Q&A with Fairlie McCollough, MSW ’21

With supervision from Clinical Associate Professor Peggy Morton, Fairlie McCollough, MSW ’21, did her 2019-20 academic year Field placement at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library branch assisting low-income and homeless patrons. When the School’s in-person Field placements were suspended in mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19, Fairlie shifted to developing what Dr. Morton described as “a concise, comprehensive and helpful guide to emergency resources for patrons during the pandemic.” Earlier in the year, Fairlie helped Dr. Morton and NYU Student Life’s Chrissy Beluk to spearhead NYU’s 2020 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, in which members of the University community made a thousand care packages for distribution by NYU Silver interns to homeless library patrons. A career changer in our Extended pathway to the MSW, Fairlie will be back at Silver in the fall and in September 2020, she will be a presenter at the annual Urban Libraries Conference, scheduled to take place at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Prior to suspension of in-person Field learning due to COVID-19, what were you doing in your placement at the Mid-Manhattan Library branch?

The social work intern role at the library is unique in that there is only one intern placed in each of the four branches and your clinical supervisor is off-site, so I worked pretty independently. This had its challenges, but ultimately, it played a huge part in my growth and became one of the things I enjoyed most about the placement. As a social work intern at NYPL's Mid-Manhattan Branch, I spent the bulk of my time assisting patrons in need of social services such as housing, jobs, benefits, healthcare, legal, and immigration services, and so on.

I usually found that when patrons came to me for concerns such as housing (as most were experiencing homelessness), they also lacked other basic necessities such as employment, benefits, even a phone. I quickly recognized how overwhelmed they were by all the complicated and slow-moving systemic hurdles and needed someone, unrelated to such systems, who could take valuable time with them and make the process seem more manageable. I saw my role mostly as a conduit to the most critical and most promising resources available, with the hope that this would empower patrons to recognize their progress and feel a sense of self-efficacy. 

Though I primarily worked individually with patrons, I also co-facilitated an open monthly mutual aid group, where those experiencing homelessness and other hardships could get the support of one another and exchange resources they found to be helpful..

What led you to create the COVID-19 emergency resource guide for library patrons?

I had always planned on developing the informal catalog of resources that I had made for myself at the beginning of the school year into something librarians could use in my absence. Often, librarians get inundated with patron requests that may be more appropriate for social workers, but since there is not always (or ever) a social worker or social work intern available, I thought it would be beneficial for them to have an easy-to-access, efficient way of providing patrons with resources and information, regardless of their expertise.

When discussing my final assignment with Dr. Morton after in-person Field placements were suspended, we concluded that I should focus on emergency resources during COVID-19. That way, I could quickly produce a document that’s both useful and timely, leaving more room in the future to work on the more comprehensive endeavor. Both Dr. Morton and my task supervisor at the Mid-Manhattan Library, Melissa Scheurer, continue to give me valuable input and feedback. Now I just have to put my money where my mouth is and finish that resource for librarians!

How would you describe your impact on library patrons in need during your in-person internship and through this resource document?

The most significant contribution I hope to have made in my work with patrons is that, at the very least, I was able to offer them a sense of hope and self-efficacy even when faced with insurmountable challenges. I hope that my support made them feel more connected, in what can be an awfully lonely existence. As far as this document goes, if even just one person can access and find any use in it, I will be pleased.

Would you describe Dr. Morton as a mentor? How has she helped you develop as a social work professional?

I would like to think of Dr. Morton as a mentor – a superlative one at that! She sincerely has become one of my most influential professors. This may have been inevitable through substantial time spent in supervision, but I believe it was her deep wisdom and receptivity to my questions, challenges, and insights that motivated me to think more resourcefully and dig deeper in thinking about my role in service.

I feel fortunate to have had a supervisor who, from the very beginning, created an atmosphere where I could be completely candid about my experience and examine my work openly, unencumbered by any fear of judgment. She helped me recognize external limitations as an inevitability of social work practice and not, as I often felt, a reflection of my ability and skill. By encouraging me to trust my work, she enabled me to better discern and focus on what is most important as a clinician without the noise and interference of gratuitous self-criticism. All of this while maintaining high standards.

I had the advantage of being placed with a supervisor who is also a professor at Silver, as she could understand and appreciate my experience as a multifaceted one. I believe this only enriched the supervisory relationship. She also just has this ability to make every side of social work seem exciting and worthwhile, and thus, a pleasure to be around!

What have you loved most about NYU Silver?

Ah, so much! I love the fact that there is space for students and faculty to challenge preconceptions and systemic shortcomings through a continuous open dialogue, whether it be within the classroom or through community-wide actions. Though there have been challenges (in the not-so-distant past) in maintaining an environment that's always inclusive, I believe the administration's recent efforts show us that our concerns as a community have not been lost on them and the faculty. I think this evolution sets a good example of what we should always be striving for as social workers.

Another thing I appreciate, being a career changer and relatively new to social work, is the understanding that we should really be using this as an exploratory period. This has been encouraging, and has led me to discover so many different and intriguing career possibilities and ways I can be of service in my personal life.

How prepared do you feel to make an impact in your career?

As my generalist year comes to a close, it is indisputable that I am more prepared than ever. I am excited for the new challenges that my next Field placement at New York County Defender Services will bring.