Skip to main content

“The Most Rewarding Work I’ve Ever Done”: A Conversation with MSW Alum Nina Rhys

February 16, 2022

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, older adults were particularly at risk of severe illness and hospitalization. They often didn’t have the resources to cope with isolation or meet basic needs. Many relied on social workers for lifesaving support during this crisis.

Nina Rhys, 54, is one of those social workers.

After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) Program in 2019, Rhys had eight job offers to choose from. With more than 25 years of experience in different health care settings to her credit, she decided she wanted to work with senior patients going forward. Accordingly, she accepted a position in Seattle as a clinical social worker for older adults at NAVOS, a member of Multicare Behavioral Health Network.

“Working in community mental health and serving clients 60-plus living with significant mental illness and abject poverty is the most rewarding work I have ever done,” Rhys said. “Serving them during the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me a great deal about their resilience and capacity to cope during a crisis.”

By completing VCU’s online M.S.W. Program with a certificate in aging studies, Rhys gained the knowledge and experience she needed to pursue this career, as well as the flexibility to study from home on her own time.

“VCU’s M.S.W. Program gave me a great foundation in clinical practice,” she said. “I use almost everything I learned in those classes on a daily basis.”

An Appreciation for Helping Others

Rhys understood the impact of community service from an early age. Growing up in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1970s, she was influenced by her parents, who worked for a human development organization that helped marginalized groups improve their communities.

“Their work always inspired me and provided a foundation that placed high value on service to the community,” Rhys said.

She went on to serve in various health care roles. Most recently, Rhys worked as a medical assistant in the Family Medicine Residency Program at the University of Washington, in Seattle. The rising doctors there encouraged her to pursue higher education.

At 49, Rhys completed an undergraduate degree in social sciences with a concentration in women’s studies, anthropology and psychology. It was time to figure out her next step.

“My professor noted strengths in me and encouraged me to consider pursuing a master’s in social work,” she said. “Honestly, I never thought I would be able to finish my undergraduate studies, so when she suggested graduate school, my immediate response was to think I would never be accepted.”

The ‘New Law Degree’

Rhys chose VCU’s M.S.W. Program because it included a concentration in aging studies, which would prepare her for a career working with older adults. VCU also provides certificates in specializations such as gender violence intervention and nonprofit management.

“Social work is often called the new law degree because it’s very versatile,” Rhys said. “There are so many opportunities with this degree.”

Rhys learned that VCU’s program is unique in that it teaches students about both the micro and macro aspects* of social work — meaning how to approach issues on an individual and systemwide scale. This is a perspective Rhys has carried with her in her new job.

“When I identify a problem for my client, I not only look at them and their direct environment but cast my gaze outward to look at the systems supporting them or affecting them,” she said. “My studies at VCU taught me how to approach my work using that macro*/micro lens.”

Dean Emeritus and Professor Frank Baskind, Ph.D., in particular, inspired Rhys’ appreciation for macro social work,* which motivates her to this day.

“I am always advocating for policy change or strengthening when I see the need,” she said. “I challenge leadership at my organization regularly to evaluate their policies and make changes where needed.”

Online Study Meets In-Person Internships

Rhys also chose VCU’s program because she could take her classes online and study at home — a format that fit her learning style and offered flexibility — and still gain real-world experience through local internship opportunities.

“This M.S.W. Program has a field internship requirement, which more than makes up for the isolation that can be online learning,” Rhys said. “The program is also very collaborative with other students, so those social experiences are always there.”

In her first year, Rhys interned for the Adult Protective Services agency in Alexandria, Virginia. She conducted one-on-one home visits with older adults in response to complaints about abuse or neglect. Plus, she developed care plans for those in need of resources like mental health services. In Rhys’ second year, she interned at health care center Birmingham Green, where she worked closely with older adults living with significant mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder.

A People-Centered Approach to Social Work

In her current role with Navos, Rhys works with the OASIS outreach team. The team helps older people with mental illness — many of whom live in poverty — recover and rebuild their lives. She leads individual and group therapy sessions, for example, which she loves.

“Recently, I have been creating groups run in our assisted living facilities to help clients reintegrate into society post-pandemic,” she said. “My clinical classes really helped me feel confident about running groups.”

As a Licensed Social Work Associate Independent Clinical (LSWAIC), Rhys can also work with physicians to help make clinically informed decisions for each client.

“I have the knowledge to review clients’ medical records and catch things that often go missed,” Rhys said. “The physicians I work with appreciate the person-centered approach I use in my practice. It helps them to better serve their patients.”

It’s Never Too Late

The next step for Rhys is to become fully licensed as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This will allow her to reach her end goal of running her own telehealth practice.

“This last year of what I call my residency is about getting prepared to take that exam, while continuing to improve my practice,” Rhys said.

Meanwhile she’s training in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which helps people manage negative emotions through mindfulness and assertive communication. She’s also studying eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which helps people safely process traumatic memories.

For other students interested in building careers in social work, Rhys has clear-cut advice: “Do it! We need you. And it’s never too late. I was 51 when I graduated from VCU, and I hit the ground running.”