“I am learning at fifty-four that when you walk into communities and do the work that you are all doing, you have to be your authentic self,” said Jodi Kelber-Kaye, in a room of UMBC social work students days before their graduation.
Kelber-Kaye is the associate director of UMBC’s Honors College. She joined the students at the induction ceremony for the UMBC Delta Omicron Chapter of the Phi Alpha Honor Society, the national social work honor society, to accept an honorary membership.The twenty-four inductees were poised to hear advice from leaders in the field as they prepared to enter social work careers, known for being both highly rewarding and demanding.
Megan Meyer, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, also spoke at the event. She reminded the new members to have hope and embody the ideals of the Phi Alpha Honor Society—compassion, social justice, and equity—by being present in the moment. “In order for you to maintain, lead, and make your greatest contribution you have to engage in self-care,” explained Meyer.
Her message resonated with the social work students from both UMBC’s Shady Grove and Catonsville campuses, several of whom have overcome personal challenges through self-care and community support. Encouraged by their own abilities to persevere through personal obstacles, they are now pursuing careers in social work to connect families to the services they need to care for themselves.
“I decided to become a social worker because I survived the last six years of my life with the help of social workers,” remembers Maria Bruno ‘19, social work, who experienced a difficult divorce and the death of her mother in the same year. “If it wasn’t for one in particular social worker, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
A single mom of three teenagers, Bruno felt the best way to take care of herself was to be the first person in her immediate and extended family to attend college. She plans to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate in social work as well. She shares, “I am really proud of myself. I am getting a Ph.D. because I want to give opportunities, just as I have been given.”
Upon hearing Bruno’s story, Jennifer Rantas ‘20, social work, felt an instant connection with her classmate. “There were many times I also felt lost,” explains Rantas. “I spent a couple of years out of school battling mental illness.” The youngest of four, Rantas leaned on her family for support. When she was ready, Rantas committed herself to a social work major wholeheartedly.
Still, sometimes her confidence falters, and it is in these moments when community affirmation means so much. “It is incredible to be recognized,” says Rantas. “Sometimes I very much doubt my work and it is an honor to have people tell you that you are on the right path and are doing really well.”
An enduring commitment to social change
At one memorable moment during the event, students paused in anticipation, preparing to hear their names and light white candles to symbolize their transition to full honor society members.
Carolyn Tice, associate dean of social work at UMBC, spoke to the group, encouraging them to stay strong through self-doubt and to always remember their motivation. “You committed to academic excellence,” she said, “but you also demonstrated a commitment to community and overwhelming service to people—people who are often left behind.”
To maintain a lasting focus on people who truly need support, over the course of a career, Meyer emphasized her strategy for staying centered. “Be appreciative of the moment that you are in. Mindfulness is an important part of self-care,” she shared. “Taking care of yourself will allow you to endure beyond overwhelming demands into the rewards of being a catalyst for great positive change.”
Visit UMBC social work website to learn more about programs and locations.
Banner image: Graduation cap from UMBC commencement. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC unless otherwise noted. “Why Study Social Work” video courtesy of the UMBC Division of Professional Studies. “Networking Advice from Dr. Tice…” video courtesy of the UMBC Career Center.