Psychology and sociology are common non-social work undergraduate majors prior to graduate studies. One might have difficulty imagining a music performance major becoming a social worker. Alum Colin Bauer, MSW ’17, traded his musical talents for a career of serving others and empowering at-risk students and families.
I feel that I have a better understanding to network and navigate the systematic processes because of my experiences. Sometimes we need to be that voice and say, 'We can do better.'
- Colin Bauer
Bauer played the oboe with youth symphonies prior to starting his undergraduate studies as a music performance major at Ithaca College in New York. While Bauer admits he did not believe music would be his vocation, he knew it would provide for college. If not for Ithaca, he would have never worked at Camp Sussex, a summer camp for inner New York City youth. He was a counselor during the summer and later served as program director.
“Working at the camp made me realize that there’s more issues to this world than music,” Bauer says. “Most of these youth came from troubled and high-poverty environments, and many suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)."
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 changed how he viewed working with people. The terrorist attacks created an internal conflict in Bauer between what it meant to be an American, a compassionate individual, and how to work for marginalized people needing a voice. After graduating in 2002, he hoped to resolve this conflict by signing up with the Peace Corps. He was assigned to serve in the Caribbean nation of Grenada, where he was responsible for youth and community development and worked with boys and girls of the Grenadian Scout Association.
“Joining the Peace Corps was when it hit home for me. It was all about the partnerships and developing trust and relationships with local scout leaders in schools,” Bauer says. “It opened an array of social issues, such as high HIV and AIDS rates. The Peace Corps helped me recognize that sometimes you must put away some of your ideologies, and you can do great work together with partnerships, even in a different culture.”
Bauer’s experiences at Camp Sussex and the Peace Corps solidified his decision to pursue a social work career. Upon returning to the United States, he worked as a social worker at the county Department of Social Services offices in North Carolina. In 2011, he began working at Communities in School, a dropout prevention program in collaboration with the Caldwell County Department of Social Services. Bauer had the opportunity to coordinate social work services and provide child and family-centered interventions. He also utilized skills such as counseling, advocacy and crisis intervention that he had developed in previous positions. Perhaps most importantly, this was when Bauer realized he needed a Master of Social Work degree for his ideal position as a school social worker.
“Communities in Schools was where a lot of my social work skills came to head, and I knew that I would never work within a school system without a master's degree,” Bauer says. “Keeping kids out of school just because it will look bad for graduation rates did not feel right. The only way I could fight and be a voice or advocate was to go back to school.”
Bauer returned to his native Upstate region of South Carolina and enrolled in the College of Social Work’s three-year Part-Time program at the Greenville site. Married and with two daughters, he worked three part-time jobs while attending Saturday classes. While sometimes questioning his decision to return to school, his field placement at Spartanburg School District Seven erased his doubts.
“Going into the classroom and understanding the methodologies, theories and ethical practices created a thrust of momentum to get licensed,” Bauer says. “I wanted to be part of the change for our kids to have opportunities. It gave me a sense of worth, while doing something I was passionate about.”
In a span of three years, Bauer graduated with his MSW, became a licensed social worker, and began working as a Rehabilitative Behavioral Health Services clinical counselor at Spartanburg School District Seven. A year later he became a district social worker for 14 schools. Bauer conducts home visits to connect families to community resources, such as health and mental health agencies. Some of his other duties include conducting assessments for at-risk students, providing crisis intervention, and serving as an advocate within the school and community.
“It’s most rewarding when families are empowered, and I have the opportunity to walk with them,” Bauer says. “We take away the savior mentality and make it about self-determination and the best interests of the family. It's not just providing a service or resource; it's educating and partnering with families.”
Bauer uses every aspect and tool of social work through therapeutic and intentional methods. He is also a McKinney-Vento Liaison for students and families experiencing homelessness. Bauer provides referrals to shelters and housing and assists eligible students in school enrollment and transportation, while training teachers and staff on McKinney-Vento law.
“Just this year, we have worked with 12 to 15 families to get them out of homelessness,” Bauer says. “Helping them find a home eliminates anxieties and stresses and improves academic performance. Families have more economic ability and better paying jobs to focus more on their kids and not working multiple jobs.”
Social work has not only transformed Bauer’s life but everyone he has helped. While he admits he has needed to step back sometimes due to differences of opinion and thoughts of best practices, his empathy for families and individuals and the sharing of community resources gives him daily motivation to continue transforming lives.
“I feel that I have a better understanding to network and navigate the systematic processes because of my experiences,” Bauer says. “Sometimes we need to be that voice and say, 'We can do better.' We must do better. When we bring challenges or different approaches and viewpoints, we must understand we might have resistance. We should understand and welcome reservations. I am now more comfortable having these deeper conversations to advance our systems and school social work practices.”