The Mission Society is hosting a virtual Career Fair this October to highlight the variety of opportunities available to students after high school and college graduation - connecting young people with professionals and sharing their invaluable advice for the future. In this article, Mission Society staff member, Elyse Henrici, speaks with her mother, Dani Iemola, to share her mother’s journey into the field of social work.
“Some kids don't decide what they want to be when they grow up until they're already grown; but for me it was different. I remember being in my 6th grade science class in Brooklyn and filling out a form that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote “A Social Worker”. I was fortunate to know what I want to do and to be able to do it. And to still love it all these years later.”
My mom has told me this story countless times and it always made me smile. It is inspiring to imagine her sitting behind a desk, only 11 years old, confidently sharing with her class that she was going to be a social worker. I have changed course many times since starting on my own career journey, and whenever I’m not sure if I’m on the right path, I think back to my mom as an 11 year old. I ask myself, “Am I as excited about the choice I’m about to make as she would be?” and try to take it from there.
When I can’t decide what to do, or don’t feel confident in my ability to take on a new challenge, my mom reminds me how difficult it was for her to believe in herself and how hard she pushed to achieve her dreams. To become a social worker, she had to get a college degree, but her family didn’t support her and often said pursuing upper education was a waste of time and money. She found an affordable community college that had a two-year program and started there, but a year later she transferred to Brooklyn College to receive a bachelor's degree in sociology. After that, she went to night classes to get her master's degree while working in a job in foster care. Nothing was going to stop her.
Now, my mom is a social worker for a K-8 public school. She works with a team to ensure that students’ well-being is supported, and that their needs are met. While no two days are the same, she consistently helps students resolve conflicts, build self esteem, and learn positive social emotional practices, while teaching on topics like mental health, mutual respect, diversity, empathy, and more. For years, I’ve watched her be invigorated by the change she is able to create in what is often an underfunded, understaffed, overlooked public school system. Each day, she fights to balance her own self care with the emotional weight of her work.
“With social work, you have to be “on” most of the time. Carrying the weight of other people’s stories is the biggest challenge because it’s almost impossible to turn off. And you have to try not to feel guilty about wanting to turn it off, because you can't survive if you carry it 24/7. To combat this, I think it's important to be grounded and to know what order your priorities are in. For me, it's my students, their families, then it's my colleagues, then the administration, and then upper administration.”
I’ve watched my mom live up to these values time and time again. When her employees face difficult schedules and impossible to reach expectations, she advocates for better work-life balance that will best support their well-being. She puts the needs of young people at the forefront whenever students and their families are in danger of being left behind. As a social worker, my mom has found that you need to be willing to fight for the needs of others, and I’ve watched in awe as she takes on this task each day she heads into work.
“Social Work is about working for justice, freedom, and advancing human rights – like the right to be yourself and pursue your dreams.”
I’m inspired by my mother's relentless persistence for what she believes is just and right. I learn from her ability to take up space in a field where men dominate management positions, and her ability to push back when others may see conversations around mental health as “small issues”. It is no surprise she knew she wanted to be a social worker at just 11 years old, because the field reflects her personality and the value system she has embodied her entire life. Although it can be a challenging profession, she knows that pursuing social work is a vital and rewarding path - one that has unlocked her confidence, and allowed her to support generations of young people through their educational journeys.
Thank you to Dani Iemola for taking the time to speak with us for the Mission Society Career Fair! To join us for more job highlights, advice, and interviews throughout the month, check out our blog or follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.