Only for those interested...
WARNING: this has very little to do with the Marshall Islands (although there is a few references). This is an excerpt from the personal statement I wrote for one graduate school program and rather than go into depth about my graduate school goals and bore many readers, I thought it would be wise to just pass along my explanation for those interested. Feel free to ignore this post and scroll up to the next one, which details my holiday endeavors and island shenanigans. Otherwise, here is a piece of my essay and a look into my future goals......
"My interest in pursuing social work has stemmed from several experiences working with low income populations. During my sophomore year of high school, I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico and helped build a house with the organization Amor Ministries. I quickly fell head over heels in love with the 5 year old girl whose house we were building and we managed to forge a bond that rivals many of those I have made in America. It was the first time I was able to truly appreciate the kind, funny and hardworking individuals that make up each piece of the statistics on “impoverished populations.” I spent the next three years of my life traveling to Tijuana every spring break, meeting new people whose lives I was blessed to play a small role in. Those experiences inspired me to pursue a college degree in psychology and a concentration in sociology.
My undergraduate experience further developed my passion to work with vulnerable populations. During my junior year of college, I was fortunate enough to acquire a job working as a counselor at the Mount Hope Family Center in Rochester, NY. The program focused on working with children who lived in low socioeconomic areas, many of whom were victims of abuse or neglect. The difficult situations these children were facing led them to seek negative attention. My job was to create lessons that aimed to help the children discuss and handle their emotions in a healthy way. I heard stories from these children daily about their heartbreaking living situations, describing toxic environments with parents who were suffering from substance abuse, mental illness and STD’s. Many of these situations led to developmental disabilities or emotional problems that limited the children’s ability to succeed in school and impeded their future potential. I also met a number of young women who were submerged in the world of teen motherhood without many supportive life lines. These situations occurred often and it was not uncommon for me to come home from Mount Hope feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. Despite the taxing nature of the job, I still found myself eager to return each day. I was driven by the prospect of a breakthrough. The exhaustion always felt worth it when I saw a child attempting to control their anger by utilizing the strategies we worked on during a group lesson. I find purpose and passion in playing a part in these tiny miracles.
Presently, I am working as a volunteer teacher in a low-income high school in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands on a yearlong contract. My experiences here have bolstered my ambition to work with low socioeconomic communities. It has also increased my desire to study social welfare issues in at-risk areas with focuses on mental health and sexual health. Teen pregnancy is remarkably high in the RMI, leading dozens of girls to drop out of high school each term, many of which are my students. However, sexual health is a taboo topic that is rarely discussed within families or schools. Similarly, youth suicide rates are alarmingly high and nationwide surveys have indicated that families seriously underreport them due to cultural stigma. I have made these issues a priority and I am currently organizing a two-week intensive seminar to educate my students about sexual health strategies. Additionally, I am creating a program that will educate students and community members about the realities of mental illness and the suicide statistics in the country, in an attempt to start a dialogue concerning these issues, provide resources and offer myself as a source of support for students suffering from depression. My experiences in Mexico, Rochester and the Marshall Islands have impacted my life on a personal level and subsequently a professional level, inspiring me to pursue a career in social work.
I am most interested in studying stigmatized social issues including mental illness and sexual health in vulnerable populations. Stigma surrounding mental illness stems from the unreasonable expectation that mental illness is a matter of personal strength and that suffering individuals should “toughen up and get over it.” This mentality leads to decreased self-esteem in victims and a de-valuation of their problems. In the Marshall Islands, even when grieving the loss of a loved one, it is highly discouraged to exhibit feelings of sadness or depression. Similarly, the students I worked with in Rochester found it difficult to discuss their emotions for fear of appearing weak. Mental health is not considered to be as legitimate as many physical ailments. It would be unreasonable for someone to claim that a cancer patient just needs to change the way they think about the world and “toughen up” as the sole treatment option, however it is a common suggestion for those suffering with mental illness.
Stigma surrounding sexual health issues are most detrimental in the lives of women raised in vulnerable communities. These individuals often have little access to sexual health education and resources, increasing their chances of STD’s and teen pregnancy. Society often expects women to accept criticism and sole responsibility when dealing with these issues, ignoring their cultural context. My Marshallese students facing social stigma due to teen pregnancy are exclusively young women; the fathers are rarely involved, escaping the shame and long term repercussions of their actions. Despite the astoundingly high rates of teen pregnancy, social stigma has led these young women to remain uneducated about basic genital anatomy, birth control and sexual health in general. Society condemns these women, holding them solely responsible and offers no resources or means of support, largely due to the “discomfort” that surrounds discussion of the topic.
Overall, the realm of mental illness and sexual health includes social stigma that projects feelings of shame. This shame leads the victims to de-legitimize their own problems, viewing their troubles as a sign of personal weakness that should be hidden and ultimately perpetuating the stigma surrounding the topic. Members of vulnerable populations are already faced with oppression in terms of inadequate access to resources and societal de-valuation of individuals. Women, immigrants, racial minorities, disabled and homeless individuals must prove themselves as legitimate and capable, as opposed to privileged groups who are assumed to be so. This de-valuation leads privileged groups to assume that the aforementioned populations are merely trying to gain government resources and sympathies when they are faced with mental illness, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, STD’s or single motherhood. The generalization of these groups is detrimental to the wellbeing of these individuals, yet the contextualization of their lives is necessary to consider when addressing their hardships. The lack of awareness concerning cultural influence and discomfort surrounding these topics leads to social stigma that not only prevents support from society as a whole, but also impedes discussion and support between victims within these communities.
Recognizing the influence social systems have over the lives and struggles of individuals, especially in vulnerable populations, is the core reason I am so passionate about dedicating my life to the pursuit of social justice. Social justice is only possible when facilitated by others and I feel that I am most capable of achieving this goal through a career in social work. I believe that working with individuals concerning stigmatized mental health and sexual health struggles by legitimizing their problems and encouraging self-respect is necessary. However, only working on the individual level is not truly addressing the root of the problem and is placing a band aid on a gunshot wound, so to speak. Cultural influence is an equally important issue to address and social support is necessary while striving to increase the overall wellbeing of these victims. My professional goals are to create and implement community outreach programs that address issues of mental illness and sexual health in an attempt to facilitate conversations surrounding these stigmatized topics and provide resources that can be shared and utilized. These programs could act both as preventative measures as well as supportive means for victims. Opening up the possibility for community support could lead victims to seek the help they need and emerge from the isolated depths of shame that society has projected on their situations. I believe that the combination of individual therapy and community outreach is necessary when seeking social justice for vulnerable populations dealing with mental illness and sexual health, and I would like to spend my life facilitating this union."