Interview with Carol Collins
Mental Health Therapist
GC Graduation Year
Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?
I grew up in the sixties. I saw the injustice of race discrimination first hand. I clearly remember going to Florida with my family on vacation and being told I couldn’t play with a little black girl because it would ‘cause problems’ for her. Even as a child, I knew that was wrong. I saw students killed at Kent State University by our own troops for protesting the Vietnam War. I knew, as humans, we could be better than this. I wanted to go to college after high school, but the culture I was raised in did not put value on women being educated, so I was denied the opportunity until I could go on my own in my forties. I was allowed a trade, but not an education. These experiences and many more, led me to social work. For me, it is a calling.
What’s exciting about your job or this field?
It changes daily. You never know what you are going to find when you walk in the door. I have worked with gang members in South Bend to ‘stop the violence.’ I have been involved in some of the most horrific cases of child abuse in the State. I’ve presented public seminars on numerous subjects. I furthered my studies to include criminal justice and have been the director of a Drug and Alcohol Court Program in rural Carroll County. I am currently a full time mental health therapist working with the chronically mentally ill. I have been honored to counsel people from age 3 to age 86. I have seen the best of humanity, and I have seen the worst.
I have been told by my current employer that I am a “social worker’s social worker.” I attribute that to my education at Goshen College—Bob Birkey and Anna Bowman taught me well. I went on for my Master’s Degree at Western Michigan University. I was accepted to the Advanced Standing Program and was one of two chosen for a full fellowship, which means I was paid to go to school. There was one other who received the same honor…. and she was from Goshen College.
Social work is more than being a ‘therapist.’ It is advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is finding the ‘loopholes’ to provide services where there are supposedly none available. It is identifying and working to stamp out discrimination, both individual and institutional, and working for dignity for all. It is reaching deep down inside yourself and finding compassion and understanding for the human race while understanding that you do not have all the answers. It is cooperation and communication with people, cultures, systems, groups—all of humanity—that you may have core differences with so others can be their ‘best selves.’ It is understanding that to serve others means you honor others values whether they are the same as yours or not, and assist them as they need. It is a challenge every single day.
What has been a challenge in your career journey?
Quite simply, balance. It is very easy to ‘burn out’ from this kind of calling. When you are involved in so much suffering, it is very easy to become so involved you ‘lose yourself’ into the problems of others. It is very easy to begin to take things personally when someone you are trying to assist blames you for their ongoing problems. In my career, I’ve lost many people to suicide or accidental overdose. I have developed ways to transition from work to home life so they do not overlap too much. I will tell you that being a social worker is my core identity, so I never leave it entirely at work. But, I have to practice not being a therapist to my family and friends. Boundaries are so very important and get blurry at times. Having a strong support system in my personal life that I trust is key.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
Absolutely not. All of my experiences growing up and as an adult have led me to who I am today. Every person has value; every person has lessons to learn. I do not believe in ‘mistakes,’ only lessons, and I share this with my clients every day. If I can keep my life in perspective, honor that I am a human being and not perfect, and look at all of the challenges presented to me as an opportunity to learn, there is no guilt, no shame, and that leads me to be better able to serve others.
How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?
A liberal arts education is key to social work. The various courses, particularly in the humanities, helped to broaden my interests and heighten my awareness. There is an ongoing joke among the social workers that I have engaged with that “we don’t do math.” That is particularly true for me, but I can do statistics and my liberal arts education offered me the opportunity to play to my strengths. Also, at Goshen College I was not only allowed, but encouraged to ‘think outside the box’ and to study ‘outside the box’ as well. I learned how to be a critical thinker and to challenge myself and others for the betterment of all.
Did anyone offer you some memorable advice that you’d like to pass on? Or…what advice would you give to a young person just starting out?
Anna Bowman, now a retired Social Worker Extraordinaire once told me to ‘always question but never compromise your ethics.’ At the time I thought I knew what she meant, but years of service to others has clarified this for me. Thank you, Anna.
Bob Birkey never wavered in his support of me. There were a lot of things going on during my time at Goshen that made me question whether or not I wanted to continue. He gave me the strength to not give up, but to use my experiences to challenge myself even more. Thank you, Bob.
My advice to others: Do not get into social work thinking you are going to change the world. Do not get into social work thinking you know the answers for others. If you are going to be a social worker, do so with the understanding that our job is to serve, discover, advocate, educate, and do so by being the best person you can be, in the moment. Forgive yourself for being human and forgive others the same. Open your mind, open your heart, and learn to be fearless! We, as a profession, need more fearless people. Welcome to my world!!