To Go Back to School Or Not: For These MSW Students It’s a Resounding Yes

Older adults with more education tend to keep working longer, which is one of the many benefits to going back to school later in life. Others include making more money, changing careers entirely and pursuing an idealistic goal.

Columbia Masters in Social Work students John Perra and Chris Bowman fall into the latter category. Both are students in Columbia’s School of Social Work, in the Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming track, which means approaching social work from individual and systems levels, including program planning, advocacy and evidence-based interventions. 

How did they arrive at the decision to pursue an advanced degree and what will they do with it? Read their stories below.

John Perra, age 53:

John Perra worked for years as a journalist at Time Inc., after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with an undergraduate degree in that topic. He then segued into teaching writing and research at a graduate school in the Bronx. Always in the back of his mind was the thought that someday he’d like to make a big change.

In 2005 he covered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where despite knowing the value of telling people’s stories and reporting on the devastation, he says he, “really felt I was on the wrong side of the story. The need and devastation and trauma were so great.

“An experience like that can transform you personally and professionally, to the point where when you ask why you’re here, you trace it back to that instant,” Perra says now. “I really wanted to do something fulfilling and of value, making a difference in a professional capacity.”

Although Perra, who still teaches graduate classes, applied to and was accepted into several law schools, in the back of his mind he thought of family members with chronic and progressive illnesses and began to wonder if becoming a medical social worker might be the right path. Ultimately, he decided upon Columbia’s School of Social Work.

While there, each semester seems to bring a new idea of how he might use this education. Last semester he was fascinated by the psychopathology of personality disorders. “Learning is always about discovery, it opens up things I didn’t know about and didn’t know I was interested in,” he said. “So many areas of study in this field are so intriguing.”

'Having all that experience is valuable, you’ve had a career, now you’re adding to your toolbox.'

Recently Perra was speaking with a professor, who happens to call him professor, too, and it occurred to him, he says, that “I’ve been listening to people’s stories my whole life: my grandfather would tell stories, then in journalism, and now this work—social work—is about people’s stories. I had never seen that through-line before,” he says.

As he heads to the finish line of the 16-month program at Columbia, Perra says that while he loves teaching, he is excited about what else lies ahead. “Like a lot of people my age, I’ve entered many new rooms in my life and been in many, sometimes challenging situations. It goes back to that sense of discovery, of what’s possible and one’s place in the narrative.”

He knows people have reservations about being too old to go back to school as they’ll likely be the oldest person in the room. “It doesn’t work that way,” he says. “My experience is not like that at all.

“Having all that experience is valuable, you’ve had a career, now you’re adding to your toolbox. Also, all of that experience can make one less self-conscious,” Perra says.

“Older adults have a wealth of experience to draw insights from that add to the classroom and to the discussion. I’ve found that to be true in both my teaching and in being a student,” Perra adds. And he sees great value in older people putting things into perspective that younger people definitely benefit from.

“The professors at Columbia make everyone feel comfortable, and they’re skilled in using subtle ways to draw out students who have a lot of experience and can add something to the class,” says Perra.

For people on the fence as to whether or not to go back, Perra says, “You don’t know yet how it’s going to change you. It’s going to stretch you. Why not add to your experience and learn as much as you can?”

Chris Bowman, age 48:

Chris Bowman also spent a good part of his working life documenting the human condition, but as a photographer, both art photography from the street, and for Conde Nast, freelancing events. While doing double time as a sound designer and sometimes an administrative assistant. As he says, his career was not linear.

In 2018 he was working rather unhappily at a creative agency, felt he wasn’t growing or learning and wanted to do something more fulfilling. “My calling has always been in service, I have a servant’s heart,” he says. And he’s always felt a connection to older adults that he traces back to his grandparents and regular gigs volunteering at the Coalition for the Homeless and New York Cares.

A friend had planted the seed of social work in his mind and after some research he realized that was exactly what he wanted to do. He applied to multiple New York City social work schools and when Columbia said yes, he signed up.

His focus at Columbia is on older adults and working with individuals and communities at the systems level. “This enables me to look holistically at a client’s condition and environmental factors to gain a better understanding of why they are facing the issues they are facing. I’d like to look at the individual on the micro, meso and macro level.”

Bowman has a rather specific vision of what he might like to do once he graduates and that is to conduct an assets and needs assessment of a community of low-income older adults experiencing health disparities. “I can work in a nonprofit,” he says, “helping communities apply for funding to start programming that will enhance the well-being of the community.

'My calling has always been in service, I have a servant’s heart.'

“East New York is one of the hardest hit areas regarding the COVID-19 death rate, and it’s mainly African-American. Why was this? Was it because of co-morbidity, why are they unhealthy, is it nutrition? Mistrust in the medical system? I’d look at their strengths and needs and design a program to meet those needs.

“As a generalist social worker, the AGPP program is not just focusing on one-on-one sort of work, but on going into the community and looking at the systems that are responsible for the lack of nutrition, the lack of clinics, why healthcare access is not as good. What are the environmental and social factors?” said Bowman.

He encourages people considering going back to school to just do it. He has enjoyed the entire experience—the learning, the professors, and “surrounding myself with such smart and compassionate people. It’s surprising how compassionate, how empathetic the group I’ve fallen into with have been. And not only to populations they work with but to us as students. And altruistic, it’s really beautiful to see,” he said.