Mother and daughter Prue Gershman, MSW ’86, and Lara Gershman, MSW ’15, received their Master of Social Work degrees from the Brown School almost 30 years apart and have embarked upon fulfilling careers in social work.
While they have had similar career focus—both working in education—they work with very distinct populations. Prue is a school social worker at John Burroughs High School, a private preparatory school in Ladue, Mo. Lara is a teen outreach program specialist with Epworth Children and Family Services at Confluence Academy in south St. Louis City, and serves youth exhibiting problem behavior, often from neglect or abuse. They discussed their career paths, challenges and advice for current students with us.
How did your Brown School education prepare you for your current work?
Lara: My Brown School education expanded my knowledge of how to understand and work with people from different backgrounds than myself. The student body at my school is very diverse so my cultural competency is constantly put to use. Through my classes, I learned about the adolescent brain and stages of development in group facilitation, and acquired a toolkit of icebreaker activities to use with young people. Seeing as my primary role is to facilitate groups with middle school students, I rely on my graduate education on a daily basis. Additionally, classes I took for my concentration’s School Social Work track prepared me to navigate the systems and policies that exist within a school setting, which can be quite different from those of a non-profit environment.
Prue: My work has really benefited from the social work perspective, viewing students with appreciation for their social context. As well, the direct practice curriculum prepared me to think diagnostically. While my position does not entail actual mental health diagnosis, my Brown School training has gone a long way in helping me make appropriate referrals to community professionals and resources to support students who are struggling. In the 30 years since completing my MSW, I have developed a great network of clinical social workers, who have also come from the Brown School. Sharing that background is a great way of connecting in the St. Louis professional community, creating a network of resources and opportunities for collegial consultations.
You both work with youth, though in different settings. Do you discuss the commonalities and differences in your social work practice?
Lara: As my mom has been in this field for a long time, I often consult with her about challenging or unique cases with my students. She typically has had experience with the topic and can advise me about it, or if not, steer me in the direction of someone who can.
However, our populations and settings are very different. Sometimes the intervention she would use wouldn’t work for me due to a lack of parental involvement in my school. Additionally, when referring students for services, I need to consider barriers such as language, cost and transportation, which are typically not a problem for her student body. Despite this, through conversations about the differences in our work we are able to broaden each other’s horizons and have thought-provoking discussions.
Prue: We do discuss the programs we each put together for our respective schools and the overlap is surprising, for example, CHADS regarding suicide prevention, SAFE Connections for sexual assault education and prevention. But at times, when we problem-solve about things going on at Lara’s school, she does need to remind me of the gap in behaviors between schools. A strategy I might use may need to be vastly different from a strategy that might work at Confluence Academy, due to diverging student needs and behavior.
What are challenges you face in making an impact with youth today?
Prue: It’s a challenge to bring all my skills together to work in concert with students, their families and school staff. When a student is struggling, it is essential to draw in the support of everyone in the student’s sphere—the family, teachers, coaches, advisors and counselors—and make sure they are educated about the impact mental health issues may be having on the student. Staying on top of what is currently on students’ minds can present another challenge. Knowing what’s new with social media, available risky substances, pressures from without and within, are key to providing information and services that make a difference.
What advice would you give students who want to go into this type of school practice?
Prue: I’d recommend taking every possible course and workshop about adolescents and the obstacles they face in making their way to adulthood. Practicum placement will also go a long way to preparing a social work student for the school setting, ensuring that there’s strong supervision and lots of opportunities for face-to-face student contact. Seek out additional consultations through the Brown School whenever needed, through advisors, instructors and professors.
Lara: Every person you come into contact with at the Brown School, whether another student or a professor, can serve as an asset, a resource, or an expert to you in some way. The experience goes really fast, so use your time wisely. While many classes may seem interesting to you, focus on the ones that you think may be most useful in your future career. Also, be intentional in your practicum choices. While the broad nature of the field of social work may seem overwhelming, and it’s OK to not know exactly what you want to do with your degree, realize that you only get two different experiences and then you’re on your own again. If there’s a job or field you really want to learn about, immerse yourself in it.