Janel Davis ’99, currently a social worker for the Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services, returned to the University to discuss her nearly 15-year career in the human service field on Monday, April 27. Associate Director of Alumni and Parent Relations Greg Bernard organized the discussion.
Davis began by describing her work at the Division of Public Defender Services.
“My job is to connect clients with services for mental health, substance abuse, housing, benefit eligibility, and generally try to get them connected to services that in some way, cannot just benefit them, but also benefit their case,” Davis said. “The whole mission of our office is to represent indigent persons who are facing charges that could possibly have them incarcerated.”
She connected her current position to her experience at the University, reflecting on how her undergraduate career shaped her personhood. Initially setting out to be a government major, Davis realized right away that she had to go in a different direction. For her, that meant African American Studies.
“Back in ’95, up until graduation, the Latin American Studies, African American Studies, and American Studies [Departments] were unbelievable,” Davis said. “You couldn’t get into a class, because everyone wanted to take them. The faculty was outstanding.”
As a first-generation American from the West Indies, specifically Barbados and Trinidad, Davis emphasized her family’s belief in education as a critical step in the ultimate goal of making money. At the same time, her studies forced her to evaluate her surroundings more critically.
“The whole idea of underrepresented populations…. That was the key thing,” Davis said. “When I started hearing information about…people not having a voice, I connected to that, because although I grew up in New York, and although I’ve been extremely blessed to have good educational opportunities, in many parts of my life I felt voiceless. I was frustrated, and I was angry, and there were lots of things that I didn’t understand that I felt needed to be sorted out.”
She traced this feeling back even further, connecting it to an experience she had in high school.
“I went to a small private school in New York, [a] great education…but it was all Anglo- and Euro-centered,” Davis said. “In my graduating class, there were five people of color…. When we went to the administration, because we wanted to have [a] culturally sensitive curriculum…we were told that it would make others feel bad and exclude them…. I felt silenced.”
She went on to describe her first experiences in social work, initially as a paralegal at a public interest law firm, which required her to engage directly with people who needed representation and information.
“I think if you’re looking to go into the field of social work, a lot of it is going to be experiential,” Davis said. “A lot of it is not going to come through the textbook, there is nothing that will prepare you other than hitting the ground running, and then as you do it, you begin to fine-tune your skills.”
She encouraged students to look for entry-level positions to get a feel for a given field. Another one of her tips was to take advantage of volunteerism and educational trainings as valuable professional experience. She passed her “Training Book” around the room, which she noted could serve as a portfolio of sorts.
Jalen Alexander (GRAD) asked about her work in relation to the stereotypical chaos of the Division of Public Defender Services.
Davis acknowledged that in Connecticut, the courthouse sees about 5,000 cases a week, and that individually she had 145 people in her caseload. She emphasized the commitment she and her colleagues have to their clients, and explained that it is not uncommon for human service employees to ensure that their clients have money to get home, or that they have a change of clothes to wear in public if they are being released from prison.
“That’s the part of the work that moves you,” Davis said. “Because you realize…you don’t know, it could be my sister…. It could be me. It’s one bad decision, or sometimes just being in the wrong place, you just don’t know.”
Alexander went on to ask about Davis’ personal routine.
“In a busy field, but also a field where you’re caring for other people, helping them care for themselves…how do you manage self care?” Alexander asked.
Davis also underlined the need for a support system, having sufficient time away from work, eating well, and exercising.
Bernard expanded on the idea of being in touch with personal needs and feelings, arguing for the importance of self-reflection.
“People are constantly in pursuit of finding their passion, their niche, their identity professionally, and reinventing themselves,” Bernard said. “It’s good to be open minded about that, because…you’re so many things, and there are so many different opportunities for you to create a revenue stream for yourself but also enjoy what you’re doing. It’s not easy; you have to constantly self-evaluate.”
Sophie Massey ’15 framed Bernard’s call for individual growth in terms of her own experience.
“I feel like it’s not always easy being a student here,” Massey said. “It took a while for me to get to the point where I’m at now, where I have a direction, and know how to talk about myself in a stronger way.”
Alexander further posed a question regarding transition.
“Transitions are very difficult for people,” Alexander said. “I’m thinking of a transition from a countless number of years being a student to no longer being a student, or from job to job or career to career…. What does it take to make that step?”
Bernard explained that the University prepares students for these transitions. With much more freedom and time, individuals have to take risks, and create their own collegiate experiences independently.
“You just have to grow to being comfortable being uncomfortable,” Bernard said. “Any time there’s change in your life, there’s going to be that ambiguity…when you start to doubt yourself, just compare it to another experience where you had to step up to the plate…. I think Wesleyan fortifies you, prepares you, for those transitions.”