This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW and a current PhD Candidate at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. Her primary occupations are conducting research, teaching and working on her dissertation but she also volunteers for the American Cancer Society and SocialWorkChat.org, and writes for TheNewSocialWorker.
I think you will find this interview a particularly touching and inspiring one. Karen is a successful woman by any standards; she is a woman who not only managed to work and study her way out of poverty, but her career is aimed at making the world a better place.
That said, due to the differences that exist between socioeconomic classes, a part of her does not feel totally “at home” in the white collar world nor does she really feel comfortable in her former blue collar world. I believe that we all have a lot to learn from her story.
So without further ado, Karen, what made you decide to pursue an MSW in general and then to go on for a doctorate?
In terms of background, my mom was still in high school when she became pregnant with me and we were very poor and struggling to make ends meet for a long time. I like to think that if it wasn’t for WIC (http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/aboutwic/) I wouldn’t be 5’11” today.
I grew up in the present Rust Belt area surrounding the Great Lakes in Buffalo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rust_Belt) and as a result was thoroughly grounded in blue collar culture, where success meant having a good job, staying out of trouble (i.e., drugs, jail, crime, domestic disputes, etc.), and possibly having a family of your own.
My immediate family worked in the manufacturing factories doing manual labor or administrative work and there was a constant, pervasive threat of layoffs and economic insecurity. My family did the best they could under the difficult circumstances but it felt like a dense, soot-infused fog that filled your pores, choking off thoughts of thriving and economic prosperity; you were lucky to survive and should be thankful if you managed to do so.
College didn’t seem like a realistic prospect unless one was wealthy. I don’t remember knowing anyone that went to college besides a couple family members who went into the military and received assistance paying for it. As a result, in high school my grades initially suffered at an inability to see beyond this situation.
At the time I had a stepfather who most likely saw I wasn’t applying myself and offered me $100 to make the honor roll which I did. It was a watershed moment that showed me that maybe I could do more, and in a nutshell, college and education seemed to be the best path to a secure future.
I wanted to learn about human behavior – why did we do the things we do? what could be learned about people? how could we make things better, especially for those who are struggling? – and came across a school catalog that explained experimental psychology. I was instantly hooked on the idea of doing research someday, read that I would need a doctorate to do so, and set myself on that path.
I fondly recall working in my school’s Psychology department as a work study and using the downtime to look through their books listing PhD programs, whom I started contacting my first semester in college to find out how to get in. Come graduation I was married (now divorced) to an active duty Army soldier and wanted to make sure I could keep working regardless of where we were stationed so I became interested in social work.
Given my upbringing, I was also fascinated by social work’s person-in-environment and systems perspectives, and was interested in learning how research and policy work could affect positive social change.
What led you to your specific focus on the role of technology in social work and what are your plans once you have your doctorate in hand?
I strongly feel that social media and other social innovation technologies are extremely powerful tools that can be leveraged to affect social change, enable conversation and discussion of ideas, influence the discourse in our field, network and meet like-minded kindred spirits, multiply the impact of scarce resources, and share information that can really help people and help social work grow as a profession.
I’m told my biological father was something of a mechanical genius and could take a car apart, fix it, and put it back together, and I like to think I’ve inherited some of his technical propensity.
Growing up on Star Wars and Atari and video games, technology was always new and exciting and fun and filled with fantastic possibilities. When I was in fifth grade our middle school got shiny new Apple IIe computers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_IIe) and I spent as much time on them as possible.
In college I combined a psychology major with a minor in computer science but didn’t have the ability and temperament to program for long periods of time, unfortunately. It’s hard work and I have the utmost respect for those that can.
The Internet arrived en masse my freshman year and my focus shifted to the person sitting behind the computer – what were they doing? how were they using technology? what could we do that we couldn’t do before?
I couldn’t afford a computer until I was 21 and about to start my MSW. During that time I gained much experience working in the areas of domestic violence, crisis counseling and HIV/AIDs which helped cement my bias towards applied research to help alleviate and prevent future suffering to the greatest extent possible.
Upon graduation, I served two years as an AmeriCorps *VISTA (http://www.americorps.gov/), one year working with a supervised visitation program and the other a dream job helping youth at a Boys camp; Girls Club computer program.
After getting laid off after doing some community technology work, I took it as a sign that it was high time to go back to school, get that doctorate, and start investigating all these technology-infused research questions that wouldn’t go away.
It is pure joy to be able to do this. My post-graduation plans (2011 or bust!) are to continue exploring these questions, ideally in an academic setting, and given the six figure debt I’ll be graduating with find an applicable student loan forgiveness program (http://bit.ly/f6fTOg) that will have me.
What is a typical day like for you?
My life changes every four months and has for the past seven years. I used to spend the majority of my time on my schoolwork but I couldn’t afford to keep doing this. During a semester I am teaching, I spend 60-80% of my time on course preparation and management (i.e., teaching and grading) for anywhere from 1-4 courses.
My advisor has recommended spending a minimum of 7-10 hours/week on my dissertation in order to finish so I downloaded a tracking app to my iPhone to help me meet this target.
My understanding is that a dissertation is a document that results from a process by which research is conducted by a student with feedback and justification along every inch of the journey from a team of advisors that are all working together to meet department requirements and move the discipline forward with some new/refined nugget of knowledge (illustrated guide here: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/ , comic here: http://www.phdcomics.com/).
I used to spend a few hours a week volunteering but have had to cut back both to allow more time for paid employment and dissertation work. I also started a business doing editing work (http://editmymanuscript.com/). I rely on my iPhone and other technologies like Remember the Milk (http://www.rememberthemilk.com) to juggle successfully.
What are the parts that you enjoy the most about being a doctoral candidate?
Ability to test out my crazy ideas and make mistakes under guided supervision from those who likely know better. Working at the social work library on campus and getting to look at all the latest and greatest books in our field any time I want. Bonding with other graduate students and former graduate students.
Learning how to teach. Learning how to read an entire book just by looking at the table of contents. Discovering Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com/). Publishing. Savoring the possibilities that the future may bring.
What are the parts that you find the most challenging?
Walking face first into class culture shock. As a young adult I never realized the vast gulf of complex, multifaceted differences between the blue-collar and white-collar worlds that affect everything about you.
It is rare to have discussions of class and the implications of economic and social mobility in our society and especially during challenging economic times. When I first started my PhD I didn’t even have the language to begin to describe what I was experiencing much less make sense of why my experiences were so confusing and mind-blowing – it felt like walking on a different planet surrounded by aliens.
I still find it extremely difficult at times and find it difficult to write about here. It has taken me years to integrate these parts of myself and I feel I will always have much more learning to do to fit as best I can in both worlds and thrive. Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (http://bit.ly/ie2yDd) has been like a Bible for me in this process.
Other related books on my to-read shelf are Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey’s Strangers in Paradise: Academics From the Working Class; C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law’s This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class; and Michelle Tea’s Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing up Working Class.
While I wouldn’t wish this sort of adjustment and integration pain on anyone, these experiences have taught me to be immensely respectful of the chasms that characterize other areas of difference (i.e., gender, race, orientation, religion, etc.) and to openly engage in discussions of the impact of class whenever possible.
I also have a difficult time writing and used to suffer from crippling writer’s block. Despite my successes with getting my writing published, it takes me a very long time to write, organize my thoughts, and is a painfully slow process.
Could you share a couple of experiences that you found confusing/foreign as you made the shift from the blue-collar world to the white collar world?
The differences permeate everything – dress, preferred zip code, ambitions, family relations and expectations, the way one wears and colors their hair, language and accent, love, mannerisms, upbringing, gosh even how one holds a fork or cuts a steak.
I remember going out with this guy a few years ago and we met up with some of his friends at a really elegant, expensive steakhouse. There was such a sense of ease among his friends, as if spending hundreds of dollars on a meal for fun wasn’t a big deal but perfectly suited for an everyday occurrence.
I was still on a grad student budget, making less than $20,000/year, and could name the local diners with the greatest meals for $5-10. One woman who was a lawyer drove a Porsche SUV (I didn’t know Porsche made a SUV) and talked about how her dog was on antidepressants and had a counselor.
There was talk about fun and travel and I remember funny, entertaining stories and lots of laughter. It was just how it was with this group, this was their reality. I remember watching them eat, cutting the steak one piece at a time, with the knife behind the fork, and I thought “Oh, there’s a different way to cut a steak.”
Not long after I was eating Thanksgiving dinner with my family back home and cut my food the same way. My much older aunt smiled and pointed out to everyone at the table that I was eating “like a European.”
To her, I was bringing class to the table but I was embarrassed and afraid my other family members thought I was looking down on them for cutting differently. It was such a strange moment, one of many in both worlds.
Watching other students take month-long vacations or easily connect with faculty or carry Longchamp bags for their books…I have more in common with the cleaning staff than most of the other students on campus, although I’m White so I’ve found that one can fake being an impostor.
At first glance I probably look like I fit in just fine, until one notices my Old Navy jeans or H & M handbag, and then you just get that look that says “up your game woman!” I have little patience, if any, for those with a strong sense of entitlement.
The feelings of not being understood, of not fitting in exactly in either world, and the resulting loneliness and loss of intimacy is the worst. Try to picture the movie Working Girl stretched out over years in an academic setting, or picture the characters from Rosanne or the Jersey Shore trying to fit in on Gossip Girl.
While I enjoy formal restaurants and have learned to appreciate such experiences and those that work hard to produce them, I still enjoy the low-key, casual atmosphere of a diner best. Somewhere I can just be with no rules or standards for engagement.
At some point you just have to let all of it go and do your thing – respect both collars and the struggles they both deal with, accept them both for what they are and are not, and live and let live. I just do my best to thrive, be true to myself and what I think is important, and straddle as best I can and keep learning as fast as possible.
I’m beginning to feel these experiences give me a flexibility in navigating different cultures, be it cussing with the sailors or running a nonprofit board. Despite the pain and challenges, I’m grateful for that gift.
A couple additional resources:
Based upon your experience to date, what advice do you have to offer upcoming MSW graduates interested in the role of technology in social work and your other areas of interest?
Understand that much like social work itself, technology will always continue to evolve. Technology will always be some part of our practice; if we use it well, it will enhance both our practice and our clients. If we use it poorly, we will use the lesson as a learning experience and continue to innovate to address social challenges.
Without innovation and trying out new ideas and sharing results, there is no progress. How social work as a field uses information wisely will, I think, be influenced by the ideas of social informatics, the study of the social aspects of computerization (http://rkcsi.indiana.edu/index.php/about-social-informatics), and provides a highly useful lens for thinking about and creating technology projects in social work.
Be prepared to demonstrate how technology can be used to create results; for example, how text messages were taken more seriously after the Red Cross used them to raise over $30 million in 10 days for Haiti Earthquake relief (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34850532/ns/technology_and_science-wireless/) or the runaway success of the It Gets Better Project (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/, New Social Worker article forthcoming).
Remember always that our relationships and bonds form our humanity and that technology serves us, not the other way around. Take breaks, keep learning, and infuse as much fun into what you do as possible.
Lastly, when did you start working on your blog and what do you hope to achieve via your blog?
I started blogging back in 2004 to help get in regular practice of writing and help organize my thoughts to make future writing easier. This has largely been successful and I add to my blog whenever possible (Fussy Eater, http://www.fussy-eater.com/).
I’ve recently updated my main web site (http://karenzgoda.org/) to a blog format to make it easier for readers to find and share social work-related information I’m essentially curating. I use Twitter for short bursts of information that might not need a longer blog post or a longer version is already available.
Good blogging takes time and I’d rather err on the side of posting less frequently rather than post empty content I don’t think folks will want to read. I have a goal of using a service like Scribd (http://www.scribd.com) on my web site to share as much of my research as possible – if the information doesn’t get shared how will it be useful? I hope to do more blogging post-graduation!
Thanks so much, Karen for providing us with information about the world of social work and technology, as well as for your honesty and openness in sharing some of the difficulties you experienced in moving “on up.”
As always, please feel free to ask any questions or make any comments. Your feedback is most appreciated :)
Photo Credit: McKay Savage