Chelsea Cornwell holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut and a master’s in disaster resilience leadership from Tulane University. She is currently working as a lead clinician with juveniles in a residential treatment program to address inappropriate sexual behaviors and other mental health needs. Her professional background includes work as a sexual assault victim advocate, AmeriCorps member serving in educational programs for youth, and interning as an NGO representative to the United Nations on behalf of the International Association of Schools of Social Work. Chelsea came to the Forage Center as a program participant in 2016 and joined the program staff in 2017. She has served as a controller/evaluator and exercise director with the education and training committee. Here, she reflects on her experiences in conversation with Forage Center administrative specialist Catherine Cousar.
Q: What led you to decide to join the Forage Center as program staff after previously participating as a student?
A: I joined the Forage Center staff after participating as a student for a few reasons. First, my experience as a participant was powerful and poignant, and unlike any I’ve ever had. Initially, I came back because I wanted to continue engaging in that experience in whatever way I could. As a volunteer, I was challenged in different ways but also felt great amounts of clarity from some of my own participant experiences. I also had a unique platform to observe the process of growth in others that I had gone through the previous year. Volunteering gave me the opportunity to engage more with the Forage Center staff in the lead-up to the exercise and in the behind-the-scenes orchestration. I found a team of mentors and friends who have continued to challenge my personal and professional growth with unconditional support, and this is what has kept me involved. I have been offered numerous opportunities to flex my leadership and program development muscles. Plus, the exercises are just fun to be a part of. Putting on the simulations can be highly stressful at times, but the high school drama kid in me loves the touch of theatrics I can engage in during the simulations.
Q: What was your greatest takeaway from serving as exercise director for the Forage Center's Coastal Promise exercise in 2018?
A: The 2018 program was the first time I was the exercise director, and I was very nervous about being able to make the "right" decisions. In reality, it was the first time I had meaningfully been given charge of something so big. I think some of the best lessons that came out of that experience for me was coming to terms with the idea that decisions don’t have to be "right" or "wrong," but simply can be a direction. This may seem a little basic, but it was an important lesson for me to come to terms with, as someone who is constantly weighing the outcomes of different paths. Being the exercise director also gave me a good lesson in understanding delegation, coordination, and most of all, communication.
Q: What skills from your experiences with the Forage Center have you used going forward with your career?
A: As a participant, there were moments during the exercise that forced me to face the devastating realities that affect individuals and communities when responders and organizations make mistakes or fail to meet their objectives. This was an incredibly valuable perspective for me to gain at the start of my career because it has helped me maintain a strict focus on who is being served and affected by my work. It gave me as much real-life insight as can be gained without having harmed actual people with the mistakes it took for me to gain and value this as deeply as I do.
Through my subsequent work with the Forage Center, I have been able to develop leadership skills and build confidence in making programmatic decisions. Developing exercises has given me practical experience applying theoretical frameworks to real-life situations and has deepened my knowledge of humanitarian principles, bias, and overall crisis management. This has helped me examine my weaknesses and strengths as an emerging professional and helped me learn how to trust my own intuition as a leader. I consider my experiences with the Forage Center as having been critical in preparing me for my current position of lead clinician in a residential setting.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing for a person to know before beginning a master's degree in either social work or disaster resilience?
A: I think for people considering a master’s in social work, it is important to understand the strength of the social work perspective. Because social work is rooted in community organizing and advocacy, social workers are trained to apply macro-level concepts to individual-level circumstances. This naturally builds distinct skills in analysis and communication. It is an incredibly versatile degree that focuses on understanding how to holistically navigate any given situation according to an established set of ethics. Social workers are often boxed into certain categories, but in reality, they are trained in a skill set that is applicable to any field or position centering on people. This is partially why I love social work so much. I dislike feeling limited or boxed in, so I know that whenever I need a significant job change, my degree in social work will allow me to do that easily.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about what you are doing now?
A: For the past two years, I have been working in a specialized residential treatment facility with male youth who have inappropriate sexual behaviors and sexual offenses as well as other mental health and behavioral issues. I provide a combination of individual, family, and group therapies to support their healing through an accountability and strengths perspective. I was recently promoted to the role of lead clinician, where in addition to keeping a small client caseload, I am supervising two clinicians, overseeing a unit of up to 24 residential clients, and working as a member of the organizational leadership team to ensure overall positive functioning of the residential program.