Oberlin Blogs

How a Practicum in Sociology Helped Me Pick a Career

January 6, 2013

Tess Yanisch ’13

This semester, I took a course called Practicum in Sociology. It's listed in the course catalog as a "community-based learning course," one in which students engage to some degree with the Oberlin community. It's pretty open-ended--basically a guided reading on some social issue, combined with an internship with a local organization that also addresses that issue. You need to talk with Sociology professors to find one who's willing to okay the organization, assign your readings, and meet with you occasionally throughout the semester. I was lucky enough to find Professor Baldoz, who said it was fine if I volunteered at Oberlin Community Services rather than find an official internship somewhere. He assigned me three books about hunger and poverty more generally; we met after I finished each one to discuss what I was getting out of the experience.

I mentioned this course before, at the very beginning of the semester, when I promised to write more about it later. This is "later." Note: this post is basically the final review paper I wrote for the course, tweaked slightly to be more reader-friendly. Note on the note: That mostly means adding silly comments and contracting "I am" to "I'm" a lot.

I am very glad that I took the practicum. I got something from all its aspects: my involvement with the Oberlin community was satisfying and educational; the readings enhanced and informed my interest in economic injustice; and my thoughts and feelings around what I saw, experienced, and read helped shaped my decisions about which graduate programs to apply to. By its very nature (the combination of reading with hands-on experience), the practicum gave me more than a purely academic course or unaugmented volunteerism would have. It served as vehicle for community service, a very basic introduction to what a life in public service could be like, and a grounding in the social issues I am now likely to spend my career addressing. (Kind of a startling thought, actually, that I now know what I'm likely to spend my career doing...)

Since the practicum is shaped by the interests and opportunities of the student, my experience of the course has been unique. I don't know where other students work when they choose to take the class, although, since the course description technically calls for an internship rather than volunteer work, I suspect they are often working farther afield or in more clinical settings than I did. I am grateful that the registrar and whatever other Powers That Be of academia ( ed. I actually used the phrase "Powers That Be of academia" in the essay I turned in... heh heh) were involved in the decision allowed me to volunteer instead, and that Oberlin Community Services was willing to take me on.

At OCS, I learned early on how to welcome clients, how to organize their paperwork, and how to answer the phones and handle requests for services. In the second week, however, there was a delivery of fresh bread from Panera Bakery, and I was sent into the warehouse to bag it. This became routine; the bread usually came in on Mondays, when I was volunteering. I would bag it, or as much of it as possible before I had to leave for a class, and explain how the pantry worked to any clients who came in while I was working. I ran back and forth between the warehouse section and the pantry area to restock shelves when we got low on one or more categories of food (cereal, vegetables, soups, pasta and rice, prepared meals, snacks). During the after-lunch rush, there was often barely time to replenish supplies after one wave before another family--or multiple families!--would come in. It was also my duty to fetch and offer a selection of meat to clients. OCS itself is struggling at the moment, so, for a week or two, there was no meat to be had. It was hard telling people who asked for it that we had none left, that their safety net was not as secure as they thought (a phrase I also used in one of my application essays; this has been very much on my mind). When the meat returned--along with milk, eggs, and a surge in donations of canned goods--I was relieved and happy. It's simple, but there is something inherently satisfying, or perhaps reassuring might be a better word, in being able to provide people with what they need. It is restoring something to balance.

While I initially told both the professor and OCS that I was interested in food insecurity, my larger interest lies in the network of governmental and nonprofit organizations and social norms that affect who receives aid, how, when, and from whom. Hunger is a part of this, obviously, but education, health care, child care, and reasonable working conditions are also part of the system. The books I read--Breadline U.S.A., A People's History of Poverty in the United States, and The Betrayal of Work--shed some light on the interconnections of these elements of a decent quality of living. I also got a feel for some of the perceptions people hold of those on welfare and what people on welfare think about the welfare system (A People's History of Poverty was especially helpful here). The books were mentally and emotionally engaging, sparking both my interest and my indignation as I read about the shaming and general nastiness people on welfare have to deal with on top of their precarious economic situations.

Naturally, the texts themselves were not without drawbacks: the journalistic sections of Breadline U.S.A. were enlightening, but the author's personal experiment with eating on a budget came off as condescending and self-absorbed. I found his trip to the food bank almost offensive--there were people there who needed the food, unlike him, and he could have written about the lack of privacy, the long wait, and the impersonal, tunnel-like walkway they lined up along without taking food he did not need. (ed. It really annoyed me. He was so smarmy with this whole "aren't I being a good journalist" kind of thing. I'd recommend that people skip his personal sections if they read the book themselves; the rest of it is fine, and quite interesting.) In a way, his apparent obliviousness represents one of the elements of the social welfare system that I would like to correct--the detachment that people of means seem to have from people without. Over the summer, I heard a story on NPR about charitable giving: while people with comparatively less give comparatively more money, the percent of yearly income that people donate depends more on their zip code than their income level. In other words, people donate when they see others in need, so people who live in a poor area will donate what they can, no matter how much or how little that is. With my interest in compassion and altruism, I was understandably intrigued. America seems to be becoming progressively more segregated by income; what does this mean for social support? Romney's comments on the "forty-seven percent" of Americans who leech off the other half makes marginally more sense in this context. This man grew up wealthy and supported in all his endeavors; perhaps he genuinely does not understand how rare his own experience has been.

When I was a first-year, I took part in the weekend-long Social Justice Institute, a small group of students, Multicultural Resource Center representatives, and people from the Dialogue Center who gathered together to discuss various kinds of societal biases and power imbalances. We touched only briefly on economic injustice, but I wrote about it briefly on this blog at the time, noting that "the upper class tends not to realize that not everyone has their resources, and so society sees the disadvantaged as less effective or hard-working." Part of privilege, after all, is the luxury of not knowing you have it, of assuming everyone else comes from the same background as you and holding them to the same standard. If these assumptions are never challenged--if people rarely interact as equals with someone from outside their socioeconomic niche--people will grow less understanding of each other.

Different standards and different social norms came up frequently in A People's History of Poverty and occasionally in Breadline U.S.A. (The Betrayal of Work was based more in statistics and measurement than sociological analyses, apparently dedicated to overthrowing some of the more noxious misconceptions that middle-class Americans have about low-income workers.) I thought back frequently to an introductory sociology course I took in my first semester at Oberlin, now called "You're Not the Boss of You," that touched on some of the same concepts. (Read about it here.) I mentioned in several of my graduate school application essays how I have found myself thinking back to the course, "connecting new information back to the systems and statistics I learned then. The same concepts appeared again and again through my classes and outside reading, always intertwined: power, poverty, education, and health; access, authority, and class." The readings for this course built on the lessons I learned back then about the power of those with the authority to define "normal" and to require others to follow their norms.

Fortunately, I didn't see any enforcement of bureaucratic rules at OCS. From what I could see, everyone was polite, patient, and helpful. In return, the clients were friendly and patient with volunteers like me, who were clearly still learning what they should be doing. Some volunteers were also clients, helping others at the place that helped them. I had conversations with people who were coming in for the first time and people who came frequently; we talked about everything from food to family troubles to prosthetic limbs. I had conversations with clients, OCS employees, and OCS employees' children (we agreed that Ella Enchanted is an excellent book). Some commentators might view the atmosphere of casual equality at OCS its most impressive accomplishment, more so even than the number of people fed or given assistance with transportation or rent.

I am, of course, aware that all the work I did was surface work at best--essential to the function of the facility, no doubt, but nothing unique, nothing that could not be done by anyone else. Bagging bread, stocking shelves, stuffing envelopes, and getting meat may keep an organization running, but actually running the organization, as it were, takes a different skill set, and examining or altering the social and political forces that make organizations like OCS necessary in the first place requires something else again. While I found the volunteer work satisfying, I would like to take the long view and get involved in policy or systems analysis, evaluating and implementing the suggestions laid out in the books I read. This was rather reassuring, as it confirmed my career plans were on the right track.

In late October, I visited my adviser with a list of psychology graduate programs I wanted to apply to. I mentioned to her that I'd had a surprisingly hard time finding the kinds of applied programs I was interested in. After some discussion, she asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up (her words). I offered some disjointed, rather inarticulate description of "research, but applied"--basically, I want to see the results, I want the results to be helping people right away. She told me that most of the programs I was looking at weren't right for me, then: "They're good schools, but they're too academic. The kind of person they're going to try to turn you into doesn't sound like the kind of person you want to be." She suggested I try for a Ph.D. in social work. (I hadn't even known there were Ph.D.'s in social work!) It turns out that there are, and those holding them learn how to design, implement, and evaluate interventions to meet community needs. I was delighted; I have always enjoyed research, but the pure, academic research most psychologists do, while interesting, seemed too detached from the real world. Even altruism research, which I find fascinating, serves more to uncover the mechanisms and correlates of generosity than to explore class- or region-based differences in its expression. (ed. Translation from formal-paper-ese: this research focuses on how, where, and when people are more generous and why that might be so, but it doesn't come with a how-to list and isn't immediately applied by another wing of the same institution. Hopefully social work will be different.)

But I wasn't 100% sure yet. What if I was overthinking things--what if this need for societal relevance could be met by volunteering on the side while doing academic work? The practicum largely assuaged these doubts; the more I learned about economic inequality and social systems, the more interested I was. Even my dissatisfaction with simple volunteerism was reassuring. Like my dissatisfaction with pure research, it seemed to indicate that social work programs were, in fact, what I ought to be looking into.

And so I applied for a few community psychology programs and several social work ones. While writing my personal statements, I found myself referencing my reading and experiences from the practicum. It was a really good thing for me--and, hopefully, let me accomplish some good in my time here at Oberlin as well.

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