Class of ′78: Shirley Cramer

By Shirley Cramer

| 19 March 2019

Sharing stories with my classmates from our student days at our recent 40-year reunion made me realise just how much we still had in common despite the variety of our work and life experiences over the decades. The Class of '78 had strong core values which are still in evidence today.

This is a strong basis for a career in the public and voluntary sectors and it has made me reflect on how students were chosen for the applied social studies course. Exam results mattered of course, but each one of us was interviewed by a group of faculty, a time-consuming endeavour, but one that resulted in a diverse and committed group of students.

Our lecturers provided a wide range of perspectives on social work practice and helped us to explore different ideas and world views. We were taught to be flexible and pragmatic and our all-important placements meant that we had an early taste of real-world scenarios and a holistic view.

When I arrived in New York in the 1980's as a "trailing spouse" I was fortunate to be able to undertake an MSc at Columbia University, famous for its social policy and social work courses. At the time students either took the psychotherapeutic route to set up private practices on Park Avenue (the majority) or the few of us who took social administration who believed in understanding policy, systems and improving the conditions in which people lived and worked. When I graduated, I was sad to discover that I couldn't work in the public sector as I wasn't a US citizen and so began my career in the voluntary sector.

One of the key skills learned from the course, that has been consistently important across the years is "active listening". It really doesn't matter whether you are in conversation with a depressed single mum in poor housing, a potential foster parent or a UK government minister, unless you take the time to really understand what the person is saying, what their priorities are or their life perspective, you just cannot be as helpful or as influential as you need to be. The ability to be able to talk to people comfortably across a range of classes, ethnicities and countries is a timeless skill, as relevant today in my role as CEO of the Royal Society for Public Health as it was in my early years as an emergency duty social worker in Ealing.

I have observed in recent years the difficulties created by the move to professional silos, with specific knowledge for a particular remit. This has meant that too often issues, and people, fall between gaps and that few individuals can see, or are responsible for, the whole picture. I hope that the broad, reflective, analytic and generic skills that we learned on the applied social studies course once again become the basis for social work training and potentially many new roles in the caring professions. We need to collaborate, be persuasive, facilitative and collectively ambitious for communities and society and I hope that tomorrow's students have the opportunities that we had to gain both knowledge and confidence from our education.

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