How Online M.S.W. Student Polly Lund Balances School and Family Life

M.S.W. student Polly Lund.

For the past two years, Polly Lund has juggled life as a returning student with raising six kids. “How do I manage my time?” Lund asks before laughing. “My daughter says I lock my office door and don’t let people talk to me. That’s not totally true.”

When her family needs her, Lund is there for them. Even as she speaks, Lund is in the car supervising her daughter’s driving. “All the way to one side, then flip a U-ie. OK, sorry, back to your question.”

Although she laughs, she admits that being both an attentive mom and a successful student is challenging. But the right degree program has been a big help. Lund chose Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work to help her achieve her new career goal of becoming a direct practice therapist in part because it allows her the flexibility to care for her family.

“I wanted to do a mental health master’s program so that I could be a therapist,” Lund says. “After talking to a few friends who are also in this field … they suggested that licensed clinical social work would be the best path for portability from state to state and just in general for this position.”

Portability is a family-related consideration for Lund because her husband is on active military duty. She needs to be able to keep on track if they relocate, and VCU’s M.S.W. program’s flexibility fits her family’s unpredictable lifestyle.

The choice has panned out. Lund graduated in spring 2021 and is planning her next career steps.

Balancing Family Life and Coursework

Before entering VCU’s M.S.W. program, Lund hadn’t been a college student for more than 20 years. Since earning a bachelor’s in exercise science in 1998, she has been teaching fitness classes, currently as a coach for an Orangetheory boutique studio.

At this point in her life, with family and work on her plate, she needed an online program she could customize to fit her crowded schedule. She also wanted the option to complete in-person fieldwork and gain real-world experience for her career.

She’s found VCU to be as flexible as she is, offering choices that meet her particular challenges.

“I was especially interested in VCU because it was an established program with an online option, instead of a completely online school,” Lund says. “VCU also takes charge and handles your fieldwork placement, which was a big deal for me.”

A Full-Time Program

Lund opted for the full-time M.S.W. program so she could complete her degree as soon as possible.

“Being in school, even part time, is still a sacrifice for my family,” Lund says. “So I would rather do a bigger sacrifice for a shorter amount of time than drag it out for multiple years.”

Plus, her husband will retire from the military soon. She wants to have her diploma by then to maximize her family’s post-military flexibility.

Harnessing Time Management Skills

As a working mother and a student, Lund’s time management skills have kicked into high gear. She plans her time carefully to juggle family responsibilities, courses, fieldwork and a part-time job.

“I try to do as much work as I can while my kids are at school,” Lund says. “My family life gives me some natural time constraint. I work on my school stuff whenever I can. I have also found that I need to use weekends quite a bit.”

Since her time is a precious commodity, how does Lund keep from losing it? Rather than leaning on digital technology, she prefers to outline her weeks in a notebook.

“I work best if I know what’s coming, at least for the week. I can tell, oh gee, I have three discussion boards due Wednesday, so I know I need to get that stuff done first. And I need to really hustle to get those done Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. And then, I have Thursday and Friday left but then a couple more things due Sunday, so I know I’m going to be busy on the weekend.”

Her finely tuned time management skills allow Lund to fit quality time with her family around her studies. “I just have to meticulously write out everything I have to do for the week — then plan my week around those assignments.”

Impactful Courses and Professors

Social justice became truly real to Lund at VCU, she says. Beginning with her first semester, Lund recalls the impact of her social justice courses and how they affected her worldview.

“Being a Caucasian, middle-aged woman from an at least middle-class background, that was a lot for me to take in and adjust to,” she says. “A lot of the concepts in social justice became more real to me. It’s not that I didn’t know that they existed conceptually, but they became more real.”

Individual professors, as well as courses, have inspired Lund. When asked about faculty engagement in the VCU M.S.W. program, Lund is enthusiastic. “The faculty have all been so great.” In particular, she credits her professor Kimberly S. Compton, Ph.D., with keeping students engaged and interactive through remote learning.

“Kimberly Compton is amazing. She has high expectations of her students, but she communicates frequently — she’s excellent with communication. She’s reasonable. She gives great feedback on assignments. She gives you the feeling that she’s really there for you as a professor.”

Real-World Experience Through Fieldwork

In VCU’s  M.S.W. program, Lund complements her coursework with real-world field experiences. This firsthand exposure to the actual practice of social work is especially important for Lund, who came to social work from another field.

“I wanted to do mental health; going the social work route was not something that I ever thought I would do,” Lund says. “So it was really helpful for me to just be around other social workers and see what their jobs were like compared to other health care workers.”

So far, fieldwork has brought to life what she learns in class. “My fieldwork has been very impactful because everything we study across the different classes I’m able to see or be around or put into action during my fieldwork,” Lund says.

In a human behavior course, for example, she studied cultural competence from the perspective of a frequently cited 1997 book by Anne Fadiman. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down chronicles the true story of a Hmong refugee family from Laos, their child with epilepsy and their experience with the U.S. health care system.

“That book was really impactful, especially because it had to do with a lot of medical issues and a family that was not from America,” Lund says. “My fieldwork is in a hospital, so I could see a lot of parallels to what I was doing.”

A Future as a Therapist

Now that she’s graduated, Lund hopes to complete her clinical hours working for a local social work agency. She then plans to pursue licensure and become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

“Past that, I am definitely interested in working with military families,” she says. “So possibly working on base or with a practice that has a lot of military family connections.”

Pursue an Advanced Career in Social Work

Students like Polly Lund discover social work through a range of different life and career experiences. The VCU School of Social Work prepares students from all backgrounds to become leaders and knowledgeable scholars in their practice.

Backed by principles of social justice and cultural competence, the program provides graduates with clinical skills in evidence-based practice so they can build rewarding careers as licensed practitioners. Discover how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online M.S.W. can help you move toward your career goals.