If there is one thing Brenda Rosen has learned from her career, it is how valuable a social worker’s versatile skill set is to any organization or business.
“Social work is a professional degree, and we are trained to work in so many different fields and disciplines. We can work in big business. We can work in nonprofits. We can work in schools, healthcare, politics, criminal justice and crisis response to name just a few. We have the knowledge and education to be leaders in every multi-disciplinary setting,” Rosen said.
Rosen is the executive director of the Kentucky Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, or NASW, a division of the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world. As part of her role, Rosen has advocated to increase social worker salaries and develop better working conditions. She also serves as an instructor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work where she teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses. Most recently, she was named to The Kentucky Gazette’s 2022 Notable Women in Kentucky Politics and Government list.
Leading an organization like NASW and advocating for policy change was not Rosen’s initial career plan—that inspiration arrived later.
Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal
Rosen began her social work journey as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in 1978.
“I always wanted to be a social worker. I always wanted to work with people,” Rosen said of her decision to join the field. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work, she continued her education at the University of Alabama, earning a master’s degree in social work in 1985, and later worked at a hospital in the state. There, she made a pivot to an area of social work she never imagined pursuing.
“All the things that you think you will never do in your world of social work, you might end up doing. The one thing I said I never, ever wanted to do was work with people that were dying, especially dying children. And sure enough, that became my life’s passion as a social worker,” Rosen said.
That willingness to change direction and follow her curiosity became a signature of Rosen’s career, and a central theme for how she encourages students and professionals interested in social work. She credits her experience working in hospice and connecting with clients with helping her put fears aside and develop the courage to try new things.
“I have held the hands of thousands of people as they left their journey here in life. And you know what? You realize that life is not a dress rehearsal,” Rosen said.
Rosen met her husband during her time in Birmingham, and they eventually moved to Pennsylvania where they lived for 23 years. In 2009, Rosen and her husband decided to move back to Lexington with their two children so they could grow up in her favorite college town. Plus, they were tired of the snowy winters. “We need to be ready to kind of explore other areas …I did love the medical field. But I was ready for something new,” Rosen said.
Evolving with the Times and the Technology
That something new included stepping into the classroom to begin teaching at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work in 2012.
Rosen was approached by a colleague who mentioned the school was looking to hire an instructor with significant field experience. She submitted her resume and was selected. “I loved every single minute of it.”
A major shift happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as classes moved to a virtual setting and teachers and students adapted to the environment. But, Rosen explained, the technology opened an entirely new network and allowed people across the globe to interact in a virtual classroom, discussing their different regional experiences and sharing information more easily.
One of her favorite parts of teaching has been interacting with students, sharing her expertise in social work while also showcasing the opportunity to utilize these skills across industries.
“I would love to see, you know, more [social work] students take a law class or a business class or, you know, international policy class, because I think that the gift of our profession is that we can work within all interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary fields. You look at policy, we need more social workers,” Rosen said.
It’s a track she knows well, having made another career pivot to become a policy advocate for social workers.
Serving the Workforce of the Future
Rosen’s next act brought her into the public policy sphere, advocating on the front lines for social workers at the National Association of Social Workers. She has been a member of the organization since 1986 and became the executive director of the Kentucky Chapter in 2016, after serving on the board of directors for a few years. She credits her love of working with college students and her social work peers as the reason for taking the position and encourages every social worker to get involved on a board that speaks to their passion. “For me, policy was just not what I wanted to do,” Rosen said of her career path. “But then I was in my 50s…I had kids and a life and experience behind me, and I was like, you know what? I really need to be proactive, and I really need to be involved.”
“Everybody should be able to live their own authentic lives. So, it’s about not making judgment or telling people what to do, but really engaging and making sure that policies reflect that and are safe and fair.”
Those policy initiatives include ensuring social workers are paid equitably and that there is a pipeline to serve the needs of the community, with a robust and resilient workforce.
After more than four decades in the profession, Rosen has a unique understanding of its rewards and the challenges. She credits her ability to set boundaries and focus on self-care as key tools for her professional success, and she encourages her students and colleagues to establish routines that will bolster them during stressful times.
“Social workers need to set, learn, embrace your inner toddler and learn the word ‘no.’ Rosen said. “I always say to my students, if you can’t find half an hour a day for yourself and with nothing else going on, then you really need to take a step back because there are 24 hours in a day.”
“We’re not here to fix everybody’s problem. We’re here to engage, educate and empower our clients and our coworkers. But, you know, we need to remember that that all those skills that we’ve learned, we need to apply to our own lives and not shortchange our family and friends, and the free time or the ‘me’ time that we need.”
As she looks to her next chapter, Rosen has a message for all social workers, whether they are current practitioners or former professionals who have made their own career and life pivots.
“We need to celebrate and not be afraid to validate our profession. This is a professional degree, and this is not an easy degree to get. I think the more we do that, the more people understand the power of our profession.”