Alumna Erica Schmidt finds inspiration to keep learning about geriatric social work through her involvement with the GRACE program

Erica Schmidt (MSSW ’11) still remembers her first experience with a “good death.” It was the spring of 2011, and she was doing her social work internship at Hospice Austin, a nonprofit that provides end-of-life care.

“It was emotional and beautiful watching this family come together. The person was at peace with dying, the family had accepted the death, and they were able to sit back and tell that person that they loved them, that they were going to be fine, and that it was okay to pass on. It was very loving, very raw, but also very healthy. It was such a privilege to be invited into these people’s lives at such an intimate time,” she recalls.

Schmidt (left) on a typical day with residents of Buckner Villa
Schmidt (left) on a typical day with residents of Buckner Villa

Schmidt was in one of the early cohorts of the School of Social Work’s GRACE program, which provides field-based learning about geriatric social work.  She now works at Buckner Villas — a non-profit community for older adults in Austin that provides a continuum of services all the way from independent living to memory care and skilled nursing — and has come full-circle with the GRACE program by serving as a field instructor for current students.

“As with any profession, it’s easy to get into your routine and not push yourself to learn more. Being a GRACE field instructor challenges me, because the students bring new issues and sometimes force me to consider completely new points of view. They are also interested in new areas of gerontology that I might not be familiar with, so again, this forces me to do research to help them. They are giving a lot to me, as much as I am giving to them,” she says.

Thanks to the St. David’s Foundation, the GRACE program is able to fund a field instructor to go with a group of social work students to the Aging in America conference, a multidisciplinary annual meeting that gathers professionals from across the nation to network and learn about aging and quality of life for older adults. Schmidt got to attend the 2017 meeting, which took place in Chicago.

“The conference really expanded my legal and policy knowledge related to older adults, and reminded me how important is to advocate not only for our individual clients but also at a macro level,” she reflects.

In fact, after listening to a panel discussion on how the federal budget proposal would affect state and local aging services, Schmidt felt motivated enough to call her congressman and explain why she opposed the proposal.

“In all my years as a social worker and human rights advocate, I had never made a phone call like that!” she says. She adds that she plans to work with her next GRACE intern at Buckner Villas to create an advocacy group where her clients can discuss legal and policy issues, and think about ways of facilitating change in the areas that are important to them.

The conference also inspired Schmidt to start an inter-generational project, for which she is partnering with a nearby high school so that Buckner residents can share their life stories with journalism students.

“As one of the early graduates of the GRACE program, I’m really proud of how far it has come,” she says. “I appreciate the opportunity it gives field instructors like me to spend a week surrounded by students with amazing ideas, and by professionals from across the world who are driven to improve the lives of older adults in their communities. It was a good reminder that there is always more to do and that I, even as one person, have the power to facilitate change in people’s lives.”

By Andrea Campetella. Posted May 12, 2017.