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Student turns passion for photography into pursuit of MSW to create change

Sometimes students are called to the field of social work in the most unexpected ways. Just ask Bridget McEnaney, a final year student in the School of Social Work’s full-time program and a recent Bost scholar.

As a UNC grad in 2009, McEnaney had every intention of pursuing a career in photojournalism. With a passion for storytelling, she viewed her camera as a tool for shining a light on issues that were important to her. Then the stock market crashed, and McEnaney’s life veered in a different direction.

As a caretaker at the time to parents with complex physical and mental health needs, McEnaney had occasionally encountered social workers, an experience that introduced her to direct practice work. Watching these professionals support and advocate for her family was eye-opening, she said.

“I started to understand that I could have a more direct impact on a person’s life, rather than just telling their story visually,” said McEnaney, who owned a photography business for several years. “Being a caretaker at such a young age was sort of a trial by fire that helped me better understand my own abilities and power to come out from behind the camera and make change in a different way.”

A volunteer opportunity with the Compass Center for Women and Families further encouraged her career exploration. At the center, which supports adults and children who have experienced domestic violence, McEnaney had the chance to meet other professionals with degrees in social work. These direct practice and macro social workers were providing advocacy services and helping to manage the nonprofit’s operations. She was impressed and convinced; she had to pursue an MSW.

Since enrolling in the full-time program, McEnaney has developed a significant interest in the intersections of intimate partner violence, substance use disorders and the child welfare system. These issues have been a common thread throughout her work experience, including through her internship with UNC Horizons, a substance use disorder treatment program for pregnant or parenting women and their children.

McEnaney is particularly concerned about the challenges many of these women and their families face, largely due to siloed systems.

“For example, a survivor of domestic violence with a history of substance use might run into challenges accessing recovery-informed support in a domestic violence shelter setting,” she explained. “The survivor has a slip and uses and is asked to leave the shelter, so they return to their abusive partner and CPS takes custody of their child. This traumatic loss fuels a full-blown relapse. So even though all of these systems are involved with one family, they aren’t always integrated in a way that sets the family up for success. I’d like to do more work around better integrating these services and cross-training providers so families have the best possible chance of staying safe and thriving together.”

As a first-generation college student and first-generation graduate student, McEnaney is grateful for the second chance to pursue a profession that she loves. She’s even more thankful that the Annie Kizer Bost Award provided her with the financial support she needed to continue her education.

“Programs and awards like this one are incredibly meaningful,” she said. “For myself and many of my other social work colleagues who have received similar support, pursuing a graduate degree was sort of a pipe dream for us to begin with, so having support to mitigate the cost is really significant.”