some specialized training.
What trends do you foresee students might need to prepare for in the next five years? And do you see the field changing?
The vision that I brought to the University of Nevada, Reno School of Social Work is very much centered around leadership. I believe social workers are uniquely equipped to take on leadership roles because of our professional ethics. Social work is deeply value-laden. Every social worker understands that they make decisions based on their professional ethics. More than ever, health and social services organizations need leaders who are oriented by professional values. Social work values are universal: social justice, service, integrity, competence, human relations and dignity. These are the values that orient social workers in their decision-making, and that’s what makes them great leaders.
Social workers need to be present at the decision-making table. We represent the interests of our constituents by ensuring that decisions are made in alignment with social work values. That’s why our tagline for the University of Nevada, Reno School of Social Work is “Values-oriented Leaders”
Our mission and goals are oriented around making sure that our students graduate with the desire to take on leadership roles. They need to understand that they are the change agents; they will be the leaders.
Why is social justice so important for your social work program?
Social work is a helping profession. What sets us apart from other helping professions such as counseling or psychology is our focus on social justice. We’re not just helping individuals overcome the struggles in their lives; we’re looking for solutions that get to the root of the problem, helping individuals through systemic change. Our courses in policy and social justice train students to understand the root problem and to find radical solutions to systemic oppressions and injustices such as racism, sexism and classism.
How do you believe rural and urban settings benefit from having advanced generalist practitioners?
Ours is one of only two schools of social work in Nevada. There is a great need for social workers in our state, and we have a very diverse population. Being trained as an advanced generalist prepares our students for opportunities across the state, in rural and urban settings. Our graduates can tackle various issues facing their communities. They are prepared for any setting.
What do you think employers in rural and urban settings are looking for in social workers?
First and foremost, employers are looking for somebody who’s compassionate. We are there to care for people without judgment. I tell students the story of Buddha in the forest. He comes upon a little boy with an arrow in his leg. I ask my students, “What do you think Buddha does?” And they say, “Well, he takes the arrow out.” That’s exactly what Buddha does. I ask them, do you think he stops to find out who shot the boy and why? As social workers, when we come upon someone who is hurt, we help them regardless of who shot the arrow and why. We simply care for the child who is hurt — our job is to help the child. There is no judgment. In social work, we help everyone. We help those who have no one to help them, and that’s what makes social workers so special.
Social workers care without judgment. We have compassion for all people, regardless of their views or actions. Social work requires a commitment. You might even refer to it as a calling. You have to be a problem solver, a helper. If a student displays the ethics, compassion and values of the profession, they are prepared to succeed as a social worker.
If there’s one thing you want a potential student to know about this program, what would it be?
I want them to know this program is truly inclusive. It’s for everyone, no matter your background, no matter your politics, this program is for you. Students are coming into a profession that is value laden. Social work has its own set of ethics. This program is not designed to persuade anybody to be someone other than who they are. We teach everyone the professional values and ethics. You are who you are, but the moment you put on your social worker hat, you abide by the values of the profession. If students understand this, they are ready to serve our complex and diverse populations.
What courses or topics do you think students should be most excited about?
I loved teaching policy and research courses, and these were not always the courses that students looked forward to. When I teach policy courses, I explain to students, “As much satisfaction as you get out of helping one individual overcome life challenges, imagine how wonderful it would feel to apply that at the policy level to help a whole population in a community, city, state, in the country or in the world.”
In my research courses, students are shown how crucial research is to social work and what a positive impact it can have on people’s lives. Wonderful scholars like Deborah Padgett have written books about research in social work. I love teaching qualitative research — that was always my passion. It’s amazing how many students would take that course and say, “Wow, this is so in line with what we do in social work.” So much of qualitative research has to do with listening, with hearing people’s stories and understanding what is really happening in people’s lives that otherwise we may not have a window into.
I also love courses on oppression and social injustice. We talk about racism, sexism, classism, and how we can be change agents and help overcome these barriers. Social work is often thought of as a female-dominated profession, but this is actually a mischaracterization, as many of the leadership positions in social work are held by men. A more accurate description is that social work is female majority. Over 85 percent of social work students are women. One of the reasons I’m excited about promoting leadership within social work is that I hope it will translate into more female leaders in general and in social work in particular. If I can get my students excited about leadership, that will hopefully translate into more female leaders in the communities
Tell us about yourself and why you went into the field of social work.
I grew up at a time of revolution and a very bloody war in my home country of Iran. Those experiences as a child made me want to do something. I really wanted my life to have meaning. I wanted to do things that would make this world a better place, having seen some horrible things at a very young age.
I immigrated to this country with my parents, who basically sacrificed everything to see their children have a better life than they had. With that came a huge sense of obligation. I often say I had no choice but to succeed, and with that came many, many failures. I faced many obstacles in my life as an immigrant and someone who spoke English as a second language. But I had no choice but to overcome and try again and again.
You just have to keep going and not listen to those voices of negativity: “It’s not your time yet. You have to wait your turn, You’re not good enough.” I had my share of that. I’m sure we all do. It’s really important that as women we support other women, we encourage each other.
Building that confidence is a huge part of something that I want to incorporate in our education here. We are promoting women in leadership, so we need to talk honestly about the obstacles women face, from balancing family with a profession to just plain sexism. Our courses tackle these issues. I want our students to truly understand the obstacles but also the opportunities.
My educational background is one-of-a-kind. I have six different college degrees. Most of them I earned before I ever got into social work. My last two degrees were my Master of Social Work and my Ph.D. in social work. One of my first jobs after graduating was with the World Health Organization. I also worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the development arena.
In my development work, I came to realize I worked with people from many disciplines who each looked at problems from the narrow perspective of their own discipline. Sometimes it was really hard to solve complex human problems because we all saw it from our own perspective: Political scientists looked at it from a political perspective, medical doctors looked at it from a medical perspective and legal professionals looked at the policy implications.
I got excited about social work because it brought all these disciplines together. That’s the multidisciplinary aspect of our profession, and our true strength. To solve the complex problems that I encountered in my work with the U.N., we need a profession that unites the disciplines. That’s why I pursued my Ph.D. in social work. The multidisciplinary aspect of social work education is the key in solving complex societal problems and it is something that needs to be recognized. I would love to see more social workers recruited and hired by international development agencies.
What kind of advice might you give a potential student to be successful in the program and in the field after graduation?
Come in with an open mind and open heart, and don’t be intimidated by the challenges along the way. Social work education is challenging — it is a demanding program, but at every step you will see the reward: in your coursework and in the work you do after graduation.
Get to know your professors. They’re your advisers. They’re there to inspire you, to share their stories about the challenges that they’ve had. Beyond the classroom, reach out to professors, to the director, to me. I love to share my story with students, to offer them advice. We owe you an education worthy of your time, commitment and investment. Use all the resources you have at hand. I want students to feel a connection to the school, whether they attend online or on campus.
What are some of your current research initiatives, and how have they influenced the coursework?
My research background is around medical social work. A lot of my work has to do with health disparities. In particular, I focus on the health of older immigrants. That has a lot to do with my experiences growing up during the war and revolution and migrating to the U.S. with my aging parents and wanting to do something to make a difference.
Given the aging population, it’s important that social workers be aware of the challenges that come with serving that population. Medical social work provides both physical and mental health care services to patients, and this is an important role. Training our students to tackle some of the challenges that come with these roles is increasingly important. I am exploring the option of offering students some specialized training in gerontology, mental health, child welfare and school social work to ensure that our students are well prepared for the specialized demands of the workforce.
The focus on offering specialized training is driven by the needs of the communities we serve. I’ve been doing a lot of listening. I meet with our community partners regularly to understand better what their needs are. I have established a community advisory board that has been instrumental in helping the school respond effectively to the needs of the communities our students serve. That’s how we make sure our students have the skills and training required for the social work jobs that are in greatest demand.
What is the most significant book you’ve ever read in regard to the field?
There are so many different books. But to me, the book that was most significant is The Daughter of Persia by Sattareh Farman Farmaian. She was the woman who opened the first school of social work in Iran. In fact, at the time she opened the school, there was not even a term for social work, so she had to coin the term in Farsi, which is madadkar. Her education was in the U.S., and I see some parallels between her life and mine. She actually happened to be a distant cousin of mine. It was inspiring to read her story and how she went back to Iran to promote the profession of social work, to establish the first school and fight for women’s rights. Her book has always felt personally inspiring to me.
Right now I’m reading a book by Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, which I recommend. Another book I often recommend to students is called The Element, by Ken Robinson, which is not about social work specifically but is wonderful for anyone who’s trying to figure out what their passion is, what they want to do with their life. It was recommended to me by Cindy Blackstock, one of my favorite colleagues at McGill University in Canada, which is where I taught before I came to the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Blackstock is truly an inspiring leader in social work who has fought tirelessly on behalf of indigenous children in Canada for many years. She often talks about moral courage, which she invites social workers to demonstrate in their leadership. I think finding moral courage is more important than ever.
There’s another really great book, International Social Work, by Lynne Healey that was revolutionary for me. She invited social workers to think about social work beyond the domestic borders and look to its application at the global level. That we as social workers should not only be concerned about overcoming injustices within our communities, cities and country, but worldwide. This brings issues such as the environment, globalization and immigration into the direct purview of social work.
Is there anything else that you’d like anyone to know?
I’m truly excited about the new mission and vision of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Social Work. This has been a remarkable year for our school and the university. I am thrilled to say that the School of Social Work will become and independent unit as of July 1, 2019. This is a remarkable achievement, and I am very proud to serve as the founding dean of the school. University of Nevada, Reno received the prestigious Carnegie Research 1 (R1) designation this year. This is the highest research designation that any university can achieve. I am very proud to be a part of this wonderful university and school, and invite you to join our mission of advancing social work leadership.
The Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno, is structured to help prepare graduates for work in a variety of situations and settings. Whether they choose to work for a private practice, nonprofit or community organization, graduates are prepared to make a difference across multiple disciplines. Learn how the University of Nevada, Reno online Master of Social Work program can help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills necessary for professional growth and leadership in social work.