At the 2018 commencement ceremony of the BankStreet College of Education this past week, graduates weren’t the only ones juggling feelings of excitement, nostalgia, and anticipation. Cheering on our Child Life Program students brought forth memories of some watershed moments in my own career. When a colleague reached out to the Child Life Forum today asking for child lifers to share thoughts about advocacy and empowerment in times of transition, I began to think more deeply about who and what supported me as I pursued my passion to work with children in hospitals.
As a career changer, I worked as a coordinator in the volunteer department (a paid position) at a large cancer hospital for over seven years. I discovered the field of child life while attending a professional development workshop at my workplace. A participant introduced herself as a child life specialist, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the lightbulb that went off in my head lit up the whole room. I had found my calling. She recommended the BankStreet College, and I enrolled soon thereafter, minoring in child life within a masters in early childhood special education. The hospital paid for my degree, and it took me almost 4 years to complete as I worked full-time.
When I finally graduated, I very much wished to work in the same hospital on the pediatric ward where I had placed, trained, and supported over 125 volunteers. My colleague, the director of pediatric recreation, (child life wasn’t yet in existence there) told me that although she would enjoy working with me, she felt that if I didn’t leave the hospital and spread my wings that I would regret it. I listened to her and left for a large city hospital, working in the emergency department, pediatric wait and play room, and the child abuse clinic, where I learned more than I ever could have imagined. It was a very important time of growth for me and my colleague had been so right.
Another moment of transition came when I took on some of my first private clients. Two professors from my studies at Bankstreet referred me to work with children in their homes, to help them cope with medical procedures and the loss of a family member. My mentors provided supervision for me as I tackled this new and exciting challenge. They showed faith in me where I had little in myself, and they made it possible for me to take this next step. I am forever in their debt and I do my best to pay it forward in my work now as a professor in child life. My mentors’ investment scaffolded me to accomplish far more than I ever could have managed alone. It makes me think of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and how children can accomplish more within a trusting and supportive relationship with an adult than they can on their own. But what does that mean for people who may not have access to these kinds of helpers?
With each step I have taken in my career, someone has always stepped forward to show me the way, cheering me on and acknowledging my abilities and place in the world. Some mentors have been teachers, some colleagues or friends. But that feeling of having someone opening a door for me and having my back as I walked through it, is something I have perhaps taken for granted. I may have always been grateful, but it never occurred to me that all this support could be the result of White Privilege. In her Integrated Masters Project study of Diversity and Social Capital in the Field of Child Life, BankStreet graduate Madalyn Marshall examines the obstacles for people of color entering the field of Child Life. Her research shows how social capital paves the way for White women in our profession. Given the fact that Child Life is dominated by White women, it behooves us to consider ways in which we can take action to change the face of our profession to include more people of color, to better meet the needs of the diverse populations we serve.
In the words of one of this year’s student speakers at commencement, Elise Hebel, “BankStreet’s mission and creed call on students, graduates, and teachers to enter with all five senses alert, to never stop learning, to be flexible, creative, gentle, and just, and to advocate for the rights and dignity of all.” She further entreats us to “nurture tolerance, understanding, and appreciation for the many differences and similarities that unite us, not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but stepping into the role of giant and empowering the vision and actions of others.”
Are we ready to take this first giant step? Recognizing our own positions of privilege is a start.