This Social Work alum wants her master’s degree to help her create systemic change
As a Bachelor of Social Work grad, Rachelle Wilmot is a social worker active in the Downtown Eastside core. She works in child protection on a family service team with B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, where she helps ensure at-risk children receive the support they need. Her role has given her the chance to improve the lives of many local children, youth and families.
Despite her accomplishments, Rachelle wants to do more. This year, she begins studying remotely for her Master of Social Work at Dalhousie University. We spoke with Rachelle about her time at Douglas, why she loves social work and what her advice is for people who may want to become social workers themselves, through a master’s program or otherwise.
Why did you become a social worker?
I was always driven to work with, and advocate for, people. Initially, I was studying history so I could become a teacher. Halfway through my second year, I decided to transfer those credits to a social work degree at Douglas because I wanted to do something more hands-on with people, especially children. Don’t get me wrong: teachers do an amazing job and they’re all in. But I wanted to provide support in what I saw as a more marginalized setting.
Why did you choose Douglas?
Compared to other programs, Douglas’s was more affordable. That was huge because I pay for my own schooling. I worked all throughout my studies. That’s not to say I was completely unsupported, though. I got help whenever I could from applying for scholarships and other funding. My grandmother even used to help me pay for books. Tuition was stressful, but Douglas gave me the environment and resources I needed to manage it.
What does it mean to work in child protection?
We work with families who have been investigated and deemed in need of further services. They might need legal aid after a child was removed from the home, or long-term support in their household, or something else completely. Whatever the case, we facilitate the longer process of working with the family to keep the child safe and in the home.
Child protection is something I have my own history with. My parents both suffer from substance abuse, so it’s something that’s close to my heart.
What is your top priority when keeping children safe?
The priority is always reunification with family, for the child to be able to stay in their homes with their families. As we assess the situation, we go down the priority list. If the parents aren’t an option, then we ask ourselves, “What are our choices to keep this child in their community? What family members can they stay with, what community members?” If all other choices are exhausted, our very last option is foster care and planning for permanency outside of the home.
What did you think of the community at Douglas?
My small cohort was Douglas’s very first class in social work, in 2017, and it’s always been close-knit and mutually supportive. Several of us are still in touch. That network of support included our instructors, too. If I was working double-shifts, I could say the next morning in class, “I’m really tired, please don’t call on me,” and that was met with compassion. There was an understanding that the students in the program were working professionals, and they held us to a high standard while recognizing that not every student has the same 24 hours.
How did you build experience while you were studying?
The program gave me so many chances to do practicum work. That often led to casual work or full-time jobs with the same employers. I’ve worked for the Lookout Housing and Health Society, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Harbour Light. My last practicum was with the Ministry, which is where I really started to get a feel for this work, supported by the legislative knowledge I gained in class. That practicum eventually opened the door to my current position. I reached out to the district operations manager, who I’d worked with as a student, and they hired me after a panel interview.
Why do you want to get your Master of Social Work?
I’m in love with learning. I’ve read the syllabus for the program I’m entering again and again. It really focuses on our Indigenous partners and our Black community. As a Black social worker who was doing my undergrad studies not so long ago, that kind of focus is not something I’ve experienced before.
Above all, I want to create systemic change. I want to carve out a role for myself that lets me influence policy and shifts in practice. I want to work in our city and to help people who are the most marginalized. I’m going to stand a better chance of doing that after I get a master’s degree.
That said, I want to acknowledge that the tools to push that systemic change forward are denied to so many people through the gatekeeping of education. Not everyone has the same access to schooling as me and others. Even as I pursue a master’s degree myself, I recognize that that in itself is another barrier we need to tear down.
What is your advice to social workers who want to get their master’s?
A Master of Social Work is competitive, and what you need to get accepted into a program is very specific. Keep an eye on your grade point average, as I found there is a B minimum across the board for entering graduate studies. You also need two years of post-bachelor work experience, because they really want people to have a firm foundation of experience on the frontline. Like any grad program, you’ll need reference letters, so keep those ties with your instructors. Finally, the application essays are lengthy, so set aside the time to write them well.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get in on the first round. It’s not a reflection of you or your work. Don’t be afraid to call the university and ask them, “What was missing?” Then you’ll know what to work on for next time.
March 13–19 is B.C.’s Social Work Week, dedicated to the achievements of our province’s social workers. Learn more about our Bachelor of Social Work program, and the opportunities it opens.