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Alumna finds fulfilling path in pursuing degree in social work

Rina Vaishnav Rhyne, MSW ’06, is a licensed clinical social worker in Baltimore, Md., with extensive experience in the nonprofit world, including in running volunteer programs, administering grants and developing outreach programs. We recently invited Rhyne to participate in our alumni Q&A to learn more about her passion for social work and her daily efforts to make a difference in her community.

Explain your role and responsibilities with The Student Support Network in Baltimore, and tell us more about what you love about your work.

I have the honor of being the executive director of the Student Support Network. Our mission is to provide food, necessities and advocacy to support the well-being of the more than 50% of Baltimore County Public School students living in poverty. Simply put, my job is to ensure we are fulfilling this mission. This means increasing awareness of the impact of poverty in Baltimore County and our organization’s work to alleviate it, increasing support (financially and otherwise) to our organization, guiding our programs and supporting our staff and volunteers in day-to-day operations. Much of my time is spent working on acquiring grants, making connections in the community and working with our board of directors on the strategic direction of the organization. It’s a tall order and each day is different – there is never a dull moment! There are so many aspects of this organization and work that I love, but what is most meaningful to me is that I can use my skills to serve the very community where my family and I live. I am consistently in awe of the support our organization receives from local business owners, houses of worship, local legislators, and my very own friends and neighbors.

Describe your journey to pursue a degree in social work. What initially sparked your interest and how did that interest eventually lead you to UNC’s MSW program? 

Earning a degree in social work was a career change for me. For as long as I can remember, I was volunteering in my community, but when it came to choosing a career, I pursued information technology. My parents were immigrants from India and it was common for children in our community to choose from a handful of lucrative career paths to ensure their parents’ sacrifices were not in vain. This led me to move from Maryland to North Carolina after college to work for IBM. A couple of years into the job, I realize I was unfulfilled, so I started to explore a different, more fulfilling path. I felt fortunate that I had multiple, well-regarded institutions right in my backyard and when I saw that UNC had one of the country’s top MSW programs, it was a no-brainer. As a bonus, I was able to pursue my degree part-time so I could continue to work. At the end of the day, my parents were quite proud of the master’s degree and career change.

How did your social work education and experience as a student help to clarify the problems you wanted to solve or the people you wanted to work with in your profession? 

My MSW education opened me to the depths of issues our society faced and continues to face, and as a result, I was conflicted for some time on which direction to go in with my profession! This was certainly not a bad problem to have, and I appreciated the exposure the MSW program provided to these new areas. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to explore two distinct internships and work on a variety of projects: Dr. Susan Parish’s project on legislative advocacy, Dr. Kim Strom’s project on wrongfully incarcerated individuals, and Dr. Iris Carlton-LaNey’s project encouraging students to attend community meetings outside of their comfort zones particularly standout. I sincerely felt each class gave me an opportunity to explore how I wanted to pursue a meaningful career. I continued my exploration post-graduation, working in policy, community outreach, counseling and program coordination to eventually find the right fit.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since graduating?

I received great advice from my boss in my first job after my MSW; she told me that I should always ask for anything that I or my client needs because the worst someone can do is say ‘no.’ That message sounds so simple, and yet, seems bold when you are starting a new role or when you feel like you have imposter syndrome. However, I have followed this advice, and it has taught me a valuable lesson – pursuing something you feel is important is always worth a shot. Certainly, I have heard “no” more times than I can count in my 15+ years as a social worker. But the times I have heard ‘yes’ are also immeasurable. Just this past year, I reached out to a granter regarding funding for a staff position at the Student Support Network. Obtaining funding for salaries is tough since most granters want to fund direct services or items but I easily received a ‘yes.’ Now I have a wonderful staff member who helps with the many responsibilities of my role! This simple mantra ‘always ask, the worst someone can do is say no’ has been a great lesson in advocacy, handling rejection, and has provided me with the confidence I need to be bold for myself and for others.

What advice can you offer students who are also interested in working in the nonprofit world? 

Don’t give-up! It took me a long time to get to this point of my career. I have had to leave jobs due to grant funds running out and because of sheer unhappiness with the way the nonprofit functioned. But finding work that fulfilled me has always been important to me, and I am thankful I didn’t just say ‘forget it’ during difficult times in my career. Much like for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations function in a variety of ways, and you may have to search until you find the right fit.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your role and how your social work education continues to guide you daily?

I learned so much from my UNC School of Social Work professors. My biggest take away: Social workers can’t do everything. I can’t solve every problem for a child in poverty, no matter how much I would love to. But I can focus my efforts on our organization’s mission and scope of work to make an impact; this is one of the best ways to stave off burnout.