An Interview with Janina Kwilos, MSW, LCSW
1. How did you find your way into social work?
My childhood experience of living with a bipolar parent led to a fascination with human behavior. My mother was unpredictable, scary, funny and loving. We didn’t know she had a disorder. There wasn’t a name or explanation for why she was so odd. As a family we watched out for her and kept her safe. I was interested in the ways she changed. I was intrigued by the way she had no insight into her mood cycles. Each episode or cycle was like a completely new experience for her.
2. Why did you choose the field of social work versus a different helping profession? Why a career as a social worker?
I came to the field of social work as a second choice. My original goal was to become a counselor. I was fascinated by the field of psychology. I had gotten my bachelors degree in that field and felt I wanted to pursue a helping profession that delved into the psyche. I felt confident of being accepted into the program offered at San Diego State University. My GPA was a strong 4.0. My application was rejected. I was devastated. After three days of grieving, I pulled out the college catalogue and began exploring my alternatives. Social work sounded very dynamic to me. My experiences in life had led me to be very aware of society’s role as the basis of many personal problems. I applied to the program and was accepted.
At the time I began graduate school there were four concentrations in the social work curriculum; Child, Youth and Family, Mental Health, Health, and Aging. The Child, Youth and Family section was the largest and I felt the competition for work would be intense. I liked the Mental Health section but when I read the course descriptions I realized it would be more accurate to call it mental pathology. I decided against that section. I wanted to work with “normal” people facing “normal” life stressors. The Health concentration did not interest me at all. I decided on Aging as I felt there would be a very good job market. There were only 16 students compared to over 200 in the more popular concentrations. Looking back, I think there was a very wise committee or person who rejected my application for the counseling program. It is not my nature to be still and I would not have been well suited to sitting in an office for hours on end.
3. Tell us about your career progression over time?
I began my career in a private care management agency while I was still in graduate school. My next position was with an adult protective services agency that focused on mentally ill seniors. While working in that position I began to realize how health status is such a large determinant of quality of life. I pursued a position with a home health agency. These first two positions both involved home visits which I felt were key to understanding my clients. Being on the road was very stressful so I eventually transitioned into an inpatient geriatric psychiatric position in a community hospital.
I had an opportunity to move to Europe for a year and a half and resigned my position. While I was in Europe I missed my profession and did some presentations for expats on caring for aging parents from abroad. When I returned, I took a position in the same community hospital in their inpatient units and also on the rehab floors at the skilled nursing facility level. After 6 years, this hospital closed and I had the opportunity to transfer to the main metropolitan hospital. This was an intimidating move. The larger hospital included services such as transplant, trauma services, oncology, and cardiology. Computers became part of workplace and I readily adapted to the new technology. I’ve worked at this facility for 17 years and hope to continue on. Each position I took built my knowledge base and was strategically chosen. I like change and in healthcare change is a constant.
My social work positions have given me the opportunity to have a very flexible lifestyle. I have been able to work full-time, part-time and per diem to match whatever my life circumstances were at the time. About 8 years ago I started another career writing book indexes. I have been able to combine my two roles focusing on indexing titles in the fields of psychology, social work, health and self-help. This career addition gave me the ability to travel abroad more often and even live in Panama for 4 years. Everything in my life seemed intertwined and synergistic. I learned Spanish which I am now able to use daily in my social work practice. While I lived out of the country I maintained my per diem position at the hospital and flew back to work for a few weeks two or three times a year. My options all stayed open. I can’t think of any other career that would have been such an excellent life fit. I am now at a point where I can chose how much I want to work and when.
4. What is a day in the life of Janina Kwilos like?
I work in a very fast-paced environment. When I come into work I go to the case management and social work office to find out where I am assigned. A typical day includes walking about 7,000 steps! I participate in multidisciplinary rounds and find out which patients have social work needs or alert the team to the issues I have become aware of. I might assess an elderly person to see if they are fit to return home to independent living, report abuse, provide resources for disability, substance abuse, shelters and community clinics. I make referrals to legal services and county programs. I talk to families about goals of care, end of life decisions and provide education about the healthcare system. I write a few “excuses” from work, comfort families as they watch their loved ones die. I locate the families of accident victims and inform them of the patient’s location and injuries. I never know what my day will bring and this works very well for me. The needs of the patients are staggering and it is difficult to meet them all.
5. What are some of the social justice issue social workers currently face?
I see poverty and racism as key issues today. From these spring the related problems of lack of basic resources such as living wages, employment, housing, food and healthcare. Undocumented immigrants receive restricted services and are often treated as subhuman. There is an increasing climate of separatism and white supremacy. Political policy and the resulting wars are devastating other nations and leaving us with a burden of wounded warriors. I see our society as very sick and divided. The values of greed and materialism continue to stratify our population into “haves and “have-nots.”
6. Please share any and all advice you have for new social workers entering the field.
I think entering the field of social work entails some degree of sacrifice. I find that people within other disciplines in my work environment make significantly higher salaries with the same level of education. It is important to consider whether the compensation will fit with the lifestyle one desires. Since my income was the secondary support I was easily able to follow my path without a financial struggle. I would not have wanted to have to solely support myself or try to raise a family with what I earned.
The other consideration which is important is to assess whether one has the constitution to face an often depressing population long-term. Considering that the people who need intervention the most often want it the least, the rewards can be slim at times. I think the choice of population one works with can ameliorate some of the difficulty in providing services to clients. Sometimes a change of population can relieve a particular burden such as vicarious trauma.
7. What self-care strategies do you suggest for new and veteran social workers?
Self-awareness is so important in staying healthy. Staying connected to activities, people, and pets we find renewing is very helpful. For me physical activity has always been a great outlet for stress. Having colleagues to decompress with is great. I put a great deal of energy into my work and then I draw a boundary. When it is time to go home, I go home. When it is time for lunch I take my break. I might shorten my break to hurry back to a crisis but since crises are constant, I make sure to attend to my own needs too. One of the bits of wisdom passed along to me long ago was “never work harder than your client”. I schedule time off for fun activities. I try to spend time with people in the same population I work with who are not ill or impaired. I take a walk at the bay and notice how healthy and active people are. It reminds me that the world of sick beds I spend my days in is just a small part of the big picture in life.
8. What has been your most meaningful moment as a social worker?
I was monitoring the welfare of an elderly woman with dementia. I realized that her pastor was trying to swindle her out of her home. I was able to get her family to take action and save her resources for the care she needed.
There was another event that was very meaningful to me also. I went to see the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. When I looked through the exhibits and saw the incredible influence of Jane Addams and the other workers, I felt such a blazing pride to be part of the social work profession. It was so interesting to see how their systematic investigation of social issues led to social change.
9. What do you consider your greatest strength that you bring to your career? How would you suggest new Social Workers go about discovering and defining their strengths?
I think my boundless curiosity has led to me constantly building my knowledge. I have been known as “the resource queen”. One of my earliest jobs with the protective agency gave me the opportunity to actually walk clients through applying for benefits and getting various kinds of evaluations. It was so informative to see the difference between the program descriptions and what the actual processes entailed. I learned to question the system and not to assume things. One of the best ways of getting information about services is asking the clients who use them. I loved engaging with people and listening to how they got the things they needed, what worked and what didn’t.
It is important to feel passionate about what we do. There are so many different opportunities in social work that I think it is best to find an area one has passion and the skill set for.
10. Do you have additional advice you would like to share with students considering or pursuing an education in social work?
I think it is important to know the education requirements for the position one would like to work in and also regional differences. For example, in California having a bachelors degree leads to extremely limited job options.
For the ambitious, I would encourage a double major such as Women’s Studies and Social Work or Business Administration. I think knowing Spanish or another frequently used language is a great advantage if that can be incorporated into one’s education plan.
About the Author: Janina Kwilos, MSW, LCSW
Janina Kwilos, MSW, LCSW works as both a freelance indexer and a licensed clinical social worker. She has a Master’s degree in Social Work at San Diego State University and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at San Diego State University as well. She completed the American Society for Indexing training course as well the UC Berkeley Indexing course.
Janina is a member of the American Society for Indexing National and Southern California chapters. She is also certified to teach adult learners at the junior college level (UCSD).