Getting selected to work on Capitol Boulevard gave me a sense of pride. It made me feel special, perhaps even a bit superior.
It was my final year of college before I got my Bachelors degree in Social Work, or BSW, although I would go on to get my Masters immediately afterward. As part of the course curriculum, every student was required to complete a substantial amount of hours at an internship, while simultaneously balancing school work, classes, and general life. Students began looking the year before, the internships that offered pay or stipends being the most popular. The Juvenile Justice System, the Department of Children and Family Services, the Veterans Administration, Hospice. First applications, then interviews, and finally acceptance letters.
But my favorite professor, Yunker, was starting a brand new program in a housing unit for the mentally ill. An old hotel downtown had been converted into apartment units, and he wanted six undergraduate social work students, and two graduate students, to begin a resource allocation program that would focus on case management, hosting a community space with groups and programs, and some limited therapy. Selected students would work together to manage the program, and participation by the community of residents would be voluntary. Professor Yunker high-lighted what a prestigious opportunity this was, and how he would only choose the best of the best. The interview was extensive, and in the end, I was selected along with five of my fellow students, one man and four women, including one from Bosnia.
Capitol Boulevard was a dive in to the deep end of the professional world of social work. The clientele we served at the residential center included a myriad of the extremely mentally ill, ranging from victims to perpetrators, from the chronically depressed to the psychotic. The population included men just released from prison for violent crimes, women who had lived on the streets for decades, refugees from war zones, and women who had been sexually assaulted an untold number of times.
I was only loosely familiar with diagnostics with my limited training at the time, but I was surrounded by clients presenting with symptoms and issues that I had little understanding of. One man would march back and forth in a pattern while aggressively ranting about the universal math principle of zero times zero equalling ten that he believed would revolutionize the galaxy. One man kept records of all of the female students license plates and would try following them home. One man refused to let any garbage or human waste leave his apartment, even by flushing, and after weeks he had to be forcibly removed. One man violently assaulted another, and one man committed suicide. One woman brought in a bottle of scabs she had saved, and dumped them out on a table to show us. One man wrote page long complaints over small slights and would tape them to the door for everyone to read. One man continually drank himself nearly to death and would be rushed to the hospital, only to start drinking again immediately upon his release.
Yet somehow the most stressful part of the internship, more than the school balance and the intense clients, was the creation of agency politics with the other beginning students. All eight of of brought our own experiences, passions, skill-sets, competencies, and insecurities to the table. Creating a work environment where each student felt safe, challenged, validated, and integral was difficult. There were weekly meetings with rushed agendas and no clear leadership, all of us sailing our own ships in the same harbor. Small issues, like forgotten food in the fridge, the failure to forward an Email, or a crooked parking job, could create painful barriers that would last for weeks. There were silent treatments, passive aggressive jabs, and side-taking, and everyone would at some point get involved. Yet we all seemed to come together when the big issues came up.
Within weeks, my pride at being selected to work at Capitol Boulevard was replaced by an overwhelming stress, yet somehow I stayed dedicated to both the clients and the agency. I’ve never worked so hard for no pay in my life. Looking back from the vantage point of 15 years later, all of them spent in the social work field, I’m able to recognize the extreme launching point this was for understanding a very complex field. It tossed me into a reality of limited resource allocation, mental illness, community collaboration, working with clients who have different goals for themselves than the ones I have for them, working with others from different walks of life, navigating difficult agency politics, and keeping proper boundaries. I look back at my work alongside Pam, Richard, Shanna, Anna, Jason, Leslie, and Lelja, under the guidance of Professors Yunker and Dooley, with a sense of reminiscence and pride.
At the end of the year, after we had already interviewed and selected new interns to take our place in our program the following summer, we stood for graduation. Professor Yunker gave a speech and invited the six of us to stand for special recognition and applause. I blushed and felt embarrassed at the time, but I also glowed with pride because I had triumphed. I was ready for whatever came next. I’d come out the other side of the fire stronger than when I’d gone in.
Today, at the age of 39, I drove past Capitol Boulevard for the first time in 15 years. The building looked the same, the divided apartment units converted from hotel rooms. I didn’t go inside. I don’t know if students still work there, or if community programs even exist there. But I sat and stared at the building for a long time, feeling the flood of memories from my year there washing over and through me.
The building is still there. And I’ve moved on.