NASW's 60th is good time to reflect

Darrell Wheeler, Ph.D., MPH, ACSWApril marks the second month in NASW’s 60th anniversary celebration, and I was encouraged by colleagues and NASW staff to share a few personal reflections on how I became a social worker.

I’m not sure when I first understood that there was a profession called social work. I did not know any social workers in my elementary school days, and in high school the closest related professional title I recall is “guidance counselor.”

Even in college, as a premed and sociology major I was not fully aware that social work was a professional option for me. Yet, I did know that I was committed to doing something that affected the lives of others and hopefully whole communities.

This sense of individual and community impact probably emerged early in my life as major social events unfolded in our country. I listened to my parents and watched the world changing.

Whether it was seeing riots and marches, or watching the funeral processions of civil rights activists and elected officials, I did not fully understand all that I saw. But I witnessed adults around me fixed to their televisions, often crying and giving voice to generations of pain and suffering. I somehow knew that social change and connection to these events was normal and expected of us all, especially as a young black child in the 1960s.

Fast forward to my first job out of college, I was working as a psychiatric outpatient rehabilitation counselor in Chicago. What an eye-opening experience! The staff and members (we were required to use this term) gave me quite an education. I then went on to work in a couple of inpatient psychiatric hospitals, also in the Chicago area. Each position brought new experiences and new growth opportunities.

It was during these early jobs that I really got to see a social worker in action. I remember being impressed that the social worker did not have to stay on the unit all the time, and that they made an impact on patient cases as well as on other hospital team members.

I thought for a moment that social work might be something I might do if I were not going to medical school. But off to medical school I went, and quickly realized that neither my heart nor head was into it.

I left medical school after one year and joined the U.S. Air Force where I found myself working in — you guessed it — a medical center with the psychiatry and child/family advocacy units. At this point, it was clear to me that I was going to have a career helping people, but I also knew that whatever path I chose would probably require graduate school.

Social work had made an impression on me, and Howard University in Washington, D.C., was my first choice for joining the profession. While in graduate school, I was fortunate to find several part-time positions with local community-based agencies and psychiatric hospitals. These experiences further stimulated my excitement for social work and helped me understand how I could truly help clients and their families.

I also landed what was at that point the best position imaginable — long-term care ombudsman for Southeast Washington, D.C. This was my first experience in administrative and systems-level social work, and it introduced me to new roles in managerial and macro-level social work practice.

Shortly after my second year in the MSW program, I was made aware of the dual-degree Ph.D. program in social work and public health at the University of Pittsburgh. Without hesitation, I applied because it seemed like a great way to combine my passion for social work and my interest in health science.

The rest of my career story seems to have transpired in a flash, but it has been nearly 30 years since I started my social work education under the tutelage of such pioneering mentors as Dorothy Pearson, Eva Stewart, Barbara Shore, Martha Baum, David Epperson, Bogart Leashore, Richard (Dick) English and so many others. They all taught me the need for rigorous attention to the processes, skills, theories and outcomes of the important work we do.

This spring, thousands of new social work graduates will join our ranks and begin their own journeys in this amazing profession. NASW’s 60th anniversary year is a great time to become a mentor, or possibly a supervisor, for a new social worker.

My story is one of more than 600,000 social work stories in the United States, and much of my success is due to participation in NASW.

I hope you will join me this year in inviting to the NASW table those who are still learning to become social workers. Thirty years from now they will be able to name the social work mentors who helped them accomplish great things in their communities.

Contact Darrell Wheeler at