I still remember my first month at Penn's MSW program as an international student from China. Feeling a little upset, overwhelmed, and anxious after the first few weeks of study, I began to ask myself: Is it a right choice for me to come and study social work in the United States?
Although having learned English a long time ago, I had never lived or studied abroad for more than a month. The four to six page application essay required for admission to Penn’s MSW program was the longest essay I had ever written in English. Therefore, I could not imagine how I would survive taking four classes a semester, with each class requiring at least three papers in a semester. I was also astonished by how fast people here at Penn speak in English; it was much faster than what I had been exposed to in China. I remember running into Dr. Mary Mazzola, the Associate Dean for Enrollment Management and Global Outreach one day after class. She greeted me and asked how I felt about my class and field placement. I told her that I had many worries and concerns. She calmed me down with a caring look and said "I know you will make it, you just need to try."
I doubted whether I would be able to make it at that time, but I knew that I needed to try, no matter how hard it was. I cannot remember how many times I stayed up late at night trying to finish readings or compete with a deadline and would still get up early for field placement the next day. Often times I felt exhausted, but studying at Penn's MSW program had been a dream for me, and I cherished every moment of it, no matter how difficult it seemed at the beginning. I kept trying and worked hard, believing what Hegel had said, that quantity changes would one day lead to quality changes.
After the first two months, things started to get better. As my foundation knowledge of social work grew and with more experience in field placement, things began to make better sense to me. I was very lucky to have found numerous supports from my professors, my peers in school, and other administrative staff at Penn and SP2. Finally at the end of the first semester, I realized I was "enjoying" my life at SP2. It was the first time that I realize how much potential existed in me. However, I experience many other “first times” as a student at Penn. I gained many meaningful and significant "first time" experiences that included: my first time working with refugees, Alzheimer’s patients, and the LGBTQ population; my first time counseling clients; my first time co-facilitating a group for clients; my first invitation to a Thanksgiving home dinner from my professor and classmates; and my first time truly appreciating the social work profession.
I was amazed by how I could influence positive changes for clients by using my social work skills of listening attentively, being empathic with my clients, by having a non-judgmental attitude, by respecting the right of clients to self-determination, by connecting clients to relevant resources, by responding to and taking actions to promote inequality and injustice and by sharpening my professional skills. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much Penn’s MSW program has changed me.
I have gained a better understanding of loss, trauma, mental health problems, poverty, discrimination, and many other individual and social problems. I began to think more about how the social environment can influence human behavior. Instead of simply making a judgment about certain behaviors, I started to ask the “why” question. The more suffering I saw in my clients, the more I applauded them for their efforts, courage, strength and resilience. I also learned to take better care of myself, knowing that by having a balance in my life and caring for my own wellness I can better serve other people.
Before graduation, I was offered the opportunity to work with SP2’s Global Engagement Initiative. I worked under Dr. Mary Mazzola and Dr. Irene Wong to coordinate the China-US Health and Mental Health Social Work Conference in Beijing, to host summer exchange students from Beijing Normal University, and to assist with other global engagement activities and programs. I was part of the team, which built a cross-national and interdisciplinary partnership between Penn and universities in China. Being part of an interdisciplinary team, whose purpose is to connect social work education and practice between China and the US, was another dream for me. That dream has become a reality because of the opportunity and support SP2 provided, the perfect timing for Penn to reach out to global partners, and my continual pursuit of new dreams.
I do not know where life will lead me in the future, but I know I will proceed to make better changes to other people and myself. Looking back to the moment when I made the decision to attend Penn’s MSW program three years ago, I feel lucky that I made a good choice. SP2 to me is a place to grow and learn, a place to dream, and a place for dreams to come true.
(Yuyuan Liu, MSW, LSW is an alumna of SP2’s MSW program. In her role as the Global Initiatives Coordinator, she works closely with the Associate Dean of Enrollment Management & Global Outreach and the Faculty Director of International Programs to enhance the school’s global vision of increasing understanding of SP2’s global community, fostering mutually beneficial global engagement initiatives, and measuring the impact of SP2’s global endeavors. Yuyuan’s past experience has included working at Penn HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Division, Penn Memory Center & Geriatric Psychiatry and Nationalities Service Center. She earned her Bachelor of Arts at Peking University in Beijing, China.)