Capitol Boulevard

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.

Ad Junct

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Over the course of six years, I went to three separate colleges. I learned the ins and outs of academic systems, loading myself with credits while working on the side to support myself financially. I learned how to stack up courses so that I could get ahead in some classes while staying right on track with others, how to balance in-person and online, and how to navigate my energies toward certain classes with 100% energy while giving only 40% to others, whatever it took to get an A. In addition, I learned how to make sure I was invested in my assignments, planning out ways to keep myself invested. I learned that I was a great paper writer, and excellent at oral interviews, but terrible at memorization and test-taking.

I loved college. I loved being in the academic arena, with new energy always. I joined choirs, formed improv troops, sang in A Cappella groups, and starred in school plays. During the course of my six-year education, which culminated in a Masters degree in Social Work, or MSW, I had dozens of teachers. Now, from the vantage point of 15 years later, I can only name maybe 6 of those teachers by name, the ones that had the most profound impact on me. Of the others, many were ineffective, boring, disconnected, or simply not memorable.

When I started teaching, back in 2009, I wanted to be a teacher who was memorable.

I’ve always had a flair for teaching. (My mom has always told me that my three greatest talents are in “writing, teaching, and helping”). Most of my experience teaching was in Sunday School (or Gospel Doctrine) in Mormon wards throughout my adult life. I had the ability to take dense material from the Old Testament (like Jonah and Ninevah), difficult-to-understand topics (like “the Gifts of the Spirit”), or complex modern revelations (like eternal marriage and polygamy) and disseminate them for a room full of peers in a way that was both enlightening and entertaining. I liked to push people’s buttons, make them uncomfortable, and then leave them with a strong dose of spiritual enlightenment. I wanted them to leave the room feeling powerful. I wanted them to be talking about the lesson for the whole week afterwards.

Teaching Sunday School required a tremendous amount of preparation (reading and becoming familiar with the content and its adjacent topics), organization (understanding how this content fit into the wider spectrum of the overall curriculum), time management (knowing how to effectively get selected information across in an allotted time perfectly, not under- or over-planning), enthusiasm (if I was in love the topic, the room would be also), and group facilitation (trying to keep a large room full of very different people with very different expectations engaged, getting people to participate but not too much, answering unexpected questions, and keeping the content moving forward). I had to understand the room I was in and the role I was there to play, and I had to be ready for a myriad of possible distractions. Preparing for Sunday School lessons took me hours, and I loved it. More than that, I was good at it. It brought me joy and fulfillment.

So, after a few years of working full time at my forty-hour per week job (and in addition to my wife, son, home, and busy church calling), I decided I wanted to teach. I approached the local satellite university, a branch of Boise State University for students living in northern Idaho, and I was thrilled when they offered me an ad junket faculty position. Though I only had a Masters degree, they had a current opening, and brought me on board, offering me approximately $1000 per college credit for a 3 credit course. I enthusiastically accepted.

I quickly realized that that was not a lot of money. For $3000, I would have to read an entire text book and create a syllabus for an assigned curriculum. I would then spend 45 hours over the course of 15 weeks teaching it (one college credit means 15 hours of in class instruction, so for this class there would be 15 separate 3-hour classes). I would have to prepare each lecture, give assignments, and then grade the assignments of 27 individual non-traditional social work students. For my first class, they would each turn in 7 individual papers, and a longer essay final, making a total of 216 papers I would be grading. After it was all said and done, I was basically being paid half of minimum wage.

Navigating the strong personalities in the classroom quickly became the most difficult part of the job. Social work classes are dominated by people who have had terrible things happen to them and now want to figure themselves out. The classes were made up of 60 to 80 per cent women, and many of the students had a very strong sense of entitlement. (This is worthy of a different blog post, but here is an example of a typical interchange. Teacher: “Your papers are due tomorrow, don’t forget.” Student: “Can I please have a two week extension? You have no idea what I’m going through in my personal life!”)

It wasn’t until the end of that first semester that I started to understand what being an ad junct faculty member actually meant. The university had a certain amount of dollars to spend on a particular curriculum. They could only hire so many faculty, and they could only assign so many classes to each faculty member. But they still had to teach a minimum number of classes. So it was much cheaper and easier to hire outside resources to offer classes not covered by faculty. (One definition of the word ‘ad junct’ is, literally, “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it.”) I was not a part of the university or the program, but I was putting in dozens of hours per month to teach a course for the university. In short, I was not likely to ever hear from the dean or faculty unless a student complained.

Despite the drawbacks, teaching both exhilarated and exhausted me. I got to meet so many amazing students (and of course, several others I didn’t care for much), and I felt honored to be sharing my talents and experiences with them. I taught Diagnostics, and Introduction to Social Work, and Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and Ethics. I formed long-term relationships with many, and genuinely enjoyed my experiences. And the reviews I received were incredible, overwhelmingly positive, with some students calling me the best teacher they had ever had, and others saying I’d changed the course of their education for the better. In short, I loved it.

And then I came out of the closet and moved to Utah. And my teaching career (well, my ad junct teaching career), changed just like everything else.

(To be continued… in Ad Junct Part 2!)