Alumnae/i Feature

Annie LaRochelle '20 Shares her Journey from Online Learning to Social Work

What led you to Simmons?

Photo of Annie LaRochelle

The history of the school, and my family. Simmons has one of the oldest social work schools in the country. Also, my late mother-in-law, Rebecca Cohan '72MS, was a licensed social worker (LICSW) for decades. Her mother, Tikvah Portnoi '58MS was part of the Advocacy Board at Simmons in the 1960's and 70's, focused on social justice issues. My mother-in-law influenced me during my graduate studies, and I was inspired by her career. She did divorce mediation, and was an example of social work values. Considering all the angles of an issue was her superpower — she was so subtle in her way of asking intentional questions to pick apart the puzzle and get the answer she was seeking.

Tell us about your current position.

A month before COVID hit I became a full-time outpatient therapist at Advocates Community Counseling, a community mental health clinic where I had my advanced clinical internship. In one month I had to go from in-person to Zoom appointments; that month, I also found out that I was pregnant.

I have a diverse caseload of about 55 people dealing with trauma, grief, severe mental illness, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, homelessness, substance use, and members of the LGBTQ community. I also have American Sign Language (ASL) clients who communicate via interpreters. I'm working on my certification as a grief counselor. I'm also part of a mentoring program at our clinic to support new staff and acclimate them to the documentation process. Mentors provide a safe space for new employees — I'm not a supervisor, so I can talk to them as a colleague, on equal ground. I was a mentor for new students at Simmons because I love being a safe, warm place for people who don't really know the ground yet.

What was your first clinical experience like?

I was excited about the internship because it was very clinical and I wanted to be a LICSW. I was 37 years old but didn't have clinical experience before Simmons; I was a nanny for twelve years before getting my Master's. So I struggled with anxiety about doing something wrong when alone in a room with a patient, or not knowing the correct way to relate to strangers in a clinical setting. Imposter syndrome is real, but when I started to get feedback from clients I realized that I was doing something right just by being present. I learned so much about myself and my abilities in that setting.

We learned a lot about how to act in a clinical setting in the classroom by role playing, but the internship allows you to put that into real life practice. All of my professors were awesome, they were so knowledgeable and supported all of us during our internships. Also, I was in the same boat with all of my peers — anxious, struggling, tired — and that created a great classroom camaraderie. We were a team, which was such a help.

I think I'm a very down to earth therapist, which helps me with building rapport. People need you to be real with them. This is what excites me about the work that I do, to create relationships and support people who are hurting.

How did Simmons prepare you for your field?

Adjunct Jennifer Brennan was among my favorite professors — warm, friendly, and let us text her if we had questions.

I did the online program before COVID, so attending class meant going to my room in the basement, which was convenient for my lifestyle. I liked the asynchronous part because I work best independently, and I didn't miss in-person learning because the setup gave me that classroom feel. I never felt like my voice couldn't be heard, and the faculty always handled differing opinions in a professional way. The program was a great experience that came at the right time in my life and helped me grow as a person. Everything I put into my studies came back tenfold. Simmons was more personable than other schools — more welcoming, more inclusive — and I wouldn't have wanted to go anywhere else.

What has been most rewarding about your career?

The relationships I've been able to create with my clients speaks to the skills I've learned through Simmons, and who I am as a person. My career is a part of my identity, it's not just a job that I do. This is what I'm supposed to be doing, and I'm really good at it. That's hard for me to say because I didn't have a lot of confidence going into graduate school, but my education has really given me the confidence to lead, and to approach things in an intentional, skill-based way. I'm close to getting my LICSW next year, and then I'll start supervising other social workers.

Advice for prospective SSW students?

Social work is a comprehensive system of holistic-based training, which lends itself to an incredible diversity of job options when you get out of school. Social workers can be in congress, and they can be researchers, like Brene Brown. If you're looking for more choices and more freedom to evolve than social work is a really good choice.

Since the pandemic, remote work is going to be a part of this industry moving forward. I would encourage prospective students to consider that fact, if they are questioning whether an online environment for their graduate degree will work. The work they will do after school could involve some remote work. I don't think it's going anywhere, as it has opened a lot of doors and created access to services for a lot of people. Online, you get to know your fellow students in a different way, but you're not going to lose connections because you are learning remotely.

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