Alumnae Bulletin November 2009

Life Changers Graduate social work students reinvent themselves

By Alicia Bessette

By the time he began thinking about retirement, Raymond McDevitt had spent most of his professional life in a Dupont laboratory, "talking to soybeans," as he puts it. Then a molecular biologist, he was ready for a big change.

And so, a mere three days after he retired from Dupont, McDevitt attended his first class as a student in Bryn Mawr's Graduate School for Social Work and Social Research.

He was 50 years old. But he felt prepared, thanks to Career Changers, the GSSWSR's program of five two-hour evening sessions for individuals considering a graduate degree in social work. Career Changers provides an opportunity for potential students to learn the fundamental components of the social work field.

The program introduced McDevitt not only to Bryn Mawr's offerings, but to the many different directions a social work career could take him. The program also confirmed what he'd suspected for years: that he wanted, more than anything, to work with people.

At Dupont he acquired numerous patents, helped de-sequence part of the HIV virus, and published papers in highly respected journals. But he took his greatest satisfaction from interacting and communicating with people.

"They call it 'Career Changers'," says McDevitt, "but for me, it was 'Life Changers.' I don't 'have a job' anymore.My work now is an extenuation of what I wanted to do all along."

A staff therapist at the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia and Concordville, Pennsylvania,McDevitt performs psychotherapy with individuals and couples. He also conducts workshops; leads an eight-week anger management course; and offers special programs in men's issues, stress management, and conflict resolution.

"At the end of the day," he says, "I don't question what I'm doing with my life. I don't have to. I don't by any means think I empower people. But I give them the tools to empower themselves."

Career Changers also reeled in former ballet dancer Sarah Hollister. Now a policy analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Hollister struggled with the decision to leave dancing behind and pursue something new. She'd danced since age four; majored in ballet at Indiana University in Bloomington; and performed professionally with the Carolina Ballet before guesting with several other professional companies, including the Pennsylvania Ballet.

For years, her schedule was so jam-packed with rehearsing, teaching, and auditioning, that she had little time to pursue other interests. Nagged by injuries, she became curious about alternative careers.

"I distinctly remember taking ballet class," she says, "and wondering how I could spend so much time working on a double pirouette when there were people dying or struggling all over the world. That being said, I think the arts have a wonderful role to play in the movement to better society."

She investigated the fields of art education and arts administration, but wasn't sufficiently drawn to either. Social work, however, seemed a natural fit. After all, it ran in her family (her grandmother was a social worker). Plus, Hollister studied psychology and sociology as an undergrad.When she visited the GSSWSR, the supportive, warm environment sealed her decision to apply.

Hollister's second-year field placement at Youth United for Change, which organizes students to help them have a voice in their education, ultimately shaped her career direction. It was there that she learned about the public school system, education policy, and working with young people. "I loved it and still go back to visit when I can. In the spring I went to the high school graduation of some of the students I organized and was so proud."

She now works within state government on various education initiatives and proposed legislation. "It's a lot different than the ballet world. But working hard and being dedicated translates to any job you do," she says.

Jean Lawrence can relate. Lawrence came to social work from a job in human resources, one she'd had for sixteen years and could practically do with her eyes closed.With burnout imminent, she researched different helping professions, and ultimately was drawn to the versatility of social work.

"A master's degree in social work lends itself to a certain amount of fluidity, with respect to the movement you can make within the profession," she says. "I also like how social work looks at the whole person."

Lawrence took Career Changers, too. It'd been decades since she stepped foot in a classroom, and she was nervous about transitioning from full-time work to full-time school.

"It's hard going from being an expert in what you do to being a novice," she says."It was a big, huge decision for me to make. But Career Changers solidified the fact that social work was what I wanted to do–and that I wanted to do it at Bryn Mawr. The professors see things in me that I don't even see myself."

Lawrence interns at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's Kidney Transplant Unit, where she assesses individuals, from a psycho-social perspective, to determine their candidacy for donating or receiving kidneys. She also helps individuals understand the transplant process and its benefits and challenges, and she evaluates each patient's social support system and other resources such as insurance and prescription drug coverage, which often impact their overall emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Lawrence is considering pursuing medical social work after graduation.

"The support you get at Bryn Mawr is comparable to family," she says. "It feels like family." Back to top »