2019 Commencement Address

2019 Commencement Address
Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences
Sunday, May 19, 2019

Delivered by
Lisa M. Pape, MSSA, LISW, Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for Care Management, Chaplain and Social Work for the Veterans Health Administration

I’d like to thank Dean Gilmore, and the Jack, Joseph and Morten Mandel SASS for that incredibly humbling introduction. AND CONGRATULATIONS to the class of 2019 — What a glorious day for you and what an honor for me to return after 29 years to convey just how exciting it’s going to be for you in the years to come.

I couldn’t be more delighted that you have chosen social work as your path and to be here with you to kick off your journey in what I believe is the best profession ever. It is an honor to talk to a graduating class where you are all talented, compassionate, diverse change agents who have their eye on leading social change.

The possibilities and opportunities are endless for you…. Social Workers can do so many things: Education, research, direct services, public health. Or you can dedicate your career to public service, like me.

As someone who once sat where you do now, I have some understanding of what you are feeling right now: Excitement, pride, accomplishment and maybe a touch of anxiety or ambivalence. It’s all good. I’ve seen what lies ahead of you. My story is one of thousands but perhaps it will help inspire you to undertake this journey with extra enthusiasm.

One thing is certain - the school has changed tremendously since I was here in 1991 — (yikes) To be honest, I can’t even remember who the commencement speaker was at my graduation.

What I do remember is that I was a bit distracted at the ceremony. In all the excitement of the day, my dad absentmindedly locked the keys in the car after we parked somewhere on Bellflower — (you may be thinking “keys” ??? right…actual keys that you stuck in a slot on the steering column) anyway, I still remember the expression of dread that came over his face as he looked back at the car and realized what happened. There wasn’t much we could do about it, since I had to get to where I was going. So, we hustled over to the ceremony and took our seats in the auditorium. As I waited to receive my diploma, my mind raced: How are we going to get back in the car and get back home? Are we going to be stuck here? You know that thing we do to ourselves—what could I have done to be more helpful; I should have checked with him before we got out of the car…you know that non-productive self-talk….?

Of course, it all worked out, and there was really no need to worry. This was back in the day when you could use a “slim jim” to pry open the lock—so we ended up calling campus security and as I said, it all worker out.

The other day as I was preparing these comments, I saw the bus for the local prep school drive by. On the side of the bus was the school’s motto: You can. You will. Think about it, You can. You will. I took this as a sign that the universe, IN THAT MOMENT- was speaking to me - Especially since YOU CAN - YOU WILL speaks so clearly to what we do in social work. So, remember those words… we will come back to that.

I can say with 100-percent confidence… from a sample size of (little ole Me) one… that YOU CHOSE WELL. It is so rewarding to be a social worker. In my opinion, what matters more than anything is having PASSION for the work you were called to do and fully engaging your passion to make a difference. Passion is a state of mind. Passion brings energy to your work. Passion brings focus, creativity and innovation.

Because of Passion, putting in the effort becomes easy, when giving your brothers and sisters a

  • A hand up,
  • A way to understand their journey and
  • Some help moving into a better space.
  • and you know, YOU CAN, and YOU WILL be that help.
  • I hope that each of you are blessed with the ability to use your passion to create positive change with those you serve.

As you heard from that remarkably generous introduction. MY lifelong passion has been to serve at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in the Health Administration, which is the country’s largest integrated health system. We have around 15-thousand master-prepared social workers, and 1,500 social work interns that serve 10-million Veterans and their families. As the current Executive leading our Social Work and CareGiver cadres, I can say with confidence, we are always interested in enlisting new talent. My email is…just kidding—but really you can google us WWW.SOCIALWORK.VA.GOV

My own journey began about 40 minutes from here in Brunswick. I knew since I was 13 years old that I wanted to become a social worker. My family, on the other hand, wasn’t sure that was such a great idea. You know, they had the stereotypical idea of what social workers do. (I won’t say it out loud, but you all know exactly what I am talking about…) nonetheless, I felt drawn to this profession, because I wanted to make a difference.

It all came together for me while doing odd jobs, making my way through undergraduate school. Fate put me at one of those jobs at a gas station across the street from a VA mental health facility. This was an open campus, and veterans would often walk over to get snacks or cigarettes. As I’d ring them up, they’d stop and chat. They’d tell me their stories as I stood behind the counter on warm summer evenings, ringing them up in that tiny little CLARK Gas Station store.

I was amazed at how honest and open they were about the problems they faced, how hard they were trying to understand their demons and break the grips of addiction, I mean, it clearly left an impression on me.

Fast forward to graduate school…I was thrilled to be accepted into Mandel School of Social Sciences…again fate--the universe--you call it what you want, but it was the only graduate school I applied too…the only one I would accept. So, things got really interesting in my second year of graduate school. You see, I never forgot my brush with Veterans during my college days-- I applied and was accepted to do my internship with the VA, at that same VA hospital across from that gas station. For me, the field placement was EYE-OPENING.

Picture this: I’m 23 years old, not a very worldly resume at the time…you know the gas station, a nursing home as a nurse’s aide…You all have been there--. I was assigned to what was then labeled as “THE VIOLENT UNIT”. Early on, I was dealing face-to-face with a young Veteran who came in because he was having auditory hallucinations and delusions. Mind you, I had never worked with anybody or even known anybody who had hallucinations and delusions. My first quote- “alone assessment” was underway. Like a good social worker, I asked this Veteran what brought him to the hospital. I will ever forget his response - - He said, “his dogs were telling him to hurt his mother with a frying pan.” Wow. Followed by, “I thought you were a Dutch girl spying on the doctors in the unit”.

For most people, that’s not a typical day at the office, but it’s what makes social work so special.

I found my passion. I know, it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. When you’re there for our nation’s hero’s, or fill in your passion, the elderly, children, the LGBTQ community, or those who have mental health or addictions issues, you know deep down that you’re there, because “You Can, and You Will” as long as you are able to.

When a chance to work full-time for VA opened about a year after I completed graduate school, I jumped at the opportunity to work in the Homeless Programs at the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

These were Veterans in need, down and out. The numbers were staggering in 1991, estimates of over 250,000 Veterans living on the streets across the United States no money, no housing, no jobs, no family, limited access to health and mental health care—For me, it simply wasn’t an option to allow this to go on. Letting it go on, would be the easy thing to do, but it’s not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to work to make a difference in a life, in a system or in the world-- Find out what is needed and get the services, the research, the policy, the education, to help that person/population. And like doing anything rewarding, It’s hard work.

About ten years ago, I had the privilege to lead a national effort and a dream team, to be change agents for how the VA served hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans. The initiative was an amazing opportunity. I will never forget the day when the Secretary of Veterans Affairs called me in and said— I want you to end homelessness. Our goal is Zero Homeless Veterans. –Just like that… I was like “waaat”? “ZERO, Are you sure?” Here’s what he said, “There is no number that is ok –1000, 100, 1 vet on the street…There is no right number but 0.“

And you know what? — he is right. No human being — no Veteran should ever have to spend one night sleeping on the streets— We were able to secure resources for the VA of over 1B dollars—we hired over 5000 Social Workers to provide counseling and case management to these Veterans, implemented grants that went to nonprofits to provide supportive services. We got Veterans housed. We got them the services they needed, and we changed how homelessness as an issue was seen across the nation. We became the change agents we were trained to be.

We started with changing our approach to dealing with the problem, we had to start listening to the Veteran Voice and we had to start addressing their basic needs – like housing – that along with providing integrated case management would be key. That’s when we implemented Housing First – (developed by Sam Tsembaris) this was a completely opposite approach from the traditional way to address homelessness— we actually housed the veteran first then wrapped supportive services around them to access when THEY were ready — a basic tenet of social work — start where the person is.

The traditional way of serving the homeless was to focus on putting Veterans in hospitals and treating their health and mental health issues first AND THEN rewarding them with access to housing and employment.

We knew, we also needed a community response—so we engaged partners across the nation and focused on primary leaders in individual communities -Mayors/City Councils and the likes. We needed a community movement to help us respond to this social issue.

Like I said, we took a risk and changed the landscape of how homeless Veterans were treated in this country. It was a gamechanger… a 49% decrease in homeless Veterans living on the streets and a commitment from over 450 Mayors across the nation to make homelessness brief and non-recurring in their communities by focusing on access to services and affordable housing. Today. 71 communities and 3 states have ended homelessness among Veterans.

Though you each will have your own story and your journey—Class of 2019—I challenge you to change the landscape of a social injustice, a public health issue or how about staring with somebody’s life.

So, I’d like to wrap up my talk to you by summing up the lessons of the journey I’ve just described in FOUR simple points. If you remember anything from me — and I hope you do better on the memory score than I did at my graduation — take something from this handy list.

One: It’s about PASSION: Do this for the love of what you’re doing. Do it because, you feel a rush when you successfully advocate for a fellow human being going through a life-altering event. Do it because you experience a thrill when your efforts have impacted lives.

Have passion and purpose, and you receive the best reward of all, the knowledge that you’re helping the underserved.

Two: The quote comes from the founding fathers at the United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. “DO THE HARDER RIGHT THING RATHER THAN THE EASIER WRONG THING…”. We all have this battle inside. The harder right means being uncomfortable, not staying in your comfort zone, it means going with your gut, not what everybody else wants, and it sometimes takes courage. DO THE RIGHT THING, BECAUSE IT’S THE RIGHT THING.

Third: Listen to your clients—I mean really hear them — they know — they really know. We listened and look what happened.

Fourth, and finally: BE AN AGENT FOR CHANGE. This school has well prepared you to be an agent for change. BE AN AGENT FOR CHANGE. Don’t just do things the way they’ve always been done. Question the establishment. Advocate for Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice. Think critically about the way forward and if you see a way that can improve outcomes, make it happen. Be persistent. See opportunity when nobody else sees it. Manage the message and act, always act. I saw a better way of doing things with the homeless program, and I’m glad I didn’t just sit back. You truly can change things.

So now it’s up to you to go out and use your passion to do the good and hard work as an agent of change. You’ve already chosen a profession where what you do matters, and where you can have a lasting impact on the lives of others. In a few minutes, you’ll be graduates from one of the country’s best schools of social work. Be proud of that accomplishment and make the most of it by bringing joy back to the lives of others who need it most.

Thank you again for this great opportunity, and I look forward to reading about all the great things you will do in the years ahead. I know you can do it; I know you will. So, let me hear you say it. I can. I will.

Let’s try that again. I can, I will.