Letter to the MSASS Class of 2021

Listen to this post here.

To my fellow graduates,

When I moved to Cleveland in the summer of 2019, I was leaving behind almost eighteen years of a life I built in Somerville, Massachusetts, just across the river from Boston.  When I first moved to The 'Ville in 2002, it was to attend Emerson College and earn an MFA in Creative Writing -- so the boomerang effect of returning to my Ohio roots to work on a second Master's Degree felt like poetry.

I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class at least ten years older than many of my classmates.  I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class with over twenty years of professional, leadership, community-building experience.  I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class with the confidence of a woman who'd survived nearly two decades of life in Boston, a city not known for its friendly, opening arms (though they are there -- if you know how to access them).  

I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class without ever having written one single paper in APA formatting and had stress dreams for the first two weeks about mastering that style.

But mostly, I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class in August 2019 hoping to make friends.

I am someone who deeply values community, who believes in the significance of chosen family, and who knows that I am not on this planet to walk it alone.  When I entered the Mandel School on my first day of class, I had not yet declared my concentration, but it came into focus clearly that I was here to study Community Practice for Social Change.  

Each of us who entered the Mandel School of our first day of class eventually came to our own conclusions about where our focus of study should be and that set us on a path that brought us to this point of beautiful graduation.  Whether that's direct, mezzo, or macro focus, we did the work, we wrote the papers, we did the reading, we added our voices to class discussions, we (when we had to) wrote our weekly discussion posts.

Through it all, we got to know each other. We saw each other in the hallways and snagged the seat by the fireplace at Mandel Center. We showed up early and were slow to leave, just to see who was hangin' around.  We got to know each other as we wheeled around the classrooms in those plastic desks.  It wasn't long before these new classmates of ours became our true friends.

When the pandemic hit and shut down on campus classes in March 2020, that had the potential to erase all of the promising starts we'd made towards true connections with each other.  But somehow not even a global health crisis could stop us.  The barriers created by the pandemic made me realize how strong our bonds with each other truly were -- it turns out not even the social distancing mandates of COVID-19 could prevent us from finding ways to remain (safely) active in each other's lives.

For someone like me who is "new in town," it meant a lot to get chatty text messages or invitations to hop on a non-academic Zoom or, on nicer days, meet up for a socially distance walk or picnic.  Most of us hadn't known each other more than a few months before the pandemic sent us scattering -- it could have been so easy to let our personal bonds with each other splinter or fall apart.  

But not social work students.  Not Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences social work students.

Was Zoom learning anyone's ideal?  No.  Was readjusting our expectations and practices to cope with a once-in-a-generation (hopefully) public health crisis our idea of a good time?  No.  Are Jamboards ever going to be our jam?  Once again: no.  But we, as a community, persevered.  We came together instead of falling apart.  We coped.  Sometimes, we cried.  But we always emerged more unified than the day before.

How, oh how, could this happen?

Now, I had the extraordinary good fortune of being in the company of nine outstanding community practice students for most of our second year: Nicole Hatcher, Kat Marshall, Gloria Craig, Zora Raglow-DiFranco, Molly O'Brien, Yixi Ren, Hannah Brown, Lexi-with-an-I Ritt, and Lexy-with-a-Y Lattimore. We had the good fortune of being in class with many other wonderful classmates, but this core nine, y'all... I'm sure you direct practice folks are great and all, but have you seen the names on this list?  We knew each other before the pandemic, but we got to know each other over this past year in Zoomland.  And because of our camaraderie and sisterhood, we could pick each other up when even one of us was falling down -- we could support, we could check-in, we could find our way out of stressors and into laughter.  While I am very lucky to call many direct practice classmates dear friends, too, I will always think so highly of these nine CPSC Queens when I reflect on my time at Mandel.  

Each of us who earned this degree on Saturday, May 29th has our own story of our time as an MSASS student.  And when we were finally reunited in person on graduation day, it felt a little bittersweet.   The air crackled with love and excitement and respect and gratitude -- for each other, for this chance to throw our arms around each other in a hug, for this celebratory moment that signals the end of our time as MSASS students.

This graduation day is different from most graduation days in that we didn't spend the last two years together in the same way we thought when we entered the Mandel School on our first day of class.  So often, graduations signal the end of an era -- but something tells me the MSASS Class of 2021 will flip that script.  Certainly, we've only just begun.

Returning to graduate school -- in a brand new city -- was a dash of bravery mixed into a leap of faith.  My sister-in-law Jen would sometimes ask me if I wished I had done this degree straight out of undergrad instead of my MFA and my answer was always, "It would have never occurred to me to do this degree straight out of undergrad."  The truth is that life had to take me by the hand and guide me on a choose-your-own-adventure that sent me through some really difficult times.  What got me through heartbreak, loss, grief, and trauma was community.  It was surrendering to the flow of what this life was presenting me and through that non-resistance, opening myself up to learning and growing and being the most authentic version of myself I could be.  On my darkest days, what saved me was the tried-and-true gumption attached to the saying "the only way out is through."  I did yoga.  I moved with intention.  I listened.  And when I was called to do this work -- this work to advocate, to amplify, to educate, to encourage, to self-empower, and to invigorate -- I answered that call.

I had to live a lot of life to land here, y'all, that's what I'm saying.

Arriving at the Mandel School, starting this new chapter at the age of 40, I was never more certain that I was exactly where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there.

That never faltered, even during the pandemic.  I knew that what my classmates and I were studying and researching and dialoguing about -- social policy, policing and public safety, racial justice and equity, and so much more -- was delivering us to where we were supposed to be right on time.  Not since the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960's has the country been so primed for significant change.

Enter the MSASS Class of 2021.

We are curious.  We are vocal.  We are passionate.  We are focused.  And we are ready.

On one of the first days of Dr. Chupp's class in Spring 2020, he asked us if anyone knew the story of the baby in the river.  My classmate Sarah Kutler raised her hand and shared it.  I will paraphrase it for you now:

There once was a town by a river.  One day, a baby in basket came floating down and one of the townspeople saw it, pulled it out of the water, and brought it into town center where someone agreed to care for it.  Then the next day, another baby in a basket is pulled out of the water.  Two days later, another.  And then another.  And then another.  Eventually, the town is full of babies who have been saved from the river.  While there are many caring for those babies, another group starts to ask, "What's going on up the river that so many babies are being put in baskets and floating down here to our town?"  So they set off to find out.

That is the difference between micro and macro practice: we need people to care for the babies -- but we equally need people to discover the source and try to resolve whatever's causing so many babies to be sent down the river in this way. 

Now, if you're me and you're all about Asset Based Community Development, you think of this story not as a problem that needs to be solved but an opportunity to discover what is working well and use that approach to reframe the situation from deficit-based language to strengths-based -- but I'll spare you your ABCD lecture for today.  Unless you're curious, in which case, hit me up later.

What's important to recognize with the story is that there isn't one definition of a social worker -- in fact, many of us chose this path exactly for that reason.  Our careers will be fluid and versatile and may shift with great ease between micro, mezzo, and macro levels of practice.  Our time at Mandel has prepared us for this flexibility in our professional ability -- but our learning, in many ways, has only just begun.

As we move forward in our careers, we will look to this community of fellow MSASS graduates to story-tell and share about experiences out in the "real world" as we all delight in each other's successes and learn together as we go.  No matter where we end up, we have learned how to navigate virtual correspondences and I know our connections with each other and with our professors will remain strong.

My door will remain forever open to each and every one of you.  Come through, anytime.  Our graduation regalia was donned and our tassels turned from the right side to the left, signaling the end of research papers and classes and participation grades -- now it's time for the real thing in the real world.  We have only just begun.

Congratulations to you all.  Much love and many Care Bear Stares to each and every one of you.

In solidarity and courage,


Pictured with me:

Top Row = Rhonda Jones (MNO), Gloria Craig (MSSA), and Mark Krzysiak (MSSA)

Middle Row = Olivia Walsh (MSSA), Rita Hanna (MSSA) & Destanie Camarillo (MSSA), and Yixi Ren (MNO & MSSA duel degree candidate)

Bottom Row = Mahogany Anderson (MSSA) & Christian Mixon (MSSA), Kat Marshall (MSSA), and Cheyenne DeShields (MSSA)

Grad school ain't cheap. Wink.
Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar


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