How a Classics Degree Made Me a Better Social Worker
March 16, 2021
What's the point of studying what people said and did thousands of years ago? For this Prison Social Worker, being able to pick up on subtle nuances while interacting with clients, put personal beliefs aside, and see the world from their point of view.
A question I often heard while completing a Master's Degree in Classical Studies was, "How will you get a job with that?" As a graduate student, I fielded constant inquiries regarding the jobs I would apply to after graduation and what hard skills I had learned in school. People focused on the subject matter of my discipline instead of the transferable skills I gained from it, which made it difficult for them to understand how I could apply my degree in the real world.
But after completing a Master's in Social Work (MSW) and becoming a Prison Social Worker, I'm living proof that the skills gained from a humanities degree can be useful in many ways. Here are a few of the skills I learned—and why they make me a better social worker today.
Attention to detail
As anyone who has taken a Greek or Latin course knows, breathing marks, verb placement, and "voice" can significantly influence how a piece of writing is translated or conveyed. Classics students know that care and attention are fundamental to ensure that the intent of ancient authors is maintained. They are also typically encouraged to take courses in archaeology and history, so they're better able to grasp not only ancient languages but how people of a distant time and place organized and described their world.
In the social work field, professionals must be able to pick up on subtle nuances and seemingly insignificant details, especially when working with high-risk populations like children, prisoners, and the terminally and chronically ill. Those in the field are responsible for correctly interpreting observations, asking questions, and maintaining their clients' voices in case notes, court documents, and any other mandated reports. We do this to determine how to best help our clients, who are often those who can't help themselves.
An understanding of personal bias
Classics degrees require students to write from the viewpoint of the ancient ideas they're studying and avoid interpreting texts from a modern perspective. This encourages students to look beyond their point of view to contextualize people within their ancient society and understand them from the moral and social constructs of their time.
In social work, it is often hard to separate ourselves from our clients, but we must. Failure to put personal beliefs and experiences aside is one of the most significant causes of not only burnout, but inadequate response to and interactions with clients, which can have substantial legal and professional ramifications and hinder our chances of providing the best support possible.
In the field, I'm responsible for working with people from where they are, and for separating my views and values from their cultural context. It boils down to working from a client-centered point of view, where they can take the lead on setting goals and setting the pace of treatment. This approach also lets me ensure that their voice and perspective of their situation are captured accurately in case notes and other clinical assessments.
Foreign language skills
Most classics degrees, particularly those at the masters level, require students to have a working knowledge of several languages. I learned French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek during my master's program since many of the texts Classics specializations focus on originated in these languages. I would have struggled to engage with my program if I hadn't developed a basic grasp of these languages.
Whether working in the U.S. or internationally, having foreign language skills as a social worker can be incredibly useful when building rapport with clients. Non-English speakers often appreciate when I make an effort to speak to them in their native language and are grateful when I explain things to them in ways they can understand.
The ability to distill information in a clear and concise way
Let's say you're a classics student who's researching how the Romans celebrated holidays. The field of classics covers a considerable scope of time, which makes studying any civilization difficult. The Roman Empire is no different, having been active for centuries—and still influencing our holidays today. Ultimately, this means you'll need to cover plenty of ground and information while reporting on their celebrations and summarizing them in a precise and understandable manner.
When completing assessments, social workers are tasked to consider a client's life and all of their experiences in it. From there, they take everything they learned and condense it into easily digestible summaries that other healthcare providers can use to develop effective treatment plans. When working as an Adoption Social Worker, I had to complete huge assessments by exploring the lives of every member of a given family and condensing their story into a single streamlined document.
My classics coursework allowed me to hone this skill and avoid the stress many of my colleagues felt who had not received similar training.
Qualitative research expertise
Most of my research as a classics student was built by interpreting and gathering information from narratives, rather than completing the equations and experiments that are more typical to STEM disciplines. The ability to review literature and conduct case studies by deciphering texts was key to expanding my knowledge of my field.
Similar research methods are becoming more commonly expected in the field of social work, particularly for those working in hospitals or for the government. Qualitative research is essential to evaluate the effectiveness of social work practices or programs or the outcomes of government policies, and advance knowledge that informs change in the field. Already having these skills made me more employable as I already knew how to perform the qualitative research my agency required.
Solid work ethic
Classics is a discipline that requires a lot of reading, translating, and writing. In grad school, particularly, essay prompts tend to call for a minimum length of 30 to 50 pages. With a workload like this, you can imagine that learning to manage your time and stay organized is required to be successful.
In social work, particularly in specializations like government, child protection, healthcare, and incarceration, it is so important to stay organized and ready to reprioritize at a moment's notice. Target dates that social workers encounter in the field, like court dates or meetings with Child Protection Services, cannot be moved, so it's crucial to stay focused on deadlines.
My classics degree prepared for this by handing me a hefty workload with the ability to expect the unexpected and roll with whatever challenges are thrown my way.
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