From having an impact at a grass roots level to influencing wider public policy, a social work degree can turn your passion for social justice into a meaningful, rewarding career.
Advocating for a better life for one and all
Mai Nguyen’s sense of social justice was fostered by her parents, who as journalists would sometimes take a young Mai and her younger sister on work trips back in the family’s homeland of Vietnam.
Find out about social work at UniSA here.
“I was in this bubble of safety and comfort that my parents created for me – which is very important for a child. But at the same time, I was encouraged to see my life in the context of many different lives, stories and ways of living.” Mai says.
“As a child, that was ingrained into me, then it just naturally progressed along the way.”
The University of South Australia social work graduate is now working at not-for-profit Relationships Australia as a redress case worker, supporting people who were sexually abused as children in Australian institutions to tell their stories and apply for compensation from the National Redress Scheme.
She says for her clients, the process and the detail required can be harrowing and painful. Consequently, as a social worker her aim is to provide a therapeutic space to people at a time when they can be “very fragile”.
Taking down each one’s stories can take a day or years. “They may never have told family or friends or partners about what happened and they just get to a point where it’s like a volcano erupting,” says Mai.
“Others need to be able to build a relationship with us to feel comfortable. And then some people have engaged with me and realised they’re not ready, so they disappear for a year or so, then come back.
“We just follow them through the whole process, putting the person first.”
This client-centred practice, Mai says, was a key focus of her two-year Masters in Social Work. Another was helping people to recognise their own strength and how far they had come, independent of the trauma they had suffered.
“The course was all encompassing – we did policy work, aid models, all different areas,” she says, adding that “a big chunk” of the degree was supervised industry placements.
Totalling 1000 hours, the placements enable students to gain real-world, practical skills and build industry relationships, while working alongside qualified professionals in the field.
South Australia is the first in the nation to legislate the registration of social workers and has begun work on a registration scheme. It’s an acknowledgement of the high skill needed – and the duty of care owed – by social workers.
The federal government’s labour market insights project the profession’s numbers to increase by 23.2 per cent between 2021 and 2026, growing the number of social workers nationally from 40,000 to 49,300.
Demand is particularly high in rural and remote areas where shortages of health, allied health professionals and mental health workers means social workers are needed to support clients with more complex needs.
A social work degree can translate into a career in a wide range of sectors – working in homelessness, correctional services and juvenile justice, child protection, domestic violence, aged care, health, mental health, leadership and management, refugees and asylum seekers, schools, disability, community work, and policy, project work and research.
From her own experience, Mai believes the entire sector will only continue to grow.
“I think as a profession, it can be so flexible; it can thrive in so many different contexts,” she says.
“And there are many ways for these skills to be applied and people will continue to embrace the impact social work can bring.
“The redress scheme was only created in 2018, so what I’m doing right now is fairly new compared to a decade ago.”
Before her Masters, Mai graduated from UniSA with a Bachelor of International Studies and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in gender studies and politics.
Interestingly, she is not the only social worker in her family.
“My mum, Nga, was actually a social work lecturer at university; she did a PhD in social sciences and then ended up lecturing,” says Mai.
“At home, there were a lot of discussions around social issues and politics, and she really brought a social worker lens to everything. That really got me passionate about what social work could be.
“Throughout my four-year undergrad degree, I came to realise that I really liked talking to people, making them feel comfortable in certain situations and hearing their stories.
“I didn’t really know what to do with those passions. And it was only when Mum started doing social work that I thought, ‘oh, this is the perfect space for me to channel those skills’.”
Mai’s placement during first year was at St Monica’s Parish School Walkerville, supporting the students and helping to build the school’s community. She “absolutely loved” the experience and after graduating worked for 18 months at another Catholic primary school, St Brigid’s School in Kilburn, as the community hub leader.
“Kilburn is quite a diverse area, with lots of people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and lots of refugees and asylum seekers,” she explains.
“The school already had a chaplain focused on the wellbeing of students, but they recognised that if parents or uncles or aunties or grandparents are struggling, then the child at the heart of it all will suffer as well.
“I was brought in to create this safe space for families to be able to come in, talk through things, or even just to get help with aspects of day-to-day life in Australia, like catching a bus or phoning for a doctor’s appointment.
“It was a very rewarding experience for me.”
Her plans for the next five or 10 years are to stay in the grassroots space as a social worker, working face-to-face to make an impact in peoples’ lives.
“Some of my fellow graduates will, I guess, progress into more managerial roles within the social workspace,” she says.
“But I personally see myself in this space for quite a while more.”