Stay True to You
about the author: alyssa petersel, co-founder and ceo of my wellbeing and author of somehow i am different, graduated from northwestern university in 2013 with dual ba degrees in psychology and international studies, graduated summa cum laude from new york university in may 2017 with her master's in social work, and graduated from the writer's institute non-fiction program at cuny graduate center in may 2017. a native new yorker, alyssa now lives in brooklyn and enjoys running, coffee, community, and social justice.
originally published in the National Association of Social Worker's NYC Chapter's publication Currents, the following piece shares more about Alyssa's journey within social work to pursue what eventually became My Wellbeing.
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Some are blessed with a keenly specific professional yearning from a young age. She wants to be a musician. They wants to be a doctor. This provides a foundation, a directional backbone. That person was not me. For years, I grappled with a professional groundlessness that shook me. I began my undergraduate career as a Biomedical Engineer and graduated with degrees in Psychology and International Studies. I considered careers in law, policy, business, and the arts, craving a deeper understanding of the human experience, contextualized. After a year of working in advocacy and community organizing around youth violence prevention in Chicago, and a year of researching and writing about identity and resilience in Budapest, I found myself returning to my roots in New York to pursue a Master’s in Social Work.
Why social work? My parents’ favorite question. A career often written off with low salaries and high emotional stress. When I thought about the kind of work I wanted to commit my life to, despite the wide variance of my previous chapters and ambitions, one common thread remained: I wanted to help people. Social work uniquely places human in environment. We are encouraged to understand who we are from a biological, psychological, and social perspective. We are expected to understand our surroundings and to challenge systems that do us harm.
I marched into my first day of class determined I had made the final decision: I would be a social worker. It was then I truly realized the breadth of the social work field. Did I want to pursue therapy in a clinical practice? Did I want to manage a non-profit? Did I want to run for office? During my first year, I trained on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in Central Brooklyn. Among my multi-disciplinary teammates, I made home visits to adults coping with Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI). In my second year, I worked in an outpatient mental health clinic. I gained a glimpse of understanding the inner workings of the minds and behaviors of adults coping with life transitions, Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, anxiety, and depression. I also gained insight into the systems behind who can and cannot access therapy, who is most equipped to understand the access points and fee structures, and how much high quality therapy can cost.
Graduation approached. Again, the question of what to do with what I had learned. Traditional structures begged me to choose between micro and macro. I could fight alongside community organizers, analyze bills and lobby, manage a project or program at a non-profit. I could become a therapist at an agency, join a group practice, or continue training at an institute. I was wrestling with indecision.
Rather than choosing half of what I truly wanted, I chose both. I convened with a colleague to distill how we could help the therapist-finding process become easier, more intuitive, and more accessible for more people. We interviewed over 200 therapy-seekers and therapists in New York City to learn more about their perspective. Soon thereafter, we launched My Wellbeing to connect those interested in therapy with therapists who fit their needs. We conducted a four-week pilot, through which we connected 20 people to new therapists, 18 of whom remain with their therapist today. We continue to learn the needs of our therapist network and of our community of clients, ceaselessly iterating to improve both experiences.
As we welcome the next generation of social workers back to school, this issue of NASW Currents honors perspectives from orientation to graduation. The biggest lesson I have learned is to honor yourself in the journey of becoming familiar with yourself. Stay true to you. Outside forces will try to convince you there is a right way, or an orderly way, to proceed. The only way is to learn more and more what works best for you. As you discover what that is, the work is to remain honest with yourself. Advocate for yourself as fiercely and as fearlessly as you do for others. I look forward to your stories.