When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I really cannot remember what I thought I was going to be. It feels like I was a different person. I just knew that of the available subjects in high school, none of those seemed like a career path for me.
I definitely had those kiddie dreams of being a veterinarian or a ballet dancer. One thing I wanted to be was an actress. I did theater in high school and I was also in these educational science videos when I was 11 called The Science Sleuths. It was the worst possible time to be on camera. It was so embarrassing, but I got paid more for that job per hour than I still have yet to make in my life.
In high school, I played soccer and I was in the outdoor ed clubs, did a lot of hiking, climbing, and scuba diving, that kind of stuff. I think I did those things because I liked them, but also because I liked doing the different, adventurous thing. If there was a challenging thing to be done, I wanted to do it. So I just thought, “I'm going to go to college and see a bunch of new things and try them out.”
How did you decide to attend Colgate University?
Oh my god, I can't even believe how arbitrary it was. I applied to all small liberal arts schools on the East Coast. Both my mom and my dad had family on the East Coast, so I had spent time out there; I also just wanted to go really far away and do the adventurous, interesting thing.
A big part of why I chose Colgate is that I perceived it to be the most selective school that I was admitted to. The other part of it was that I thought the campus was really beautiful. I really wish I had a better answer than that, but that's truly it.
After about a semester there, I thought, “What am I doing here?” The other students were so white and rich and conservative. I'm not even sure that I knew that I was liberal before I got to Colgate. I just lived in Seattle and I was the same as everybody else. I was as naive as the kid from a small town in Kansas in the sense that I just thought everywhere was like where I came from.
The first year, I definitely considered transferring, but I really loved the academics at Colgate and I was so into my professors and the small classes and thinking in a totally different way. I thought, “I'm an exception. There must be lots of other exceptions here. I just need to find them.” So I did, and it was great.
How did you choose your major?
When I was signing up for classes my first semester, I was in the last group to enroll, so I got almost none of the classes that I really wanted. They assigned me to Intro to Psych because it was the biggest class on campus and it still had space. Psychology was not offered at my high school, but I was immediately fascinated; I knew this was what I wanted.
Then I just kept taking psychology classes, partially because I thought the material was really interesting and partially because there were a couple professors that I thought were the coolest people ever. And it all started to make sense as I learned about the larger systems of psychology, the institutions, and the social justice piece of it. That eventually morphed into social work.
I thought psychology was really fascinating, but I didn't want to be a psychologist. I didn't want to do all the testing and diagnosis, which is what a lot of psychologists do. I was interested in people and how our brains work and how we make decisions, and how we relate to each other. I also got really interested in criminal justice and how we conceptualize punishing people.
One of my professors at Colgate focused his research on how we punish people and how our motivations for wanting to punish people really have no impact on their future behavior; we’re just are so stuck in those ideas. I found that so fascinating. So I did an internship one summer at a prison outside of New York City. I was in the psych ward of this maximum security prison running recreational therapy programs.
My thesis ended up being in the social psychology wing of psychology about subconscious racism. This was long before people were talking openly about implicit bias or anything like that. I did these studies on freshman psych students with people behaving in a racist way and seeing what they did. It was really fascinating.
My parents and my family were a big influence on me. And I have two grandmothers that were social workers, but I’d never really thought about it as a profession. Then, as I was learning about social work, I realized, “Oh, the values of social work, these are my values. That's what we do in my family.” I just didn't really realize it was a job.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
Well, first I went to New Zealand with my boyfriend for four months and lived in a tent. Then I came back to the US and moved to Southern California with my best friend. She was moving there and we’d been in the frozen tundra of upstate New York for four years, so I thought, “Let's have some sun.” And I spoke Spanish and I wanted to be somewhere where I could use that at work and not lose it.
I started applying for jobs. I didn't even know what I was looking for, but they were all social work kind of jobs that didn’t require a social work degree. And then I picked the one that I thought looked like the most fascinating, which was an inpatient residential drug rehab for teenagers.
At first, I did admissions, so interviews with prospective kids and their parents or their social workers or their probation officers, and managing the wait list. Then I ended up being a counselor, staying with the kids during the day as they were going to school, going to groups, and working through the program.
I was 22 and I got really sucked into it in a pretty unhealthy way. It was residential and I had no life and I had very little professional guidance, so I ended up feeling like I should give these kids everything I had. I wanted to be so needed and crucial to this person's life, as opposed to them feeling empowered in their own success. Not surprisingly, that was not the healthiest thing for them or for me. I had to learn the hard way about professional boundaries.
Then I worked for another nonprofit called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). I supervised 40 CASAs and helped them pick their kid and helped them navigate being with a foster kid all the time, just figuring stuff out.
That was really good for me. It helped me get a little bit of perspective, find my balance. It was actually perfect for me at that point because I was thinking, “Maybe I’m not really cut out for this because I just get too involved.” It was also a much healthier work environment.
I was there for almost three years and then I applied to graduate school and went to Cal State Long Beach. I really liked it. It certainly affirmed that this was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was also really glad that I had waited. I had all these real-life scenarios to apply the material to as opposed to it all being totally theoretical, because it's so different in practice.
After you do two years of school, then you do 4,000 hours of supervised social work, which took me three years to do. I had moved back to Seattle at that point, and I did a couple of internships at a community mental health clinic doing therapy with kids and families, and then at an inpatient psych program, and then at an HIV clinic as a medical social worker. That’s where I was for five years.
People came in to the clinic for their medical care and I did everything else. A lot of times, people with HIV have other complicating issues as well, like homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health, along with the practicalities of having a really complicated, expensive disease. Part of the reason that I was drawn to social work is that you can do so many different things as a social worker. I'm someone who gets kind of restless after a period of years. Like I didn't know anything about HIV, but I knew about mental health and I knew about substance abuse, and I got to learn this whole other pocket of knowledge and practice within it.
I was working there when I had my son, Ryan, and then I went back. Then, after I had my second son, Jake, I took some time off and became a stay-at-home parent for almost two years. It just felt too complicated to have two little kids and two full-time working parents. I was overwhelmed by the logistics of that, and with the cost of childcare, being a social worker comes out to basically zero money.
Staying home was very challenging for me. I felt much more comfortable as a social worker than as a mother. But I also could not fathom adding a job on top of being a mom. I felt like there were a lot of options, but I didn't really love any of them. I felt like I lost a lot of myself, like what do I even like to do? How do I relax when I have the opportunity?
Now that they’re a little bit older, it's kind of evening out. And I started working again two months ago at a part-time job in a middle school as a mental health counselor. I've only been doing it for a couple months, but it's been really great. Middle school is a terrible time, but it’s also really fascinating and they’re so malleable - in a good way; it's really interesting.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
One thing that would've been useful is having more ideas of what the options are and what the steps are to get there, having more knowledge of these interesting, nuanced kinds of jobs, not just a firefighter or a doctor or something really concrete that we already know exists.
Also, I love that whole idea of connecting the dots in reverse. After I had that experience in my first job out of college, I just felt like, I love this but can I even do this? And someone said to me, “This is going to be the story of your first really shitty job.” It gave me that perspective of knowing that, for most of my life, I'm going to look back on this.
Even though your career is a big deal, you can also try things, and if you don't like them, you can change your mind. That's not how we talk to people about it. We just ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That's just not how almost anyone's trajectory goes. You’re not just going to figure it out one time, or read some inspirational quote. I very much had that concept when I was 17, but it's just a long process of figuring it out.