Meet The Dean- UNR- School of Social Work

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Dr. Shadi Martin is the new dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno. Martin recently sat down for a question and answer session. Her edited remarks can be found below.

Please tell us about your background.

I’m originally from Iran, where I lived until I was about 12 years old. My family left following the 1979 revolution and Iran/Iraq war. In many ways it was those experiences of war that made me want to go into a helping profession, although at the time I had no idea what social work was. But I had a commitment and a desire to do something because I had seen so much suffering at such a young age that I felt that I needed to do my part to make this world a better place.

I went to Switzerland first and then ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is where I earned six degrees from the university. However, I really didn’t know what degree would prepare me for the kind of work I wanted to do, which was to help people in the Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the health field. I combined the various degrees to help me do that. I had all the degrees short of my social work degree and got a job with the United Nations. I went on to work for the World Health Organization and for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for some time.

At this point I still didn’t have a degree in social work, so my career really started in international development and not social work. In facing some really serious world problems while working for the United Nations, I noticed that I worked with a lot of colleagues from various disciplines. Some of them were physicians, some came from political science, anthropology, sociology — all different disciplines. And I struggled because I realized that each of us try to solve problems from the narrow perspective of our own discipline. So the health professionals saw things purely from a disease/illness perspective, political scientists looked at it in terms of the politics behind things, historians looked at the historical element and I realized that to really solve complex problems we need to bring all these disciplines together.

I believe one of the greatest benefits of social work is that it does exactly that. It’s a very multidisciplinary profession. It realizes that we are most effective when we bring disciplines together in solving problems. We often talk about social work as being about dealing with the person and environment because we don’t just look at the person as a field like psychology would do, but we look at all the elements, all the other areas of one’s life, whether it is family issues, issues around job, issues around politics, issues around oppression — all of those elements are things that social workers consider in solving problems. Unfortunately, there’s not a shortage of problems. We have problems that are growing and becoming more complicated. That’s why we need competent social workers to tackle these issues.

So after all the degrees I had I went back to University of Utah and I did my Ph.D. in Social Work, for those reasons that I just highlighted. But I realized that to be a social worker I needed an MSW. The MSW in my opinion was the heart of our profession to become a social worker. Therefore, while I was doing my Ph.D. I also obtained my MSW and that’s how I ended up with six degrees.

Please tell us about your vision for the School of Social Work.

The mission statement for the school was just approved by the faculty, and reads as follows. “The Mission of the School of Social Work at UNR is to educate, train and nurture competent, committed, compassionate and diverse social worker leaders” — leaders being the key word here — “who advance the social justice mission of social work through their leadership in research public policy, academics and clinical practice at local, national and global levels.”

I would highlight a few words. Diverse — we really value diversity in social work and we really want to have a workforce that is diverse. Social justice is the heart of our profession. Whenever somebody asks you: “What is the difference between social work and other similar helping professions like, let’s say, counseling or sociology?” I say it’s the social justice focus. We really are committed to solving problems at the systemic and global and macro level. We want to understand how systems can be changed to solve problems. We look at issues of oppression, discrimination, sexism, racism, all of those are at the heart of how we tackle problems in social work. And then the word leadership, which is really the component that I have truly wanted to promote in our new mission for social work because I truly believe that social workers are uniquely positioned to take on leadership positions in health and social services.

What makes the UNR program unique?

The vision statement for the University of Nevada, Reno is very much aligned with the School of Social Work vision and also highlights the notion of confident leaders. So, consistent with the university, our vision is to produce the next generation of leaders. And that’s very much what makes our master’s in social work unique — it has the focus on leadership.

Now you might say: “Why? Why the focus on social work and leadership? Why is the school putting that emphasis on leadership?” And I want to answer that first by telling you a little story that I read in one of my favorite books — it’s called Element. It talks about if you talk to a group of kindergartners in school and ask them: “How many of you think of yourself as being creative?” You will see every little hand go up. If you ask the same class: “How many of you imagine someday becoming the president?” Again, almost every little hand will go up. If you ask them: “How many of you see yourself as leaders?” Again, every hand goes up. As time goes by and this group of students gets older, then you ask the same questions. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer hands will go up, and those hands that don’t go up unfortunately tend to be increasingly women.

That tells me that somewhere along the way we are failing our students, even in the way that we are providing education. They are basically born with the desire for leadership, yet somewhere along the way we lose that confidence, that belief in ourselves. I truly believe in education. We have a responsibility to nurture that and to reignite that desire that we were born with and have lost somewhere along the way.

Can you talk about the role of female leaders in social work?

Interestingly enough, when we think about social work, 84% of our students tend to be women. We often think of our profession as a female-dominated profession.

But when you look closely, we’re actually not female-dominated, we are female-majority, which is very different, meaning that even though we are majority women, the leadership in social work still remains with men. In many contexts when you look at whether it is in health and social services or academia, the leadership positions are mostly with men, which is again interesting given that 84% of our students are women. That’s why we need to focus on leadership in our profession.

What makes social workers good leaders?

Social work values and the fact that we offer a multidisciplinary perspective are the two elements that make social workers uniquely prepared to take on leadership positions. When you think about great leaders, they don’t just have great leadership skills, whether that means budgeting and accounting and all those other management skills. But to truly be good leaders we want leaders to have values, ethics and principles and to make decisions based on those. What profession do you know that is more value-laden than social work? Every social worker knows you have a code of ethics that we all have to abide by. We prepare students who are very ethically oriented, and I think for that reason they are well positioned to be in leadership and should be in leadership positions.

In addition is the fact that we have a multidisciplinary perspective. For the reasons that I mentioned from my experience with working with the United Nations, the fact that we bring all these disciplines in trying to solve problems makes us uniquely well equipped to tackle complicated problems and take the lead in trying to solve those.

Is there a demand for leaders in social work?

There are plenty of leadership roles in health and social services. In fact, some people will argue there’s a crisis in leadership. There are more jobs that we cannot fill. But sadly, most of those jobs are not being filled by social workers, by people with an MSW, but they are being filled by people who have MBAs, MPAs or NPHs, which is sad given everything I talked about in terms of what makes social workers uniquely the ones who should be taking on these positions. Now, when these leadership positions are being filled by people other than social workers, it hurts the very communities that we’re trying to help.

So when I promote the idea of leadership in social work, it’s not just a self-serving thing, that I want more of our graduates to be leaders. I do, but I believe that they need to be at the decision-making table because by being there they will make decisions that will help the communities we’re trying to help. Because the fact that social workers have not been at the decision-making table has caused the services to be less and less aligned with the values of social work, which hurts our constituents. I truly believe that we have an obligation to take on the decision-making roles and leadership positions and be present at the table when these decisions are being made so we can advocate on behalf of the affected clients.

Social workers make up less than 1% of congressional representatives in both the House and Senate. Imagine if we could move that number up to 5%, to 10%, to 20%, how that would affect all the different policies that are made that affect the populations that we want to serve. My goal is to increase these numbers. My goal is to have our graduates graduate from this program with an understanding and with being nurtured and trained to be the next generation of leaders.

I truly believe that our graduates have the skills, the values, the knowledge and they will be nurtured to become the next leaders in our field. I’ve been very busy in trying to think about our curriculum to infuse much more of that leadership element into the courses so our students really begin to understand their roles in the profession.

How does diversity factor into the leadership situation?

The majority of the leadership positions are held by men — 63% are in fact white men. There are 24% women, but that is mostly white women. So when you look at the intersection of women and race and gender, the number of women of color who take on leadership positions is less than 5%. Again, these are the things that I’m passionate about. These are the things that I want to see changed. I want to see three things. I want to see more social workers at the leadership table. I want to see more female social workers at leadership table. I want to see more women of color at leadership table.

The situation isn’t that much better for men of color when it comes to leadership. My hope is that we can get more men of color also at the leadership position. We need to really begin to think of our profession as being about helping, being value-laden, multidisciplinary, but also deeply about leadership, and we need to begin to think of ourselves as leaders.

If a student is currently working as a social worker, can their employer count as their field placement?

There is a potential for you to do it with your current employer and you obviously have to meet all the parameters set for an outside social work department. Typically you have to be under a different department or a different manager, but you will start working very early on with your coordinator to be able to get that set up.

Does the online MSW give students an opportunity to virtually see the teacher as well as other students in the class?

Yes, we use Zoom, which allows you to set up instructor conferences. You will have lectures that will be recorded and you can view those, and there could be some live sessions via that Zoom conferencing as well that you could participate in. I think Zoom is a wonderful opportunity to have more of that personal connection, even though we are online.

Can you be specialized in the MSW program?

One of things I really like about our MSW is it is advanced generalist and, for the reasons we talked about earlier, advanced generalist is much more multidisciplinary rather than specialized because again, I do believe that it’s our multidisciplinary perspective that makes us a very strong discipline, so I think it makes you more marketable in terms of the jobs available for somebody who’s an advanced generalist. I think that’s one of the benefits of our program.

Can you discuss some of the career paths you can take with a master’s in social work?

In my own career I was very interested in aging and gerontology, so you can go any direction from focusing on child and family, youth, elderly. You can be a school social worker, you could work in hospitals and health care, which is a high-growth area. You could work in politics, research, academics, law enforcement, youth and family services — again, one of the greatest things about social work is that it’s so versatile.

You may encounter social workers in all walks of life. You could be in the hospital caring for an elderly grandparent and sit across from a social worker. You could have a child in school who may be having struggles that brings you to meet with a social worker. At those times I think we think, “Thank God for social workers” and “I hope that social workers got a really decent education, that they learned the right set of values and that they can best serve people.”

Often people find themselves across from a social worker at a time when they feel vulnerable, and that’s all the more reason that our profession is so value-laden — that we depend so much on our ethics and principles. Because people who are vulnerable can also be easily exploited, and that’s why we take it very seriously that people who come into social work truly adhere to the values of social work, so that when they find themselves with somebody who needs help, somebody who’s vulnerable, that they truly are able to help them with nothing else in mind but the best interest of their client.