Social workers wear a number of hats to provide that help, with advocacy being a big part of their work as current social justice issues often tie to the welfare of their clients. The most basic definition of social work is, “work carried out by trained personnel with the aim of alleviating the conditions of those in need of help or welfare.”1 But social workers rise above and beyond that basic definition, often putting their whole selves into their work, pairing life experiences and education to improve the lives of their clients and the national, state and local landscapes we all operate within.
Yeshiva University online Master of Social Work (MSW) program alumni and current PhD candidate JP Prettybull is one such social worker who puts themselves and their personal experiences into their work to effectively empathize with and help the communities they work with, including veterans, LGBTQ youth and indigenous populations. Prettybull recently shared their experience with the online MSW program and their future goals moving forward from the program.
Life Before the MSW
Prettybull grew up in a military family, with their father, grandfather and other family members having served in various branches of the armed forces. Prettybull served nine years of active duty in the U.S. Army, which in part contributed to their interest in social work, noting that others have always sought them out to talk or to seek advice.
“As a leader in the military, you have to counsel your soldiers to develop them,” said Prettybull. “And I also did Equal Opportunity for the military, which is kind of like the diversity and inclusion initiatives we see in corporations.”
Beyond the experience gained in the military, education has also been a priority for Prettybull. Prior to attending Yeshiva University for social work, they earned a number of associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in areas like anthropology, art history and more.
“When I first got out of the military, I went into anthropology. I've always been a part of culture and the human aspect,” Prettybull said. “So for me, my current is bringing the anthropological aspect full circle with the social work aspect of the humanities.”
Prettybull is also a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Since 2019, they have freelanced as a public speaker for corporate training, both on topics related to veterans and the indigenous population. They also serve as a consultant for companies with diversity and inclusion initiatives. Their work helps to raise awareness of underserved populations, cultural appropriation and Federal Indian Policies including the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
Social Justice in Social Work: Online Classes and Fieldwork Experience
Prettybull joined the online MSW program at Yeshiva University in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though they were not in one classroom with their cohort and professors, Prettybull found strong connections with their fellow students and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work faculty. They found that their cohort members were eager to reach out on social media, noting that WhatsApp is big in the Jewish community. Despite not being Jewish themselves, Prettybull felt welcomed at Wurzweiler and noted that diversity is strongly embraced. Even as they have moved on to the PhD program, Prettybull’s cohort still keeps in regular communication with each other. The professors also held true to their open-door policies and were friendly and approachable, and always willing to help if students struggled at any point in the program.
Despite the general Zoom fatigue that most people have experienced during the pandemic, Prettybull notes that the asynchronous classes in the online MSW program provided a nice balance of independent learning with the live classes.
“The hybrid aspect doesn’t burn you out,” Prettybull said. Not very many universities are offering that option.”
Fieldwork Experience and More
Fieldwork presents students with an excellent opportunity to pursue social justice in social work fieldwork if they so choose. Prettybull’s first placement was with Live Out Loud, an LGBTQ agency that works with New York City high school students. Because of COVID, the program was online, which presented a number of challenges.
“I’d say that one of the biggest challenges was trying to get a child who feels unsafe in their home environment to understand that they have a safety net behind them,” Prettybull noted. “But you physically don’t see it, or you can’t touch it, so it’s not tangible to them.”
A positive of the online format, however, was that the program served students beyond New York City, bringing in participants from all over the U.S.
Their second placement was with their tribe as an advisor for the Indian Child Welfare Act. Prettybull worked with foster kids who had been removed from their homes and fell under the federal Indian Policy for Indian Child Welfare. They were appointed to a two-year role on the board, and Prettybull continues this work in the present. They have worked to develop a new layout for social services, using the ICWA of 1978 to better benefit the people it was meant to help.
“This entailed getting correct training for all the social services people, and making sure they weren’t burning out,” Prettybull said. “And having a two-year mark for the employees was a big change that I implemented, so having domestic violence on one side and the ICWA on the other, and then having them interchange every two years so they don’t burn out.”
In addition to their fieldwork placements, Prettybull also ran the veteran side of Wurzweiler’s Care Café, which is an example of how Yeshiva University brings outreach to the community.
Why Yeshiva? Recommendations for General Students and Veterans
Prettybull notes that Yeshiva University has a good standing in New York City, and that the social work programs are more “cutting edge,” which drew them to Wurzweiler.
They note that prospective students should consider Wurzweiler for the small class sizes, meaning the professors have time to spend with their students and are more flexible and understanding of circumstances than professors may be in a larger class environment. Prettybull also notes that Yeshiva University feels like more of a family environment than other institutions they have attended.
For prospective students who are veterans, Prettybull states that the online program is an ideal set up for a veteran.
“The integration aspect of going from the military to civilian life—and we’ll never fully be civilians—brings a transitional period of asking ourselves, ‘Where do I fit in?’ And online actually helps with that, because there still is a safety net for us,” Prettybull explained. “You get to see everybody still, and you get to talk to everybody, but you’re in your safe zone still. If you get uncomfortable, you still know, ‘I’m at home. I’m okay.’ You’re not having to go and sit in the back of a classroom and be hyper-attentive.”
The Road Ahead
Prettybull is continuing on at Yeshiva for their PhD, sticking with the Wurzweiler School of Social Work both because the program had what they were looking for, and due to the comfort level with the school and faculty.
As far as motivation for going on for a PhD, Prettybull notes that it is a priority because they are indigenous. “We don’t have a lot of representation in the PhD realm. Anything after post-graduate, we’re less than one percent of that population.”
They further explain, “The only way I’m going to make an impact is by having PhD credentials. Earning my PhD is the ability to do something, to give back not just to my tribe, but to give back to Indian country. Being able to make that impact, whether it’s going and fighting for new change in policy or doing research, as representation in those areas is lacking.”
In addition to academia and advocacy, Prettybull would also like to have a private practice after completing the PhD program.
Make a Difference with a Master’s in Social Work
Put the social justice in social work with the Master of Social Work (MSW) online program offered by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and get the clinical education and field-based knowledge to build lasting social change as the issues continue to change over time.
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- Retrieved December 1, 2021, from google.com/search?q=social+work+definition&oq=social+work+de&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0i433i512l2j0i512l2j69i60l3.5646j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8