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Student uses tech skills and caregiver role to carve out path to social work

Although Alex Danilowicz had long been interested in social work, he never expected that his position with a software company and his growing role as a family caregiver would motivate him to finally pursue the opportunity.
But after graduating from UNC in 2004 with a BA degree in psychology and anthropology, Danilowicz soon discovered that he and a business partner shared more in common than an interest in technology. Both were caring for aging seniors, and neither felt equipped to handle the challenge. Knowing that others faced similar fears and concerns, Danilowicz said they decided to use their technical skills to develop an online site with needed tools and resources to help families better manage the caregiving journey.
What resulted was, a website that aims to help caregivers navigate the financial, emotional, medical, and legal process of caring for a family member. The website also includes needs assessments, which Danilowicz and his partner crafted with help from social workers, geriatric care managers, and gerontologists.
“At the time, I was providing a lot of care to my grandmother, and my partner had his in-laws living with him, and I directly saw how much stress caregiving puts on families,” said Danilowicz, a Brett Chavis Memorial and Dean’s scholar. “The stress that it induced for so many, including seniors themselves, was the main reason why we developed the startup. As we reached out to others in early development, we kept hearing countless stories of families being torn apart over issues related to care provision or just simply not knowing what to do. For many, becoming a family caregiver is never on the radar and then all of a sudden a crisis occurs, and now you’re in that roll, and now what?”
Danilowicz spent four years developing, programming and marketing the site, but he and his business partner, like many in the caregiving support sector at the time, struggled to design a model that would generate revenue. Although the site is still maintained, both agreed they needed to move on; they eventually landed other software industry jobs. But Danilowicz still wanted more.
“I didn’t realize it at the time that what I had been doing was a form of social work,” he said. “I found myself thinking about this form of service as well as my latent desire to learn to conduct psychotherapy. I was regularly working with social workers and just started gravitating more and more to that side of our work and eventually, I realized I really needed to go back to school and pursue this formally, because ultimately, it was what I was most passionate about.” 
Danilowicz, who graduates in May, including from the School’s Certificate Program in Substance Use Studies, is interested in co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders. Over the past year, he honed his psychotherapeutic skills at Duke Counseling And Psychological Services (CAPS), where he completed his field placement. CAPS serves undergraduate, graduate and professional students at Duke. He also assisted with the development of an early stage collegiate recovery effort for students struggling with alcohol and other drug use.
“It’s been humbling to work with students who are in recovery,” he said. “It also has been a real eye opener to see how pervasive stigma toward individuals with substance use disorders is, especially on college campuses. But through this work, I have found so much meaning and depth and also come to appreciate the journey of recovery in the midst of myriad cultural and systemic challenges.”
Danilowicz said his interest in the topic partly stems from a desire to heal from his own experience in growing up with a family member who struggled with substance use.
“For me, it’s a very subtle kind of territory,” he said. “For others, it’s not so subtle. I feel it’s important to learn to see that addiction profoundly impacts the lives of all it touches, not just those with the addiction itself. It’s enlightening to realize that family members and loved ones of individuals with addictions are on their own journeys of healing and insight.”
As someone who returned to school after years on a lean start-up salary, Danilowicz said the scholarships he was awarded were “nothing less than huge to receive.”
“I was very honored,” he said. “These gifts helped me out tremendously by supporting my education and ensuring that I am prepared for a future in social work. I’m very, very appreciative.”
Following graduation, Danilowicz plans to continue assisting individuals struggling with co-occurring mental health and substance use challenges in an agency setting. Over the next year, he is also determined to raise awareness about marginalized and oppressed individuals, especially people in early and long-term recovery from addiction.
“If we’re serious about mental health and addiction parity… then we need to actually treat it like a chronic illness like MS or diabetes,” he said. “I’m really pleased to have been exposed to principles of recovery management and recovery-oriented systems of care here at the School, and I hope to continue to engage in the kind of dialog that these movements have already been having.”
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