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College of Social Work

Alumni Spotlight: Michelle Thome-Kaufman, MSW '15

Feb. 18, 2019
Chris Woodley • 

Michelle Thome-Kaufman grew up in Wisconsin and earned her Bachelor of Social Work degree from Northern Michigan University in 2012. But she knew she belonged in South Carolina following a trip to Charleston during her undergraduate studies. After graduating from the College of Social Work, Thome-Kaufman began working as a recovery care coordinator for the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment in Hawaii. She continues to work for the regiment at Camp Pendleton in California. Her primary duties are providing non-medical case management to wounded, ill, and injured Marines and sailors through their recovery and rehabilitation back to duty or their transition into the civilian community.

What inspired you to study and pursue a career in social work?

I knew I was given a gift to help people from a young age; it's what makes me most happy. I was in nursing school when I realized I wanted to help people help themselves and empower and encourage people. This is certainly something nurses do, but I wanted to help others in a different capacity.

Why did you decide to study at the UofSC College of Social Work?

I used to think that I did not want a master’s degree. It took a few twists and turns and schools before I even earned my BSW. During the time after my undergraduate studies, I realized how much more I could do with a master’s degree and started to think about where I wanted to pursue that degree. I had visited Charleston during my undergrad and fell in love with South Carolina. After looking at the UofSC College of Social Work, I knew it was where I was meant to go. I was extremely nervous after submitting my application because I wanted to attend UofSC so badly. My acceptance letter arrived on St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, so I guess the Irish in me served me well for good luck.

What was your favorite memory of the College of Social Work?

My cohort was my favorite memory. I am grateful and blessed to still stay in touch and remain good friends with many people. The entire cohort was made up of some of the kindest, most giving, most well-rounded individuals I've ever known.  

What do you enjoy most about social work?

I love helping people and how I use my educational background in a variety of ways. Since graduating, I have worked in mental health and in the military community. There are not many professions that allow one to use their skills in various ways, and I love that nothing is ever the same in this field. Every day I meet new people through work, and they teach me how to be a better social worker.

What do you think is one thing people do not understand about social workers or the social work profession?

We do more than take kids away from families. I hear that comment every time I meet someone new, and they ask what I do. ‘Oh, you’re a social worker? You take people’s kids away?’ That perception frustrates me for several reasons. First, if a child is removed from a home, then it was the last option to guarantee that child’s safety. No person wakes up and thinks, ‘I want to take away some kids today.’ Secondly, the people who work in child welfare have my utmost respect. It is the one area of social work I know I could never personally work.

Social workers are found in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, military bases, non-profits, court houses and various other places within a community. If you meet a social worker, take time to ask them what they do without assuming. You could learn something new about your community and the people who are working to keep it thriving.

What advice would you give someone beginning their social work career?

Self-care, self-care, self-care. No matter what type of social work you do or the population of people you work with, burnout is real, and it will happen at some point. If you are going into social work, you likely have a giving and caring personality. But you cannot pour from an empty cup and must remain vigilant to your own needs. 

What did you enjoy most about living in Hawaii?

I loved the weather the most. I was born and raised in northeastern Wisconsin where it felt like winter about nine months of the year, and I prefer warm weather and no snow. Wisconsin will always be home, but I prefer warmer climates. We are a military family and plan to return to Charleston after my husband’s retirement.

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