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An Interview with Julia Fanning

julia fanning Julia Fanning earned her master’s of social work degree from Aurora University in 2003. She is the Owner/Therapist at Holding Hope Services in the Greater Chicago, Illinois area. Fanning is a regular author of social work articles for MSWonlineprogram.org. She has written articles ranging from “You Are a Tea Pot”, an article on self-care for social workers, to “Technology, Social Media and Social Work”.

We thank Julia Fanning for participating and sharing her experience with Social Work Guide.

1. What brought you to the field of social work?

I had no idea there was a field of social work when I started college. My freshman year I tried to sign up for a Psychology class but it was full and I was slotted into a Sociology class. As much as I loved how it was about people, behaviors and institutions, it didn’t seem to be a practical career choice. Another student suggested I look at social work and I checked it out. It was as if social work was tailor-made just for me. All my life experience and all of my values and my strong belief in self-determination all fit this career. Finding social work was like coming home.

2. Why did you choose the field of social work rather than psychology, counseling or another helping profession? What circumstances or influences led you to pursue a career as a social worker?

I strongly believe that people don’t live in a vacuum. Each of us is a conglomeration of all of our experiences, who our family is, who our support system is, the community we live in and what systems with which we are engaged. I believe social work does the best job of considering the whole person. Social work doesn’t limit change to a person’s biological concerns but includes their entire life. Social work encourages change in systems which will help better individuals’ lives. Social work also encourages advocacy. I like being part of a field that looks at both the individual and the big picture.

I think social work also appealed to me because as I was growing up it seemed like there was little help for the issues my family experienced. I saw people I loved in pain and there seemed to be no way to alleviate it. Even when help was sought it wasn’t necessarily helpful. Also, no one even acknowledged some of the very obvious problems. As a social worker, I can validate the feelings and concerns individuals have. I also have the opportunity to actually be helpful and or connect people with resources that can help.

3. How has your career grown and changed over time?

One of the best characteristics of a social work career is that you can practically change careers if you start feeling burnout or frustration with your job. The first 17 years of my career were in child welfare. I started in a dismal job at a residential facility for adolescent girls. My shift was Tuesday and Thursday 1-11 pm and Friday and Saturday overnights. Yes – not fun but the things I learned were essential. After a year, I started my case management positions. I did everything from family preservation work to foster care to crisis intervention. Very hands-on and direct service. These positions taught me how to manage my time and prioritize my tasks. I was able to have lots of one-on-one relationships with a myriad of ages and work with people with many different presenting problems. I learned how to find resources and would walk through with clients to complete their tasks. I was able to interact with many different systems – families, schools, courts, the state child welfare agency and other providers – and gain skills in navigating them. It also was a great example of how systems affect the individuals. I worked my way up to supervising foster care and crisis intervention programs in addition to other adolescent programming. I loved supervising but became weary after so many years in child welfare so I made a change.

I left child welfare to become a dialysis social worker. I had no idea what a dialysis social worker did and did not have a strong medical background, but I learned. Child welfare had been an amazing foundation. I used all the skills I had developed and was able to transfer them into medical social work. After a few years I came upon my current position with an insurance company working on a consent decree. I was able to use the medical knowledge and experience in medical systems I had gained to supervise a field team that transitions individuals from a nursing home back into the community. All my social work experiences have been useful.

I love supervising my team and being a social worker but I wanted to do more. While a dialysis social worker, I opened my own private practice. I am able to use my skills with a different population now. I am able to use my social work history to provide therapy to individuals and families searching for help.

4. Please describe a typical day in your role.

Any social worker has heard, “There is no typical day in social work.” Social workers deal with people and often they are unpredictable and may go in crisis. On any given day I make phone calls, I go to meetings with clients, I go to home visits, I participate in multi-disciplinary meetings, I provide crisis intervention, I supervise my staff, and I spend time working on documentation. A couple of evenings and Saturday mornings I also go to my private practice and provide one-on-one interventions to adolescents, families, and adults to help them live the life they want.

5. What do you see as the top social justice issues facing social workers today?

Human rights issues are always at the forefront. In our country, there continues to be systematic discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation among other things. Social workers can be vocal advocates for civil rights. There continues to be huge economic class disparities and poverty at levels that are obscene for a country as wealthy as the United States. My personal causes include homelessness and the availability of affordable housing. I also am passionate about bringing mental health issues to the front and center and fighting stigma.

6. What advice would you give to new social workers entering the field today?

  • Be cautious of thinking a job is beneath you. Every single social work job I have held has helped me be a better helper to others. As a licensed clinician and owner of my own business, I still have to file and copy and just dig into the dirt sometimes. Occasionally, I have heard students and new social workers say they would never do a certain job. At least be open to possible positions because even a not-so-perfect job can lead to tremendous opportunity.
  • Take an honest self-inventory of your biases. Each of us has biases. Our biases affect how we interact and help others. A social worker is obligated to try to always be self-aware.
  • Participate in supervision. It is imperative that early in your career that you participate in supervision with a more seasoned clinician. I have gained so much insight and reality from my supervisors. Even as we grow in the career it is important to discuss cases and situations with other professionals. I participate in an ongoing consultation group and we discuss questions about cases and assist each other with being the best we can be for our clients.

7. Social work can be very rewarding but challenging as well. What self-care strategies do you recommend for new social workers?

  • Make sure you do take time for yourself. Remind yourself you can’t fix the world. As a social worker it is likely that no matter how hard you work, you still won’t get everything done that needs to be done. Learn to be comfortable with letting some work wait.
  • Ensure you keep up with other activities that interest you. Enjoy time with family and friends. Go to the gym or listen to music or make crafts. Nurture your non-social work interests.
  • If you start resenting your job or your clients – take a step back. Consider that it might be time to change the type of social work you are doing.
  • Consider going to therapy yourself. My personal opinion is that going to therapy can help clarify your own goals and it can help with any secondary trauma or stress you might experience. Although being a social worker is rewarding, it is also a job that can take a toll on your emotions.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Use humor and don’t be afraid to laugh.

8. What has been your proudest moment as a social worker?

Social workers often find their proudest moments in the accomplishments or success of their client. I find joy in knowing that there has been a positive change in a person’s life. In child welfare, I worked with clients who were able to improve their relationship with their children. In dialysis, I have clients who were able to make the decision to move a family member to hospice and clients who received transplants. In my current position, I have helped many people successfully move out from a nursing home they didn’t need to be in and transition to a better quality of life in the community. Praise and thanks from clients may be few and far between but I cherish it each time I receive positive feedback from a client. I have received letters saying, “I just wanted you to know you showed me I could change jobs and I did,” “I am finally able to have a healthy relationship,” and, “I finally realized I don’t have to live in the past,” among others. These validate for me that I help people and it is worth it.

Big picture – I am proud of owning and successfully running my own private practice. Also – just today actually – I received an award at my job for supporting the military reserve and guard employees I supervise. I take pride in supervising a team that believes in my leadership.

9. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

We all have different strengths. Recognize them and don’t be afraid to utilize them. I am creative and practical and that has helped me manage groups of people. I am often told that I make people feel very comfortable from the moment they meet me. I use this gift to forge relationships and engage and connect with clients. Whatever you have use it.

Don’t try to be like what you think a social worker should be or what you see other people doing if it doesn’t fit you. I wasn’t sure if I could be an outpatient therapist in an office because I had a picture of an academic type person as a therapist. If I try to be that person I fail as a counselor. When I allow myself to be myself – I succeed. In my profiles, I tell people that if you are looking for a quiet, academic therapist then I’m not the one for them. I put it out there that I use humor and I talk and I will interact gregariously. I’m not the right fit for some people but for other people – I am exactly the perfect therapist for them. Don’t fight your nature. Be yourself.

10. Is there any further advice you would share with students considering social work as a career?

There have been so many times in my career where I would be working with someone and feel helpless. Situations where there just is nothing I can do to really help the situation except listen. Never, never, never underestimate the importance of hearing your clients’ stories. You may not be able to change anything but by just listening and hearing the client, validating them and honoring their struggles can immensely impact someone’s life. As a social worker, sometimes the best gift you can give someone is just being a witness to their story. Don’t underestimate the value of your presence in helping someone.