Social work, Turkish coffee and dreaming of Clark Kent by Maria Polishchuk

Maria Polishchuk with a beautiful nature shot in the background

Almost every time I ask someone to do an interview, they reply with “Oh no, I am not a suitable person!” and it breaks and warms my heart at the same time. Why do some of us think that their story is not worth sharing? When we started Storyo, we wanted to talk about people who inspire us, people around us.

Maria is my dear friend of many years, she is not a company founder or a public figure, but she has probably affected more lives than any of us through social work. She has done so much wonderful work across our entire population: from foster children, to elderly at the hospital, to students who need support at the university. Maria is incredibly kind, caring and patient. I am so honoured to have her on Storyo!

 

Maria, tell us a bit about your education background and why you chose to do a degree in Social Work?

Many would agree that the last year of high school takes pressure to a whole new level. I imagine it as if you are playing “Who wants to become a millionaire”, and you are sitting in the spotlight sweating like crazy, all eyes on you with the host impatiently waiting for you to answer the million dollar question ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’. You know you are stuffed, because you ran out of all lifelines: there is no more chance to opt for 50:50, you asked the audience already and got no coherent response, and when you gave your friend a call they were also sweating and freaking out because they had the same question hanging over them and they have no fucking clue as to what they wanted to be when they grew up either, let alone have an answer for you.

So there I was too, in my last year, not having the slightest idea of what I wanted to be when I grow up. Through the years I went through different stages of what I saw a grown up version of myself be. In primary school I was seriously considering becoming a president or an actress, that was a tough choice, don’t judge me. In secondary school I saw myself teaching English, and in the later years I was very attracted to journalism and writing stories and poems about love and boys while listening to Evanescence and being convinced that all of their songs are, of course, about me. I was also fan-girling about the actor Tom Welling who played Clark Kent in the TV show Smallville, and came up with a brilliant mastermind plan of becoming a journalist, flying to Canada to interview Tom, sweeping him off his feet with my charm and wit and getting him to marry me. Flawless plan. It would have totally worked if I would have gotten a chance to execute it.

Unfortunately, my mum didn’t share my passion for journalism or Tom and straight up told me that it was over her dead body I would go on to study journalism, because of course she knew that being a journalist wasn’t all about swooping hot Canadian actors off their feet. Her point was that journalism was very hard work that often required having zero personal life, long hour days, poor work-life balance and no stability. Not being the one to argue with my parents I gave in and accepted it – I had no idea of who I wanted to be or what I wanted to study after school.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t visited by the muse of inspiration one day who whispered in my ear “you should study social work”. As many undecided kids I started my university journey with the Bachelor of Arts, and picked 4 papers in my first semester – psychology, sociology, history of sexuality and philosophy. What a cocktail! I thoroughly enjoyed the papers but as I was approaching the end of the first semester I thought this just isn’t practical and although I’m learning a lot of theory, I couldn’t think of any straightforward career that this might lead to.

Then I discovered social work. I always knew that I wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer material, and when flipping the pages of the programme prospectus brochure I came across Bachelor of Social Work and read the description of the programme I just knew that this is what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always liked working with people and considered myself a good listener, and thought: oh well, if I can make a living out of this why not study it further? Little did I know back then that social work was so much more than what I thought it was. But more about this later.

There I was, studying Bachelor of Social Work. The first couple of years were tough and I didn’t do as well as I expected. Part of me thinks that it was less to do with the coursework and more to do with the fact that I was 18 and wanted to party. When the third year came around our lecturers started talking to us about pursuing Honours and how we needed a good grade average to get into the programme. This is when the competitive side of me sparked up – I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough and that I could do it. And I did, I pulled my shit together, and I studied so hard like never before. I still consider it to be my little personal achievement that I managed to graduate with the First Class Honours and made myself and my parents proud. This is all I wanted – just to prove to myself that I could do it and that I was good enough. It kind of felt like winning a monopoly game, well, maybe a little bit better!

What I absolutely loved about my programme were the work placements we needed to do in our third and fourth years of study. My first one was at Family Start at Anglican Trust for Women and Children (ATWC). We worked with vulnerable mums and their bubs, identifying areas of need and supporting them through the motherhood journeys. This was my first exposure to social work and I had the best supervisor, Gilly Stuart, who swore like a sailor, and had the biggest and kindest heart made of gold and, oh, her passion, her passion for social work and for people was so contagious. I am so lucky to have had Gilly guide me so early on my journey, she opened my eyes to a whole new side of New Zealand I have never seen before – the world of poverty, domestic violence, vulnerable and incredibly resilient families.

My second placement was at the Abortion Clinic in Greenlane. We supported women who were considering termination of their pregnancies. It was a very challenging role and the most important part for me was to ensure that the women felt safe and comfortable with me.

A funny meme, top image says “newly qualified social worker” with a nice looking person, bottom image" says “same worker one year later” with a mad looking person

You have worked for Barnados, Rape Prevention Education and Auckland Hospital. Would be great to hear about each place and what were the jobs?

Content warning: I mention child abuse and some graphic language in this answer.

While I was studying I scored the coolest part-time gig as a youth educator at this absolutely awesome organisation called Rape Prevention Education. It is a not-for-profit organisation working in partnerships with communities on prevention of sexual violence through education, training and advocacy services. 

We delivered Bodysafe, an interactive programme for high school students promoting healthy relationships by talking openly and honestly about sex, consent and respect. I absolutely loved connecting with young people during the workshops and enjoyed every second of this job. This role has developed my confidence quite a lot – imagine standing up and facilitating a group of highly-opinionated curious teenagers!

After finishing uni, I moved on to Barnados into a foster care team as a social worker. Barnardos is a globally known charity, providing children and family services, as well as early learning and childcare. Every piece of work Barnardos carries out is for New Zealand children, their present and future. As a foster care social worker, I had a caseload of foster care families that I looked after. We worked closely with Oranga Tamariki (previously known as Child, Youth and Family) who maintained legal responsibility for most of the children in our care. We were also responsible for recruiting, assessing and training new foster caregivers.

It was a very tough job. Working so closely with children and knowing they suffered abuse, neglect, an immense amount of trauma broke my heart every day. Some of the referrals we got were horrifying. We were referred children with cigarette burns on their little bodies, children who were sexually abused, children who were beaten up and covered in bruises, malnourished and neglected babies, children with fetal alcohol syndrome. Typing this brings tears to my eyes. And to think that all that abuse, all that violence and neglect these little humans suffered in their own homes was at the hands of their families, either parents or relatives – people whose job was to keep little humans safe and loved. It was very tough. All of the children in our care were little resilient heroes, beautiful gorgeous souls who deserve nothing but love and care, and nurture. It was a privilege being part of their lives and seeing them thrive with our foster parents who did an amazing job in providing bloody fantastic care and helping children make sense of their world.  

After Barnardos I worked as an Adult Health Social Worker in the Auckland City Hospital. We supported our patients and their whanau on their medical journeys, making sure their social and mental health wellbeing was also cared for. I covered Respiratory and Vascular wards, and during on-call we looked after the Emergency Department. As a hospital social worker I responded to various referrals – domestic violence, child protection issues, sudden deaths, homelessness, elder abuse, social isolation. We provided emotional and practical support to our patients and their whanau, and worked closely with elderly on making sure they were safe in their homes, or assisted them if they needed higher levels of care. I worked with fantastic multidisciplinary teams – nurses, doctors, physio- and occupational therapists, psychologists, psychotherapists and dieticians. All committed to the care of our patients.

We saw it all – we saw patients and families in their most vulnerable times. This role taught me that people are most human when they are most vulnerable. No matter where we come from and what our background is, being at the hospital strips us all down to our very core and exposes all our hopes, insecurities, regrets and gratitudes. 

I worked with people from all walks of life and some of their stories touched my very soul. I worked with a husband and wife in their late 80s who were so in love, they couldn’t spend a day apart from each other, still making each other breakfast every day. I worked with an elderly man who was dying and against all doctors’s orders went on a cruise because “they had coffins in case he needed one” (and he did need one). I worked with a young woman who had to have her leg amputated but was determined to be strong for her children. I worked with a woman who did not wish to give up smoking despite severe respiratory disorder because cigarettes were the only thing that brought her joy. I spent a night in a room with a dead man and his family crying their hearts out by my side. I worked with a young woman whose partner was in the intensive care unit after the accident while waiting for his family to arrive, knowing what she didn’t know yet - that he is still connected to life support but his brain was dead. I worked with an elderly man in early 90s who lived alone and still chopped wood for the stove to cook his porridge. 

Maria and the nurses of Auckland DHB having a shared lunch

 

Social workers are often unsung heroes doing amazing and incredibly tough jobs behind the scenes. What are some of the major work challenges you have had and how did you deal with them? After working in social work for years, what do you think about it as a profession? What type of person would suit it and why?

I won’t sugar coat is – social work is a very challenging profession. Yes, very rewarding but incredibly challenging. Raw – is the word I feel best describes social work.

Social workers are exposed to (or expose) raw human emotions, the purest of joys and the darkest of despairs on a daily basis. We filter all of these through, witnessing happiness, grief, anger, sadness, gratitude, forgiveness.

The reality is that social work is underfunded and under-resourced. Social workers are often under scrutiny for things we shouldn’t have or should have done. I heard of social workers being sworn at, mistreated and threatened while they were trying to do their jobs. This is of course an extreme side of things, and luckily it has never happened to me, but it’s good to be aware of it and be ready, and be tough.

I was well supported on my social work journey - I’ve been so blessed with my teams and my managers. The amazing spirit of my colleagues, their sense of humour and critical thinking helped me grow a lot and get unstuck if I ever hit a roadblock with one of my cases! An awesome thing about being a social worker is that professional supervision is mandatory. For those not familiar, professional supervision is a safe space for you to talk about your cases, to reflect on your practice, to get advice and to basically just have a good old rant about your life as a social worker. I loved my supervision sessions and found it to be an amazing support, both emotional support (God knows how many tears and laughs I’ve shared with my supervisors over the years!) and practical as well. 

Supervision is part of self-care and self-care is a must when you are a social worker (I personally believe it’s a must no matter what you do!). You can’t be helping others on a tank half-full, and a lot of attention is placed on self-care in social work world. Little things like grabbing a cuppa in between cases, having yarns with my colleagues during lunch, stepping outside the office for some fresh air, watching a weird ASMR video on Youtube of people eating sushi, or looking at cat memes. Whatever it is to put your mind off work for a while, and just focus on yourself and your wellbeing. During the weekends, my hubby and I always try to do something outside of the house, whether it’s going for a walk or to the beach. It makes me feel alive and refreshed, and ready for more! It’s good to take a pause sometimes from our busy schedules and just be alone with yourself, or with nature to recharge, re-energise.  

I’ve given social work 4 years. I’ve given it my best and I knew it was time to leave the profession when I stopped feeling happy and I felt miserable in the morning before going to work. I was crying a lot and got very cynical. I didn’t want to continue for two reasons – I wanted to be back to my usual happy self, and I also did not want my work to suffer because I stopped enjoying it, it wouldn’t have been fair to the people I worked with who opened up to me and needed help. 

Would I ever consider coming back to social work? Maybe, but not just yet. I want to absolutely ready before I can dive back in. It’s a wonderful profession, I’ve grown a lot as a person on my social work journey and learnt skills I can apply to any other job. At the end of the day, social work is about working with people, it’s about cultural competence and emotional intelligence. In any job, you need that. 

I don’t regret anything about my education and employment history. And for anyone who enjoys working and helping people, I’d say – give it a go. All you need is to be a kind, caring person who is passionate about working alongside and helping some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Make sure you use professional supervision offered, look after yourself and build a strong support network - those wine and pizza nights with mates after work and strolls in the park on the weekends are just some of the options of what self-care could look like! 

It doesn’t take a superman to become a social worker, but you need to have your heart fully in it for it to work. And you don’t have to be made of steel or pretend to be tough. Social work can be challenging, but it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to laugh and most importantly, it’s absolutely OK to ask for help if you need it! 

As a newbie, I asked a lot of questions, I wouldn’t let my colleagues go and they were happy to help me, because that’s how I learnt and developed confidence to do what I needed to do. Make sure that you click with your team and your manager, trust me that’s crucial! We spend so much time of our lives at work and we might as well do it with people whose company we enjoy. I miss my social work colleagues and we still keep in touch, because the connections we developed over working on some pretty hard core cases were just so strong they grew into good friendships. 

Social worker in 4 different images: 1 - what my friends think I do (image of a woman with a little crying boy), 2 - what my mom thinks I do (image of a woman reading to a smiling child), 3 - what I think I do (image of people holding hands looking at sunset), 4 - what I really do (a person covered in paper work)

Tell us a bit about your current role at AUT. What do you do there? What are some of the highlights and challenges?

I now work as a Student Advisor at the Auckland University of Technology. This role allows me to use my social work skills in a more positive environment. I absolutely love working with students and being able to support them on their university journeys. Uni life is not a piece of cake. There’s just so many expectations placed on students by their families and by society that are often very hard to live up to. 

Every day I get up, and I enjoy going to work which tells me I’m in the right place. AUT is a good University, it’s a little community where we do our best to support our students. As a Student Advisor, I provide all sorts of advice and support – academic, financial, emotional, and connect students with different services depending on their needs. Students open up to us about their uni troubles, their relationships, their family situations, their friends, what’s in trend and what not. Seeing them try and do their best despite everything is an absolute joy. 

We have a long way to go as a society though. We can do better in supporting our young people. Rates of suicide in New Zealand have sky rocketed in the last years, and we hear about it first hand from our students, who either been affected by it themselves, or know someone who has. Supporting young people if they lost someone to suicide or had suicidal thoughts themselves is not easy. I know how under-resourced mental health services in New Zealand are, and there can be done more on suicidal awareness and prevention. It is OK to talk about suicide and it’s not OK to sweep it under the carpet.

 

Do you ever feel lost and not sure what you want to do in life? What are some of the alternative Universe Marias and what would she be doing right now?

Don’t we all often feel lost! I love life and so curious to see what else it has in store. Work was always a second priority for me. My family comes first. My husband is my best friend and I absolutely love spending time with him, being silly and true self. I’m working hard to be able to support my parents in the future too – they’ve done so much for me and I want them to have a good and comfortable retirement. My parents are the most amazing people and whenever I think about them, my heart is so full. My family is my life, and the most dear thing in this world.

If I think about alternative Universe Marias, I’m sure one of them is a Hollywood actress and dancer, another one is an FBI agent that gets to go undercover lots, third has super powers and kicks ass, fourth is a medieval princess, fifth is a lawyer aka Jessica Pearson from Suits and sixth is a stay at-home housewife walking around in a sexy lingerie!

Are you learning / struggling with / pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?

My husband and I are working on a couple of small side-business we are rolling out. We love coffee, and have opened up a little online store that sells handcrafted Turkish coffee cups https://turkishcoffeecupsnz.com/.

I also enjoy exercising, as it helps me feel empowered and stay fit and we are working on introducing NZ brand of exercise hip bands BANDIT NZ. Our store is under development and we are just waiting on our first order to arrive.

Maria and her husband Igor at his 30th birthday party

Maria and her husband Igor at his 30th birthday party

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Moustache Cookies founder - Deanne Yang

The Caker owner - Jordan Rondel

Ratika Rai - who I used to work with at RPE. She's such a cool woman who's passionate about health promotion.

Sharon Ryan - my dear friend, passionate social worker, big social justice advocate, currently works for Salvation Army.

Louise Nicholas - a wonderful woman, survivor, advocate for victims of sexual violence, author of published book "Louise Nicholas: my story”, New Zealander of the Year 2007.

Sherryl Palesoo - my dear friend, fierce Samoan woman, ex-journalist now conquering the world of corporate banking, person who puts interests of others ahead of herself, vivid book lover and anime fan.

Elina Ashimbayeva (!!!) - my awesome friend, superwoman, kick ass person, founder of a bunch of cool initiatives, sexy ass, smart cookie (*Note from Elina, the editor: this is so sweet <3)

Elina Ashimbayeva