Rachel Mauden was in her 40s when she discovered her passion for social work. It happened while she was in one of the most intense environments imaginable: working at a 988 suicide prevention hotline.
“I never expected for a second that I would enjoy de-escalating callers and helping them navigate whatever their crisis was,” says Mauden, 46. “I really fell in love with helping them.”
While she worked at the hotline, she was also going to school, earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree online at the University of Nevada, Reno. Much of what she learned in class, she found, she could put directly into practice.
“The job and my degree melded perfectly together,” she says. “I realized that social work was my calling.”
Airplanes and RVs
Growing up in Monroe, Washington, Mauden’s first interest was airplanes. Her father worked at a nearby Boeing Co. plant, where he’d taken a job after leaving the U.S. Air Force.
When he wasn’t working, her father liked to pack up the kids and travel across the Western U.S. in a recreational vehicle. These experiences instilled a lifelong love of travel and the outdoors in his daughter.
As a result, Mauden was more attracted to activities like hiking and kayaking than to studying. So when she graduated from high school, rather than going to college, she decided to set out on a different path. She followed in her father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force.
The service satisfied Mauden’s hunger for travel, taking her to Alaska and Idaho, as well as to Afghanistan for a short tour. She spent four years in the Air Force, followed by 17 full-time years in the Idaho Air National Guard.
Through these experiences, she learned that she enjoyed helping other people. She assisted airmen by assigning them to the training programs they needed for specialized jobs. She also counseled them on Veterans Affairs education benefits and tuition assistance.
“I made it my goal to quickly learn what they needed and then take care of it, so they could focus on flying,” she says.
Transitioning to Social Work
In 2017, after being passed over for a promotion, Mauden decided she’d hit a glass ceiling at the Air National Guard. She retired from the service, without a plan for where civilian life would lead her.
Her first job leveraged her administrative skills. She worked for Jannus Inc., a Boise-based umbrella group for a variety of social service nonprofits. One was the Idaho Crisis and Suicide Hotline, where she eventually joined the staff.
“We were like paramedics for mental health,” says Mauden. “We would go to someone who’s in immediate crisis and we would kind of patch them up and get them into long-term care.”
She’s found working in crisis intervention satisfying in several ways, she says. “I never have an opportunity to get bored or get comfortable, because the next crisis is almost guaranteed to be completely and totally different. I like the instant feedback I get, realizing that at the end of the call they’re a lot calmer than when they started — and they’re still alive.”
Her co-workers, many of them social workers, reinforced her sense of having a new mission in life. Having already earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition a decade earlier, while serving, she decided to enroll in the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno.
From Classroom to Hotline
Mauden found several facets of the program appealing. Her instructors were all social workers themselves. She also saw many of the same students from class to class. They conducted joint research for projects and role-played counseling sessions via Zoom.
The school’s administration was welcoming. Its admissions office reviewed her transcripts and advised her she needed to complete a statistics class before applying. Its Veterans Services office handled the paperwork for her GI Bill benefits application.
The most exciting part was applying the new skills she was developing in the classroom to her work at the hotline. “There were basic attention skills, like empathetic listening,” she says. “We took a class on racism and oppression, and that really gave me insight as to what some of my callers were dealing with.”
She also valued the flexibility of studying online. “I had more control over my time,” she says. “I could come home from work, go to the gym, get dinner on the table and then settle in to do my schoolwork in my pajamas. If I had two or three days, I could look ahead and knock out two or three weeks’ worth of schoolwork.”
Have Degree, Will Travel
The online framework became even more useful when it was time for her final internship. Mauden and her husband rented out their house in Boise, bought a 40-foot RV, and moved to St. George, Utah, for eight months.
There, she worked with a mobile crisis outreach team. Instead of counseling people over the phone, she met with them in person, striving to de-escalate their situations and refer them to community programs.
She earned her MSW degree in December 2022. For the moment, Mauden expects to continue living in the RV, while exploring job opportunities around the country. She plans to get licensed in Idaho, knowing that her exam scores can be transferred to other states. “I’m leaving the door wide open for the next step,” she says.
To students considering an online MSW program, she offers two pieces of advice: Be good at time management and have an emotional commitment to social work.
“If you’re getting your MSW just because you want to get a degree, then you’re not going to be successful working with other people,” Mauden says. “You really, truly have to be passionate about what you’re doing.”
Explore the Many Dimensions of Social Work
The social work profession offers the satisfaction of helping people while also offering variety, both occupational and geographical. A program like the online Master of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno can equip students with the skills required to work with individuals, families and groups in need of therapeutic interventions and other forms of support.
Learn more about the program and how it can lead to a rewarding career, addressing social problems and making a difference in people’s lives.