Individuals who choose to pursue a career in social work enter into a vast world of diverse and far-ranging opportunities. The portability and applicability of a social work degree is one of its many selling points, and Patrick Padgen, MSW ’14, MPH ’14, has taken advantage of its versatility. His decade in social work has spanned five countries in three continents. Padgen graduated this May from NYU’s social work and public health dual-degree program and delivered the student address at the Master of Public Health commencement ceremony.
Padgen works as a project manager for Barsamian Communication, a boutique agency whose projects include developing tools and resources for people living with serious mental health conditions in the United States. He is a passionate advocate for “the populations we overlook” and is drawn toward policy-level, programmatic work that will improve visibility for the marginalized and at-risk.
Padgen started his career in Malawi as part of the Peace Corps after receiving a BSW from McGill University in Montreal in 2003. In Malawi, he served as a community health advisor in a youth organization, working on capacity development and training staff to use new computer technology. Through his work in the community, Padgen also met some gay-identifying Malawians. Homosexuality in Malawi was illegal at the time, and there were virtually no services for anyone identifying as LGBT. Padgen saw a need for programmatic infrastructure: “Malawi was severely impacted by HIV, but there was no messaging targeting MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), so a lot of the men didn’t think it was a problem for them.”
Padgen encouraged the men he was working with to approach the National AIDS Commission in Malawi and request funding to create a community program, but they were told “there is no community; there are no MSM in this country.” Undeterred, Padgen sought a way to prove the population’s presence. He helped design a needs assessment and submit grant proposals to international organizations renowned for funding projects that others had refused. Their persistence paid off: one of the organizations bit and funded a countrywide survey assessment of Malawian men. The survey assessed the full spectrum of needs, including mental health, stress, money, and employment. It also asked respondents about their knowledge of HIV transmission. As Padgen explained, “Most men didn’t think you could get it from having sex with another man.” With these findings in hand, the men returned to the National AIDS Commission and convinced them to allot funds for counseling and training programs.
In 2006, following his grassroots policy-making success in Malawi, Padgen returned home to the United States. He started working in Washington, DC, as an agency case manager for “every population you could imagine as a social worker: HIV, mental health, homeless, youth.” A year later he transferred to Hawaii and began to brainstorm a return to school. “I got to a point, living in Hawaii and running a program for people with severe, persistent mental illness and HIV, where I thought individual-level work is really important, but I want to be impacting programs and policies.” Padgen saw the myriad needs of the clients he worked with directly, and the roadblocks to recovery they encountered in the form of gaps in service and funding and policy limitations. Macro-level social work, he realized, might allow him to assist in the revamping of existing infrastructure and the development of new programs and policies to affect widespread change. Padgen realized, “I needed to go back to school.”
Given his global and macro-level interests, Padgen decided that a dual-degree program in social work and public health would allow him to combine his “core social work skills with a more global perspective.” Padgen researched graduate programs located around the country before settling on New York City, where his brother had just bought a house. He moved to New York, found a new social work job, and was accepted to several MSW/MPH programs in the city. Padgen was initially concerned about NYU’s clinical emphasis, as he already had eight years of direct experience, but the global perspective of NYU’s program, with its concentration in global health leadership appealed, so he enrolled in the three-year MSW/MPH program.
Padgen thrived during his time at NYU, the highlight of which was a capstone project in his final year that took him and four classmates to Nepal over winter break. The team was tasked with evaluating a health and hygiene program being implemented in a village outside of Kathmandu. With the aid of their professors, Padgen and his colleagues designed survey tools they took to Nepal, where they conducted focus groups, interviews, and household surveys to evaluate how well the Nepalese program had changed knowledge and behaviors around hygiene. The opportunity to apply his social work and public health skills abroad—and to make substantive change—cemented Padgen’s desire to focus his career internationally.
One project of Padgen’s at Barsamian Communication is a presentation that mental health agencies and facilitators will be trained to deliver encouraging and empowering consumers to engage in a dialogue with their providers about their treatment plans. He enjoys project development, and hopes to one day build his consulting firm for businesses focusing on issues of social justice, particularly helping people with mental health issues. He explained, “Instead of helping people achieve greater things in their life, we’re as social workers just preventing them from relapsing, and that’s it. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just that that’s the system we have set up: we don’t have time to work with each client in a way to sustainably and significantly improve their lives.” Thanks to the global focus of NYU’s dual-degree program, Padgen is viewing his social work future from a much larger lens with potentially more impact: “My goal is to look globally at the communities that are most at risk, which are overlooked in current programming, and try to find new sources of aid for them.”
By Penelope Yates, MSW ’15