Social Work Student Recruited for National Leadership Program
Dr. Susan Allen, Master of Social Work Program Director, describes graduate student Patricia Tortora as a person who sees chances and chases them. “She just embraces opportunities wherever she encounters them,” she said, “and fortunately, we encounter opportunities for growth and learning every day, and in every place, when we have the vision to imagine it.”
Tortora’s career with the Social Work Department has been characterized by opportunities that she has taken advantage of, both locally and on a national stage. This March, she attended the National Association of Social Workers – Mississippi Chapter’s annual conference as the University of Mississippi’s nominee for Student of the Year. While there, she also assisted with the student research poster presentations and judging.
Tortora also participated in Project Lift, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. She was chosen from a nationwide pool of young leaders, aged twenty to thirty, studying and working in the behavioral health field. After the participants were flown to Bethesda for a two-day introductory trip, they undertook a seven-month “leadership immersion program”, which consisted of guest lectures, monthly mini-projects, and one overarching project. Tortora said that one of the perhaps unintended benefits of the program involved honing her time-management skills, as her group partners were divided between Mississippi, California, and New Jersey.
“We were all working eight to five and dealing with three different time zones,” she shared, “so we really learned how to budget our time!”
The program’s biggest project involved retaining and recruiting people into the behavioral health care field. Tortora’s group created a booklet she described as a “school survival guide” for students entering the behavioral health care field, be it in psychology, sociology, social work. The guide walks students through what the many field-relevant acronyms stand for, points out scholarship opportunities, and discusses graduate school options.
Tortora said, “There was a really helpful chapter, which I thought was the best part, on self-care and mindfulness. You have to take care of yourself, because you can’t help other people unless your cup is full.”
The booklet was published at the end of the program in the fall, and Tortora is hoping to get a PDF version live online as a free resource.
Of the program as a whole, she said, “Everything we learned was really relevant. It was trying to make us better leaders in the behavioral health care field so we could relay the information we’d been taught to our coworkers and peers and make our agencies that much better.”
Currently, Tortora works in the Department of Social Work in the Child Welfare Training Academy. After graduation in May, she plans to begin a three-month internship at Mill Creek in Pontotoc, a behavioral health clinic for adolescents from seven to twenty.
“That’s the population I want to work with,” she said, “adolescents and teenagers. It’s a very developmental time period, and that’s a population that gets ignored a lot. Teeagers are usually the last to get adopted, since more families want small children, and they get kind of thrown aside. I want to work with them and make sure they feel good. There’s a quote: ‘It’s easier to build strong children than fix broken men.’ People think once you’re a teenager, you’re basically an adult, but you’re just starting, really. ”
Following her internship, Tortora will begin working on licensure for clinical status. Social workers must have two years of clinical supervision in therapy to attain Licensed Clinical Social Worker status. She intends to eventually become a therapist.
During her time at the University of Mississippi, Tortora has found a special niche within her department. She said, “This department has been wonderful. It’s a very small department, so we all know each other inside and out. They’ve been incredibly helpful, encouraging me to find things I’m passionate about. They brought up grad school to me, helped me figure out what I’d need to get in, and gave me a job here. Graduation is actually very bittersweet. I just feel like I had a social work family with my classmates and my department. But we can’t stay forever! There’s only so much you can learn from books before you get out in the world and work with people. Every person you meet is going to teach you something, so you have to be there for that, and open to it.”
Dr. Allen is one of many who appreciates Tortora’s perspective on lifelong learning and relationships. She said, “One of Patti’s most outstanding traits is her willingness to engage with others… It is exciting to observe her developing her professional identity, and knowing she will be such an asset to the profession of social work, and advocate for social justice and equality for all persons.”