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Turning Heartache Into Hope Live Chat

If you missed the chat with Jane and her guests Sylvia Abrego-Araiza and Tracy Whitaker, you can catch the conversation here.

Today’s participants:

Jane Pauley, AARP’s Brand Ambassador

Sylvia Abrego-Araiza, Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor

Tracy Whitaker, Director of the Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice at the National Association of Social Workers

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jane Pauley: Hello everyone! Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our Today Show segment this morning featuring Sylvia Abrego-Araiza. Sylvia’s career in counseling troubled teens was a lifetime in the making.

She’d always loved helping others – growing up as one of ten children taught her that. But it wasn’t until later in life that she discovered social work as a way to apply that passion to a career. Social work is becoming quite a popular encore career, especially for the purpose-driven boomer generation. It’s a great way to give back and find fulfillment of your own.

Sylvia joins us in the chat today, along with Tracy Whitaker, the Director of the Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice at the National Association of Social Workers. Truly an expert in her field. We’re going to be talking about social work later in life – be it through an entirely new career or a volunteer opportunity.

Hi, Sylvia and Tracy! Great to have you with us this afternoon.

Tracy Whitaker: Hi Jane, Thanks for inviting me to participate.

Sylvia Abrego-Araiza: Good morning, Jane. It is a pleasure to be participating in this chat.

Comment from Rachel: What are the big trends in the social work field these days?

Whitaker: Hi Rachel. There are several growing trends in social work. Working with older adults is going to grow as Baby Boomers age. Also, there will be increased opportunities to work with military families and veterans. We also expect work with children and in behavioral health to grow. Also, there is renewed interest in working with people returning from the criminal justice system, as well as with those who are incarcerated. Victims of disasters will also need more social workers to help rebuild the social support in their affected communities.

Comment from Lisa: Sylvia, how much schooling did you need when you went back to class to become a social worker?

Abrego-Araiza: Good morning, Lisa. I obtained an Associate’s degree and needed additional drug and alcohol classes, which I acquired through a proprietary school licensed by the Texas Workforce Commission. Overall it was 2 years of education to qualify for a counselor intern position. Then I accrued 4000 paid internship hours and took 2 state tests (written and oral) before obtaining a license for chemical dependency counseling.

Pauley: My question for Tracy is this: Is social work a field where (training being equal) someone older with life experience might be more effective?

Whitaker: Jane, social work is a field that requires knowledge, skill and good judgment. Most social workers choose to work directly with people, and years of life experience can definitely be an advantage. Especially now, we see more seniors helping seniors. But years of experience can be useful in working with all age groups.

Comment from Liz: Hi Jane. I am 44 as of today. After being a substitute teacher for the past ten years so that I had the opportunity to stay home and raise my children, I am back into my career (as of yesterday). My career is in social work, dealing with troubled teens and their families as an In-Home Counselor. I received my Master’s of Social Work back in December 1996. My goals are to become a licensed social worker and a certified substance abuse counselor but both of these goals require two years or more of supervision hours and an extensive amount of full-time hours working directly with teens and families. I have always felt called to work in this field and with this population but I am concerned that I am getting too old and my goals of becoming licensed will never come to be (especially since I am already so far behind the eight-ball). A dear friend of mine told me about your chat today and the wonderful woman who just received her substance abuse certification and is now working with teens. I understand she will be on your show today. I am hoping you can offer some wisdom on how to tame my concerns and how to confidently start on the track of licensure when I am not getting any younger. Thank you.

Whitaker: Hi Liz, happy birthday! Since you already have your MSW, you are much closer to your goal than you might imagine. You may be able to find employment where you'll be able to gain some of the supervision hours you need. Please continue to pursue this goal. So many teenagers and their families are in need and your work with them will be appreciated and rewarding. Don't give up.

Pauley: Liz, had you said you were 54 or 64, I would still have said, “Go for it!” You are likely to have two, if not three, productive decades ahead of you. A two-year investment in education now will pay dividends for years to come.

And that’s not to mention the young lives who you will help or if you don’t take this step, who will not benefit from your generosity, wisdom and skills. Good luck to you.

Comment from Cindy: Sylvia, don’t these kids’ stories break your heart? How do you deal with the emotions this job probably brings up?

Abrego-Araiza: Yes, the kids’ stories are very heartbreaking. I deal with the emotions very carefully, as there are many sensitive issues that need to be handled with care. At times it is difficult for me to hold back my emotions and it is during these times that the compassion comes through and I reach the youth at a point where they need it most. I also ensure that my spiritual needs are met in order to regain my strength.

Pauley: Cindy, to follow-up your question that Sylvia has addressed, I’d like to just make the observation after having spent time with Sylvia that she’s one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met. She radiates positive energy and enthusiasm, so I suspect she is constituted that way and that that’s a quality that makes her able to do such hard, emotional work.

Also, she volunteered various stories of successful or hopeful outcomes. So I think she is restored by examples of when she has been effective and that might counterbalance the sadness.

Comment from Georgia: How many years would it take for me to become a certified social worker, if I were to go to school full-time?

Whitaker: Hi Georgia. Going to school full-time, you can earn a Master’s degree in two years. Depending on the state that you're in, getting certified or licensed can happen right after graduation once you pass a test, or within 2 years if you'll need additional supervision for clinical work. It really depends on the type of license you'll need and your state.

Comment from Gwen: Sylvia, how many of your classmates were your age or older? Was it harder for them to keep up or vice versa?

Abrego-Araiza: I believe there were one or two students who were older than me, so many students looked up to me as a mentor. I was an honor roll student, so clearly the classes were easier for me. Of course, with age comes discipline, focus, and determination.

Comment from Brenda: Tracy, I recently earned my LMSW (in New York) and want to work with children and adolescents. Are there any certifications or specific programs I should look into, or is my LMSW sufficient? Thanks.

Whitaker: Hi Brenda. Your LMSW will be sufficient for many positions. However, you can always boost your marketability by obtaining additional certification. NASW offers a specialty certification in Children, Youth and Families that might interest you. You can get more information at

Comment from Brenda: Sylvia, are you a licensed social worker, or CASAC?

Abrego-Araiza: I have an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science (Health & Human Services.) and I am a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor.

Comment from Gwen: Tracy, where is the greatest need for qualified social workers? And in this economy is there a greater need for volunteers?

Whitaker: Gwen, right now vulnerable people are in the greatest need. Children and older adults are two groups that are especially vulnerable in these economic times. We see greater rates of abuse in both populations as the economy declines. The recession does fuel a need for more volunteers as many agencies are struggling with cutbacks.

Pauley: Gwen, last month our story about Antoinette Little, who had gone back to culinary school alongside students who were 30 years younger, made the same point--that the younger students looked up to her in the same way. And she found herself eager to be a mentor to them.

So this is a point I hope anyone contemplating enrolling in further education but worried about the age difference will keep in mind. Here’s the link to Antoinette’s story.

Comment from Tina: Sylvia, how did you get your current job?

Abrego-Araiza: Tina, I knew of the need for substance abuse counselors in our area and applied for a position with an outpatient facility.

Comment from Louise: Sylvia, I was very inspired by your story this morning. You are a generous and courageous person to do what you do. You are doing a great thing for these children.

Comment from Brenda: Liz, I only started on my MSW when I was 50 (I'm 54 now). It's NEVER too late!

Comment from Bill: What is the job market looking like right now in this economy for social work? Better or worse than average? Thanks.

Whitaker: Bill, traditionally the outlook for social work improves in a down economy. More people are in need and state and local governments, as well as private agencies, are charged with meeting those needs. This dynamic creates opportunities for social workers. However, there are also more challenges with funding positions, as one would expect. Still, social work is consistently identified as a growing field and a great profession in this economy.

Comment from Liz: Hi Bill! In my opinion, if you are interested in social work, you should go for it! Most agencies are always looking for male social workers since there are usually so few.

Comment from Tina: Do you need a Master's degree to become a social worker?

Abrego-Araiza: No, you do not need a Master’s degree to become a social worker. You can earn a Bachelor’s degree and qualify to be a social worker, as there are different levels.

Comment from Tom: Sylvia, do you work only with youth who already have addiction problems, or do you counsel other young people as well?

Abrego-Araiza: Tom, the outpatient program that I work with is designed for youth and requires them to meet criteria for substance abuse or dependency.

Comment from Patrick: Where are the biggest needs in social work these days? Age groups, demographics, and geographically? Are these needs currently being met?

Whitaker: Hi Patrick. People re-entering communities from prison are a growing target population that will have many needs. Also, soldiers returning from overseas will also need more services. The social work profession itself is also in need of more professionals because so many are retiring.

Comment from Ed: Are there people who volunteer with social work? I’m interested in helping out in my retirement years but I don’t want to work a full-time job or go back to school. Thanks.

Whitaker: Hi Ed. There are many social service organizations that actively seek volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to help agencies and to learn more about the profession.

Abrego-Araiza: There are so many volunteer opportunities in the social work field. I volunteered for 5 years at the juvenile probation department. Just yesterday I was speaking with a colleague who requested volunteers for MADD. I encourage you to explore the many options in your community.

Comment from Julie: If you are interested in social work as a career, how might one determine if this career path is the right one to pursue?

Whitaker: Hi Julie. Social workers need to be thoughtful, critical thinkers who are able to not only empathize, but also problem-solve. You might enjoy taking an online quiz that will help you determine if social work is right for you. It's at

Comment from Tom: What is a broad definition of social work? I'm kind of confused about all the areas it encompasses.

Abrego-Araiza: Social work involves working in a variety of settings and with diverse populations that can be in schools, hospitals,criminal justice settings,and basically many other "helping" professions working with children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.

Comment from Tom: Is social work a field that pays well? Is it worth the investment to go back to school?

Whitaker: Hi Tom. Our research has found that 93% of social workers are satisfied with their careers. The median salary for social workers is about $55,000/year. Salaries are usually higher for those in private practice and administration. I definitely think it's worth the investment. It's a career that has endless possibilities.

Comment from Tallison: Do the trials and challenges of social work spill over to your personal life?

Pauley: Tallison, as a reporter, I know there are personalities who seem drawn to the fire, so to speak. I’ve had colleagues who gravitated toward calamity—the scene of an earthquake, for instance. Others were more inclined to stories that taught something. Dozens or scores of different emotional zones are encompassed under the umbrella of journalism.

I think in social work it would be the same. Some individuals will have a high tolerance for emotion or the ability to compartmentalize. Such a person might do better in some aspects of social work than another. So you would want to choose a field that best matches your temperament.

Abrego-Araiza: Tallison, there are times that the trials of my daily work spill over onto my personal life, so it helps to have someone that I can talk to in order to process my thoughts and feelings too. With each experience, I have become a better counselor who is able to cope with the challenges.

Comment from Debbie: Jane, Sylvia or Tracy, I am interested in an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice but am finding school costs around $35K for two years. Other than financial aid, are there any scholarships or grants available for those over 50?. I am interested in working with juvenile offenders or parolees.

Whitaker: Hi Debbie, NASW has several scholarship programs (information is available at In addition, you might want to look at the particular school you'd like to attend. Often, there are graduate assistantships or other awards that will help defray costs. There are also loan forgiveness programs that some social workers qualify for after graduation.

Comment from Tina: Sylvia, is there a single case that you feel has been your biggest or most fulfilling success?

Abrego-Araiza: Yes, most recently one of my clients decided to get out of a prominent gang in our community. He did this during the course of the program and he has opted to re-enroll in the program in order to work a program of recovery.

Comment from Liz: Thank you, Tracy and Jane. Do you have any specific ideas to get me started? I have researched both licenses and all of it just seems so overwhelming to me. It seems even with my MSW that I still have so far to go to accomplish these goals. Sylvia,  keep the faith. Faith will definitely keep us grounded as we deal with the heartbreaking stories. Congratulations and God bless you, Sylvia!

Whitaker: Liz, try to stay focused on your long-term goal. I suggest that you start by talking with people who may be able to point you in a specific direction. You can contact the NASW chapter in your area and state and start networking with other social workers.

Comment from Stuart: Does your social work training enable you to be any more effective in dealing with family issues, or helping to resolve disputes amongst friends?  

Whitaker: Hi Stuart, I'd like to think that I'm more effective in dealing with my family issues, but my husband might disagree! However, I do think that being a social worker helps me understand some of the dynamics that motivate human behavior and helps me defuse some situations, both at home and in the workplace.

Abrego-Araiza: Stuart, my training has most definitely enriched my life, and I have acquired knowledge and skills to benefit personally and help my friends and family too. At times, my training felt like therapy sessions.

Comment from Susan: Any guidance on what to do when you don't know what your calling really is? How do you find it?

Whitaker: Hi Susan. Think about the things that make you the happiest. If you could get paid for doing something you love, what would that be? I found that social work met that need for me and I find that many social workers say the same thing.

Abrego-Araiza: Susan, search your heart to find what your passion is. Explore the options in your community and ask God to guide you every step of the way.

Pauley: Susan, after Sylvia left high school where she had been identified as a very promising candidate for the field of nursing, she went on to a variety of jobs over the years prior to going back to college in social work.

And it seemed to me that virtually every job she had involved helping people, including, most literally, a job in retail where she might have said “may I help you” dozens of times a day. Being a person who found meaning and satisfaction in helping people is probably the strongest thread in Sylvia’s life. Look for your thread.

As a final thought – during the interview with Sylvia, talking about how she had a job in hand before she’d even finished her degree, I made the observation that drug abuse counseling might be a “growth industry” in her southwest Texas community. I imagine that it would be possible to identify unique areas of need in every community.

I salute anyone who chooses the field of social work. It reminds me of a woman who I saw win an award she clearly hadn’t expected to win. Her specialty was working with mental illness in the criminal justice arena – tough work. Her remarks were unprepared, needless to say, and I’ll never forget what she said: “Well, I guess I’d just like to thank the clients for giving meaning to my life.”

Well, it looks like we've blown past the closing time for our chat! Thank you so much for participating in this chat as a part of our “Your Life Calling” series on the TODAY Show and here on

Abrego-Araiza: I’d like to thank everyone for participating in this web chat session and hope that it has been informative, positive and encouraging. Social work is a helping profession that is in need of people willing to make a difference by improving the lives of others; that in and of itself is very rewarding. I encourage you to do some volunteer work in your local community and if you are interested in a social work career, contact your local college or university. For more information in the Rio Grande Valley, you can call South Texas College at (956) 872-8311 or the University of Texas Pan American at (956) 665-2999 and to become a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor you can call the Texas Department of State Health Services at (866) 378-8440.

If I can be of further assistance, feel free to email me at Be blessed.

Whitaker: It was a pleasure speaking with you about social work today. Social work is a great profession that can be rewarding on many levels. A social work degree is very versatile, and prepares social workers to work with individuals, families, groups, communities, organizations and systems. If you’re thinking about a career in social work, the National Association of Social Workers has wonderful resources that will help you start and flourish in this profession. Please visit our web site at Thank you.

Pauley: Sylvia and Tracy – thanks for being with us! I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.

We’ll be back on the Today Show February 15, when I’ll be bringing you another great story about someone who is hearing their life calling in a new and different way.

Stay tuned to for more resources and inspiring stories on reinvention.

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