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MSW student takes leadership role

For a profession whose central focus is on interacting and working with people, the idea that some social workers need a little push to join an association just for them is ironic, to say the least.

But that’s exactly what USC School of Social Work master’s student Rachel Gardner is doing as co-chair of the New Professionals Network (NPN), which is part of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), California chapter.

“Students and postgrads have a tendency to not become NASW members or stay active until they need continuing education units,” said Gardner, who studies at the Orange County Academic Center. “I think they feel overwhelmed by professionals, so we wanted to give them a place to feel like they’re a part of the NASW.”

NPN started off as a pilot project in 2009 with an informal group of the NASW-CA members trying to increase membership. The group, which hosts social networking events, career advancement workshops and small conferences, formalized itself last year and is working toward becoming a recognized council in NASW-CA so that other chapters can emulate its efforts.

The network targets new professionals in the Los Angeles, Orange County and Inland Empire areas and is dedicated to actively engaging and supporting new social work professionals and students, as well as developing new leaders within NASW.

“It’s a great opportunity to stay current and be involved, to network and socialize with people who are like-minded,” Gardner said. “I’m about to graduate, and I’m fearful that I’m going to lose contact with people, so I know other people are too.”

Gardner, who joined NASW in 2005 after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, is in the community organization, planning and administration concentration. She has used this opportunity with NPN to hone her leadership skills.

“Having this role [as co-chair] has given me a better understanding of how people work. It’s been a good process for me to learn the etiquette of management,” she said.

The part-time student, who started working on her MSW in 2007 and is about to graduate this year, organized NPN’s second annual Cookies & Connections networking event last November with about 50 people in attendance. She also is helping to plan other projects, including a conference in partnership with UCLA and two NASW-CA regions to take place April 28 at UCLA.

NASW-CA executive director Janlee Wong will serve as plenary speaker to students and new professionals. Session topics will include best practices for using social media in advocacy, resume building and jobs search techniques, and the licensure and supervision process.

“Rachel’s leadership in her professional organization is a great example of the School of Social Work’s goal of creating future leaders in the social work profession,” said Leslie Wind, director of the Orange County Academic Center. “Her commitment to the social work profession and her ability to engage as a leader in our field benefits both practitioners and our honorable profession. Rachel is an inspiration for all social workers – new and experienced.”

Gardner also has benefitted from being a part of NPN. Through someone she met in the network, Gardner recently was hired as director of development at Beacon Day School in La Palma, Calif., a school for students with autism and related disorders. She will work there after finishing her MSW in May.

“This opportunity helped me find my dream job,” Gardner said. “I’m a big believer in the power of the network.”

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