November 2012 Articles

GSSWSR: Bryn Mawr Squared

Social Work alumnae who also received their undergraduate degrees at Bryn Mawr discuss the benefits of their experience.

By Priya Ratneshwar

Dana Becker ’69, M.S.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’91

Some students just can’t get enough of Bryn Mawr the first time around. That’s the case with the 71 Mawrters who have pursued undergraduate degrees at the College and returned to pursue graduate studies at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Although this phenomenon has been occurring at the College for decades, it’s more common now because of the enhanced opportunities for undergraduates to engage in social service and social work education, says Nancy Kirby, M.S.S. ’65, the dean’s coordinator of alumni connections at GSSWSR.

When Bryn Mawr Professor of Social Work Dana Becker ’69, M.S.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’91, was an undergraduate majoring in classical archaeology, she didn’t even know there was a school of social work at the College. After giving up a doctoral fellowship in Romance languages at Yale, she ended up working as a teacher at Get Set, an early education program in inner-city Philadelphia, and taught and trained teachers in a special program for troubled preschoolers. Becker began to realize that she was especially interested in the emotional life of her students, many of whom came from difficult environments.

“I wanted to become a family therapist, and I realized, wow, my own alma mater has a program that will allow me to do so,” Becker says.

In recent years, however, “undergraduates have been taking graduate courses in the School of Social Work, and at times professors in Social Work teach undergraduate classes,” Kirby explains. “Additionally, field placements through the Civic Engagement Office and closer connections between hands-on service and the curriculum are giving students the experience they need to pursue higher-level studies in social work.”

Debbie Plotnick ’02, M.S.S. ’04, M.L.S.P. ’04

Such a connection inspired Debbie Plotnick ’02, M.S.S. ’04, M.L.S.P. ’04, the director of advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, to attend GSSWSR right after completing her undergraduate degree as a McBride Scholar. Rona Pietrzak, then the McBride undergraduate dean, sensed Plotnick’s passion for service and referred her to Raymond Albert, professor of social work and director of the Law and Social Policy Program. “Raymond quite convincingly made the case that I would be able influence policy and change systems far more effectively—not to mention economically—with the dual master’s in social service and law and social policy rather than with the law degree that I thought I was headed toward,” Plotnick says.

No matter how they came to GSSWSR, multi-degree alums agree that the synergy between their undergraduate and graduate experiences prepared them for higher-level studies and their careers beyond Bryn Mawr. Becker went on to get her doctorate in psychology from Bryn Mawr. Having worked as a psychotherapist for over 30  years, she is also a scholar in the area of critical psychology. She credits her three Bryn Mawr degrees for the ability to be “fearlessly interdisciplinary.”

Vanessa von Hagen ’04, M.S.S. ’10

Vanessa von Hagen ’04, M.S.S. ’10, a behavioral therapist who works with children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, believes her dual experience taught her to “look at the whole picture.” “During my undergraduate studies, I learned to think critically, creatively, and, when necessary, out of the box. My experience at GSSWSR taught me to look at as many external factors as possible,” she says. “It also taught me how to work collaboratively with parents.”

Susan Messina ’86, M.S.S. ’90, M.L.S.P. ’91

After graduating from GSSWSR, Susan Messina ’86, M.S.S. ’90, M.L.S.P. ’91, completed stints as an HIV/AIDS educator, grant manager, and freelance grant writer before arriving at her current position as director of grants and special projects at the National Hospice Foundation. She says her years as an undergraduate student activist and her GSSWSR education led her to see herself “as someone who could and should make a difference.” And the writing and advocacy skills she acquired allowed her to turn this goal into action.

“The bottom line is I got into fundraising almost right away because I learned how to be a good writer,” Messina explains.

The undergraduate/graduate synergy only continues to grow—something to which Becker, who continues to teach at Bryn Mawr, can attest. “When I was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr, nobody was going out to do anything in the community,” she says. “And now that’s happening at Bryn Mawr in spades. I had to start from scratch learning about the world. Now students are out there already.”

Comments on “GSSWSR: Bryn Mawr Squared”

  1. As one of the 71 multi-degreed social workers from Bryn Mawr, I thank you for this article and for the knowledge that there is now more cross-fertilization between the undergraduate school and the GSSWSR than what I experienced more in the late 60’s/early 70’s.

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