Finding a path in social work
A placement in Katrina Ikonomou’s final year of a Bachelor of Social Work unexpectedly offered her a path forward.
Thanks to a recommendation from her cousin, Katrina decided to study at ACU’s Strathfield Campus after learning about the hands-on support she would receive as an Aboriginal student through the campus’ Indigenous Higher Education Unit, Yalbalinga. However, deciding exactly which degree to study was a little harder.
“I just knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know what that really meant. I understood that social work was a broad degree and I thought it would be flexible and allow me to decide later on which career path I wanted to follow. But when I first started, I was open to everything.”
Studying social work
As much as she enjoyed her studies, Katrina admits her social work degree was challenging.
“It took some time to understand the theories and get a better grasp of why the world is the way it is. I had to get my head around the idea that everyone has a different story and leads a different life, and I had to really think about the best ways I could help someone as a social worker. I came to understand there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Like many students, Katrina said getting hands on in her placements was the best part of the degree. “I loved the variety of the three places I got to work in, it was such a good experience.”
Katrina’s final placement was at the not-for-profit organisation Gunawirra, which aims to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by breaking the cycle of physical, emotional, alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence linked to poor mental health.
Soon after, this placement transformed for Katrina into a paid position.
Growing her career
Once her studies were complete and Gunawirra offered her a social work job, Katrina was tasked with running the organisation’s mums and bubs groups.
“A lot of our families have faced trauma, so we're here to be a place where they feel safe. We want these kids to become confident leaders who haven’t fallen behind everyone else.
“Our goal is to help this next generation know their culture and their heritage and have a strong sense of identity. This can get lost as a number of the mums we work with aren’t Aboriginal but they have Aboriginal children, and they’re not always sure what they can teach them. They come to us to learn and build that connection to the culture. I just love seeing the difference this can make.”
An additional challenge Katrina faced in her first year as a social worker was dealing with the impact of the global pandemic.
“Shifting our groups online wasn’t easy,” she said, “but eventually we started back with face-to-face support, one family at a time. We also did lots of home visits where we would drop off care packages and activities for the kids.
Katrina was soon promoted to a clinical manager role at Gunawirra.
“I now oversee the country work we do, supporting preschools in rural New South Wales with services like our fly-in fly-out art therapists. But I still get to do the mums and bubs groups too – we’re such a small organisation that you have to take on a bit of everything.”
As much as she loves being a social worker, Katrina said overcoming challenges is just part of the job.
“It's harder than I thought it would be. The demands that you need to meet (or you think you need to meet) to help people is higher than I originally assumed. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, I can fix that’, but it’s not that easy. However, at the same time, social work is just so rewarding.”
Katrina said the other challenge that many social workers like her face is learning to leave work at work.
“I do feel like I have to compartmentalise my life a bit. This is really difficult, particularly when you work with children. I do my best to separate my work life from my home life, but it's not always possible in a job like mine when you love and care for these people and want the best for them.
“But you really need to take care of yourself as well, and that’s a fine balance. I’m much better now than when I first started and didn’t care about answering the phone at midnight or five in the morning. Setting those boundaries is something I’m still working on.”
The right path
Katrina happily encourages others to give social work a go.
“If your focus is making the world a better place for even just one person, then this is what you should do. Of course, you're not going to change the world but you could change the world for one family.
“At times, my Bachelor of Social Work was emotionally draining. You just can’t give up.
"You need to find a good support system with your fellow students and find your place – know what you like and don’t like and don’t close yourself off to any opportunities that might come your way.
“I certainly didn’t predict I’d be where I am now. Even though I’m an Aboriginal woman myself, I didn’t know I’d end up working with my own people. But uni gave me the time to determine what was going to work for me and this helped me find the right path.”
Katrina’s dedication to her career led to her unexpectedly winning the Inner West Council Young Citizen of the Year award in 2021, which honours local residents for their achievements and contributions to their community.
“Someone else put my name forward for the award, but I never thought I’d be in a position to win something like this.
“To be recognised for the work I do with Gunawirra was incredible – we are such a small organisation. But I was really honoured.”
If you think social work is for you, learn more about where this degree could lead.