A shift in perspective

This summer, Lizzie McDonald, a Social Work Masters Candidate from the University of Pennsylvania joined our 2021 summer cohort of interns at the HMS School. As part of the Bridging the Gaps program, Lizzie worked with our staff and students throughout the 2021 Extended School Year (ESY) program. Learn more about Lizzie and her experiences with HMS School:

Tell us more about yourself!
I am originally from the South, born and raised in Mobile, AL and then attended Tulane University in New Orleans for my undergraduate degree. After graduating with a major in Marketing, I worked as a Director of Customer Success for an education technology company in New Orleans. I decided after 5 years of working there that I wanted a change in careers, and I decided to pursue a master’s in social work. I am now about to begin the final year of my Master’s program in Social Work at UPenn. Deciding to go back to school for social work has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I hope to continue working in community mental health after graduation from my program.

When you heard that you were going to be joining HMS School for this opportunity, what were you most looking forward to?
When I heard I would be placed at HMS for my BTG internship, I was so excited (and a little nervous). I actually did not know that HMS was going to be an option for placement; it wasn’t on my radar. It was a complete surprise! I was so excited to have a hands-on internship and to be working in-person with students after a year of virtual gatherings. I remember Laura Boyd telling us before we came to HMS for the first time that HMS School was a “very special place” with lots of joy. I was looking forward to working with and learning from staff and students at HMS because I had never worked with people with cerebral palsy. I knew I would learn a lot, but my expectations were greatly exceeded once I began the internship.

What was your favorite part about this internship experience?
My favorite part of the internship was how patient the staff and students were with me. Every staff member was so helpful, willing to answer questions, and wanted to engage around observations I was having. Students offered the same welcoming spirit.

What is the most rewarding lesson you learned that you will take with you?
I have learned so much from HMS that I will take with me when working with any population as a social worker. Two of these lessons have been looking at clients from a strengths-based approach and advocating for clients and giving clients tools to advocate for themselves. HMS focuses on each student as an individual with different desires, needs, and potential. HMS believes in the potential of each student, and they cater the school experience to ensure that potential is being reached. I am constantly amazed by the adaptations that staff members at HMS make to ensure that every activity at HMS is accessible for students.

I am also amazed by how fiercely HMS staff advocates for their students; the staff looks out for the students and ensures that each student has all the resources they need. The teacher that I have worked with this summer, Courtney, has been a great example of this advocacy. Courtney works to ensure that each student is prepared for transition post-HMS. Courtney is also always adjusting a wheelchair, making sure her students are comfortable, and looking at things from the student’s perspective (literally, she will get on eye level with the student to make sure they are able to see clearly). Courtney and the staff at HMS are an excellent example of client advocacy, and I will take that lesson into my future practice.

How do you envision yourself utilizing your new-found knowledge in your professional career endeavors or future studies?
Working at HMS exceeded my expectations tenfold, and I will carry the life and professional skills I was able to learn while working there with me throughout my career. I know that I will encounter people who have disabilities, people that care for people with disabilities, and people who love others with disabilities. The framework and language that I now have to engage in conversations with these clients is much different than when I started this opportunity this summer. During a conversation with Anthony, I asked for any advice he would give me in my future career. Anthony said that he would implore me to remember to think outside of the box when working with clients – especially clients with disabilities. I appreciated this answer because it really embodies social work and the behavior that I have seen from every staff member I’ve interacted with this summer.

Why do you feel that it’s valuable for more people to have experience working with students and young adults with disabilities?
I had very little professional experience working with young people living with disabilities before coming to HMS this summer. My time at HMS showed me how little I knew about this community and how much I have left to learn. From small changes like noticing building accessibility more to larger changes like a shift in perspective of how one pictures people with disabilities, I think that more people should get involved with this incredible community.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in joining this internship program with HMS and Bridging the Gaps at UPenn?
Bridging the Gaps gives a student the ability to meet students in other health professions and work in interdisciplinary teams, which oftentimes might be the only opportunity a student has during their graduate program. I found this incredibly helpful because I was able to learn from my co-interns about dentistry and the inequities that people with disabilities face when needing dental care. I also really appreciated being able to work with the speech, occupational, and physical therapists at HMS. I learned so much from each of them throughout my internship. For someone interested in doing in an internship with HMS, I would say DO IT! It was one of the best summer internships I could have imagined. You will have fun, you will learn so much, and you will leave with a new perspective that will help you, personally and professionally.

Photos and text provided by: Lizzie McDonald