Exploring new ground in social work via well-travelled roads

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Hailing from Ireland, Master of Applied Social Work graduate Rebecca Conway’s travels led her to study in Aotearoa New Zealand, exploring the topic of green social work. Now, she begins her PhD journey in Germany as a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie fellow.

Rebecca and Winny.

After graduating from University College Dublin with an honours Bachelor Degree in Social Science at 21-years-old, Rebecca says she didn’t feel ready to begin her career as a social worker.

“I sought advice from one of my professors and she recommended travelling first. Seven years later, I was living in Aotearoa New Zealand and decided to do my master’s with Massey. What appealed to me most was how I could do it by distance, as I was living the dream in Queenstown.”

Her master’s thesis was inspired by a lecture on the topic of sustainable social work, leading her to explore the influence of green social work within a changing environment.

“I was, and still am, deeply concerned about the impact of major global crises on the lives of people in vulnerable positions. I feel the intersection of climate change and social work remains a relevant and important topic which deserves more attention.”

Her thesis aimed to build greater understanding of the impact of climate change on social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand and to examine their understanding and application of green social work as an approach. Rebecca says through interviews she found participants reported a vital connection between climate change and their work.

“Many noted the link between green social work and addressing environmentally destructive structural issues in the macrosystem which impact people and communities at the micro level.”

The 33-year-old says undertaking her master’s was no easy task.

“I was a full-time mental health community support worker throughout my degree, a job I really loved, so flexibility was important. I had to be careful with time-management and dedicated a lot of my free time to study. The adventure paradise that is Queenstown made that tricky! During the pandemic, I was working two jobs, both in the social sector, making me an essential worker, so my hours increased in both roles. Thankfully, I had a very supportive master’s supervisor, Dr Nicky Stanley-Clarke, who made the whole process easier to manage.”

Despite the challenges, Rebecca says she enjoyed completing her study within a supportive community.

“I thoroughly enjoyed our block courses and getting to spend time with my professors and peers at the Manawatū campus. I formed meaningful connections, and the teaching staff were all compassionate, personable and supportive. I’m grateful to have been taught by them. The field work practice placements enabled me to experience what my future career would be like and test my academic knowledge in practice.”

Rebecca says a standout moment in her academic journey was experiencing noho marae as part of the Māori Development paper in her course.

“It was a privilege as tauiwi to be welcomed into that intimate and spiritual space, to learn in that setting and be given a deep insight into te ao Māori. I loved connecting to the natural environment there, from learning social work theories by observing harakeke, to relating to my maunga, moana and waka by learning and reciting my mihimihi. It inspired me to begin my journey to decolonise my own words, worldviews, research, education and social work practice. It was a very emotional experience that will stay in my heart and memories for a long time.”

After finishing her master’s degree, Rebecca was encouraged to apply for The ASTRA Project, an international doctoral training and research programme.

“What appealed to me most was the aim of ASTRA, to pave the way for a radically new approach to tackle the major societal challenges faced in the practice of social work by combining transdisciplinary sustainability transition research, policies and practices.”

A requirement of the programme was to move to one of the seven European countries involved to conduct the research and PhD within the project. Rebecca says this was a major decision as she was thriving in Aotearoa.

“I was enjoying my work as a newly qualified social worker and loving my life in Queenstown. However, I’ve always been encouraged by a quote from Lewis Carroll about how we only regret the chances we don’t take, so I took the plunge and applied. I didn’t think I stood a chance but ended up being accepted four days after my interview - it all happened so fast I didn’t have the time to think twice!”

Rebecca made the move to Bielefeld, Germany, bringing her dog Winny with her. Her main aim of her PhD research is to explore nature-based, social inclusion projects aimed at supporting young people in precarious situations in Ireland.

“Through this PhD I can delve into the multiple global crises and better understand the impact they have on the marginalised and people in vulnerable situations who are disproportionately affected. Social workers are not only well-placed but mandated to advocate for these people and support communities to build resilience. It makes it critical for social workers to incorporate the natural environment into our work. Ecosocial work, which takes a transformative and holistic approach to sustainable wellbeing and social inclusion, should not be viewed as a speciality within social work but a lens to approach all social issues, structures and problems, and to conduct social practice through.”

Rebecca says she gets huge satisfaction from knowing she’s staying true to her values and studying a topic she feels is important for people and the planet. She aims to finish her PhD in 2024 before moving back home to Ireland.

Looking back on her journey, Rebecca says it’s important to take risks despite the challenges because you learn and grow through the process, and having a good support system is key.

“I owe the exciting direction my career has taken to Dr Lynsey Ellis. I also want to thank Dr Stanley-Clarke who continues to support me academically. The support and companionship I receive from my inspiring ASTRA colleagues is vital to my success in the project. I also want to thank the professors and other professionals involved in ASTRA to providing me with this great opportunity.”

Interested in a career in social work?

Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University is hosting a webinar about the Master of Applied Social Work programme. Learn more about how to use your undergraduate degree to become a registered social work in two years.

Find out more and sign up here.

Want to study a Master of Applied Social Work?

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