Why I became a social worker
We asked our members why they became a social worker and here are some of the responses we received. If you would like to tell us your story, please send it in an email, with a photo, to the Bulletin Editor.
The easiest way for Gary Banks to answer the question of why he became a social worker was to talk about what makes the profession unique.
‘Put 50 social workers in a room and there exists core values and beliefs that underpin social work practice,’ he said.
‘Those common values include social justice, equity of opportunity, enabling the most disadvantaged, working within a systems-based philosophy, and the inherent dignity and rights of the individual and would see all 50 social workers in the room very quickly finding common ground and enthusiastically engaging with each other.’
Gary is a school social worker within the Victorian Department of Education and Training and has observed the bond between social workers around the world for 35 years.
‘I never cease to be amazed and appreciative of the great fortune I have had to choose social work as my chosen career, even though I have worked in leadership and management roles for many years,’ he said.
‘It is the principles that underpin social work that continue to direct my day-to-day practice and I hope the leadership I have provided to multi-disciplinary teams. We serve in a most honourable profession where the needs of the client are preeminent and central to what we hope for their future.’
Gary says it is the obligation and duty of social workers to pass the values that attracted them to the profession to those who follow. ‘Social workers achieve great things when our core values direct our work and lives.’
Annabelle Wyndham studied social work from 1966 to 1969 at the University of NSW when it was a new four-year course, rather than an add-on to an Arts degree.
‘It was an exciting time, with enthusiastic lecturers and the wonderful, inspiring Norma Parker as head of school,’ Annabelle said. ‘I was excited about it too, wanting to challenge my upbringing and the world arising from the new understandings I was gaining from women’s liberation and the anti-Vietnam War movements.’
While not endorsing these views, Annabelle said the course actively encouraged the students to think for themselves and critically evaluate social issues.
‘I loved this. I also appreciated the fact that the course taught us skills – we studied social work methods, case work, and group work and community development as separate subjects – which we could take into future employment.’
She said she ended up working in a wide variety of settings on social and personal issues briefly in England and in NSW and the ACT.
Amber sought social work as a career path after completing studies in society and culture at high school. She gained an interest in understanding the ways in which individuals and families operate within the greater systems in society and the barriers that can prevent people from achieving their potential.
Initially, her tertiary social work study interests were in child protection and family mediation but as she progressed through the learning curriculum, studying a broad range of courses in law, policy, welfare, youth, mental health, health and ageing, and community development, she says her interests expanded.
‘Social work as a profession is rich in diversity and offers many different rewarding careers. I experienced student placement in a non-government housing organisation and in a government hospital setting,’ said Amber.
‘I enjoyed the vast difference in practice between the settings and have come to realise there are endless opportunities of practice contexts to explore in my new career.’
Amber says it is satisfying to know as a new graduate that she can assist people from all walks of life, at all developmental stages, in a range of different practice contexts. Ultimately, developing flexible and adaptable skills to assist others is why she became a social worker.
Currently studying her Masters in Social Work through Charles Sturt University, Bessie Antone says she cannot see herself in any other profession.
‘I often think that there was not one motivation or desire that drew me to social work but many,’ Bessie said. ‘For me they include being able to promote and advocate awareness of injustices in our society through our professional standards and also working with people, families and communities to promote positive change and address inequalities through advocacy.’
Bessie is also drawn to social work because, she says, it is such a diverse and multiskilled profession. ‘There are so many differing roles and ways of practice but we are all united in our values and pursuit of social justice,’ she said.
‘I am particularly interested in child and adolescent mental health and counselling and plan, when I graduate, to work with children and families because I am interested in developing skills early in life to promote a positive future.’
Social work was not something that Diane Cass thought about when she was a teenager or young adult trying to work out what to do with her life. ‘I was a bit downtrodden and, truth be told, I probably needed something confrontational to start my adult work life.’
With very little conscious forethought, she said she chose to become a lawyer. ‘I was lucky that this worked well for me and I had a pretty good job for a while. Then my husband and I decided to start a family. Three children later we decided to move to Australia for a better life.’
Due to the very different judicial systems, Diane had to start her career all over again. ‘I lost a few years studying a variety of topics for interest without really focusing on any one subject. Then I read a short paragraph in a university prospectus about social work and I liked what I read.’
Diane said she spent some time scrolling around the AASW website and found it was full of interesting information. ‘I found more detailed descriptions about the role of social workers and realised that social work would be perfect for me.’
Once she started on the Master of Social Work course at Flinders University in South Australia, Diane said she realised the profession really suited her personality.
‘I would sometimes struggle with the hard and oftentimes unfriendly attitude that is necessary in law. Social work allows me to be myself and work in a field that complements me instead of working against my belief system.
‘Ultimately I feel that I became a social worker to reach my potential and be happy doing so.’
The answer to why Doris Testa became a social worker is embedded in her work as an educator. As a primary school principal, she says she was always interested in how student wellbeing influenced student achievement.
‘I knew that social work could provide the necessary theory and practice insights to strengthen and promote supportive student wellbeing structures that I and my staff wanted to implement in a school setting.’
‘This led inevitably to my completion of postgraduate studies in welfare and social work. Seventy-two social work students and twelve school-based community development and student wellbeing school-based programs later, I left the school to complete a PhD that focused on the contribution of social work to student wellbeing.’
The combination of education and social work has been enriching and continues to underpin Doris’s current work as a university lecturer and researcher.
Winifred George says she was born in a country where she knew nothing about social work. ‘But one thing I knew was I was a caring person. I grew up caring for people. In my early primary years, I was always looking after other children in my class,’ she said.
In her teenage years she continued taking care of her friends. ‘A friend disclosed that she was sexually abused by an adult male when she asked him for some food. My heart sank when I heard about it. I could not take it off my mind. Whenever I saw that adult I wanted to do something to him. I could not report it because no one cared. People blamed the young girl for going to meet him in his house. Where is social justice in some parts of the world?’
Winifred decided to share her food with that girl so that it would not happen to her again.
During her work, she supported families from slum areas. ‘One day I visited a family where a mum and her three children were starving to death. Mum had a five month old baby and could not breastfeed her because she had not eaten and could not produce milk,’ Winifred said. ‘The other two children were also starving as there was no food in the house. Baby was not only hungry but seriously sick. I entered the house and everyone was lying on the floor. Mum could barely speak, but took the courage to explain to me that the family was starving.’
She ran and got food and drinks for them. ‘I then took them to the hospital where they were treated. I informed the office of the situation and they provided some extra food for them. I felt so fulfilled that I was able to help this family.’
‘I decided to do social work because I wanted to continue to help people who are suffering in one way or the other.’
After being made redundant as an industry trainer for many years, Ron McComiskie was successful in securing a job as a social care officer working with the homeless in a night shelter.
He found the experience very humbling. ‘In my earlier years, I was always interested in justice and opportunity and felt very strongly about people being disadvantaged as a result of them being seen as different and being discriminated against,’ he said.
‘My work with the homeless gave me a great insight into to people most in need.’
Ron worked with clients experiencing a range of issues, such as drug and alcohol problems, domestic violence, mental illness and people subject to the criminal justices services.
‘I was astonished about how many individuals on the streets were developing a mental illness and this was not being identified as they were transient and not registered with a GP,’ Ron said. ‘This led me to undertaking training as a social worker.’
He is now a hard working, professionally accredited and registered social worker with 25 years’ experience and a background in mental health and criminal justice social work.
‘I’ve gained my experience in numerous settings, including working with the homeless in a night shelter and rehabilitation setting, psychiatric hospital, community mental health and public protection teams, prison environment, family care and Assessment and in school and community care settings,’ said Ron.
He is an AASW accredited social worker in Perth and a registered social worker with The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).
‘My current role is as a Service Manager for Mental Health Recovery programs at Uniting Care West,’ Ron said. ‘Uniting Care West is a not-for-profit community services agency of the Uniting Church in Western Australia that touches the lives of thousands of families and individuals each year.’
to leave her nursing aspirations for a career in social work.
‘I was a Diploma nursing student when I witnessed an exchange between a professional and a client on a needle exchange program,’ Jenny said.
‘The client was returning his used needles and was met with silence and judgemental body language. Instinctively I saw this as disempowering and disruptive to his health seeking behaviour and somehow I wanted to change this.’
The second occasion occurred during a mental health assessment, when a CALD client felt safe enough to reveal a hidden suicide attempt. ‘I knew then my potential was with the psychosocial wellbeing of people and after reading up on the social sciences, I knew I needed to leave nursing,’ Jenny said.
This decision involved turning down a $20,000 scholarship she had been granted to continue her nursing career. ‘I could not proceed for the financial benefit even though I was caring for my chronically ill husband, and chose a study path that would take three times longer to complete with no financial incentive.’
‘Logically it was a decision that did not add up, but I needed to follow the inner voice.’
Over the next six years while she was studying, both of Jenny’s parents died and then her husband, within 18 months.
‘It was during this time I became my own counsellor, and although nothing could stop the profound grief, the education I was receiving provided a deep understanding of the experience,’ Jenny said.
In 2015, she was given the opportunity of an International placement in India. ‘It was in India that I learned Mahatma Gandhi, the world’s ultimate social worker, was born on the same calendar day on which my husband died, and which has since been declared World Non-Violence Day.’
‘I prescribe to the notion of the social worker as instrument, and going to India confirmed that my inner voice was integral to a tuned ‘instrument’, and that we should always reflect on motives to keep our practice authentic,’ said Jenny.
‘In my final year of school, I was sure that I was going to study medicine,’ Josie McSkimming said. ‘Yet I was uneasy and restless about the choice I was making.’
She had a keen interest in understanding the world and people’s ways of being in it, and was acutely sensitive to issues of injustice and inequity. ‘At school, I remember being called a “socialist bitch”, which was quite an insult in those days! I even surprised myself by wearing the moniker with some pride.’
Josie said she was reading a lot of poetry: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud and Baudelaire (as 17 year olds do, or did in the seventies). ‘It seemed that the world of thinking, feelings and identity was much more interesting than medical pathology and diagnosis,’ she said.
Then a terrible event occurred. An ex-boyfriend of hers murdered his mother. ‘I was one of the first he told,’ Josie said. ‘The event was so dreadful and incomprehensible that it cemented my conviction that medicine would not be my choice for university but social work.’
‘I thought that being a social worker may help me understand this tragedy and that it would also, in some ways, be involved in prison reform,’ Josie said, acknowledging that this sounds like the idealism of a 17 year old, which of course it was. But the commitment to understanding and assisting people through the crises of life, as well as the social organisations that impinge upon them, has remained.
She did, however, feel the pressure to return to medicine was huge. I was told I would be wasting my brains doing social work. I enrolled anyway and graduated at 21. More recently, I obtained my doctorate. My career now spans more than 30 years; while the work has been challenging and the social status and pay consistently low, it has been absolutely the right choice,’ Josie said.
‘In 1985 I began my higher school certificate; in the 60s it was common to leave school after Year 10,’ Shirley Peppler said.
‘I had a solid work history and a young family. An Army friend and colleague from my teenage years had moved on and studied social work. In those pre-computer, expensive long-distance phone call days, I asked her in a 12-page letter what the difference between psychology and social work was.’
It was her answer that clinched the deal for Shirley. ‘Psychologists fit the person to the theory; social workers fit the theory to the person. Thanks Chris! I hadn't yet finished Year 12 before being accepted by the University of Queensland to study social work.’
Of course, life is complicated and while she was working a full-time job, Shirley found herself pregnant with baby number three. ‘I used the student counselling services, signed up for just one subject that first semester, and graduated 8 years later,’ she said.
Initially, Shirley said she decided on social work because of her life experience of personal suffering and hardship, and knew she loved ‘people work’.
‘I was a public servant at the Department of Social Security (now DHS) at Woodridge. I harassed social workers to find out more about the profession. Luckily I stayed open-minded when I was told the Department was a fiscal organisation, not a welfare organisation,’ Shirley said.
‘I sometimes wondered if I provided more of a social work service to our mutual customers. While studying my degree, I took on board the opportunities for self-reflection and self-knowledge that were very seriously encouraged. Anyone who I have supervised can attest to my obsession with reflective practice.’
Shirley realised she also had a well-developed sense of social justice and natural tendency toward leadership and advocacy. ‘Little did I know my orientation to counselling would become the strong community development and feminist/anti-oppressive framework that remains today,’ she said.
According to Sharon McCallum, she became a social worker due to divine intervention. Twice!
‘I saw an episode of Four Corners about Elsie, Australia’s first women refuge. Personal experience told me that women and children needed a safe place,’ she said.
‘And then, when my country high school did a trip to James Cook University, Professor Grichting told me if I wanted to work in women’s refuges I should do social work.’
‘And I did. Thank you Professor Grichting.’