Social Work Spotlight: Meet Program Assistant Olivia Cessna

Olivia CessnaA Kalamazoo native, Olivia Cessna had a passion for learning how to navigate the intersection of social work and criminal justice since entering the bachelor of social work program at Eastern University and completing a Bruce Halle Social Justice Fellowship specializing in crisis intervention within the substance use community. When the global pandemic started, Olivia decided it was time to go back to school to pursue her long-term macro career goals. In 2021, Olivia earned her masters from the Wayne State University School of Social Work and soon after joined its Center for Behavioral Health and Justice (CBHJ) as a program assistant supporting the leadership team, with a focus on supporting long-term sustainability for the Center.

Why did you choose to come to WSU and the CBHJ?

No matter how much I loved working directly with people, I never could find my niche in the interpersonal positions I’d occupy. When I came across the CBHJ they seemed to be offering an opportunity to be instrumental in systemic change when looking at the intersection of criminal/legal systems and mental health. I saw a mission that excited me, and an environment where I could channel my passion while utilizing and growing my skills.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

My favorite thing about my position is that it looks different every day. One day I’ll be doing a lit search on social work job shortages for a state-level allocation proposal, the next I will be working with an internal team to produce an educational brief addressing high utilization in jails, or the importance of developing advisory boards. It’s invigorating working somewhere where you are learning so much every single day, while also feeling like you are contributing to something bigger than yourself.

Why is your work at the CBHJ important?

The work I do supports the leadership team in focusing on establishing the CBHJ as a center of excellence. I am continually impressed by the work we do at the Center, and I feel I directly and indirectly contribute to “getting the word out,” so to speak, on everything we are doing and how we can be a resource to criminal/legal and mental health entities.

How did your education prepare you for what you are doing today?

The MSW program at Wayne State showed me where I excel. Usually when one thinks of social work, they think of something along the lines of interpersonal practice, and I guess my mindset was stuck in that box as well. I almost felt inadequate for not possessing some of the skills necessary to do interpersonal practice. But when I chose the macro Innovation in Community, Policy, and Leadership (ICPL) concentration through the MSW program, the courses I chose made me realize that I have strengths in organization, communication, and leadership, setting me up perfectly for my current position.

How do you empower social change in your community?

The biggest way I try and empower social change in my community is showing up for marches that I believe in, recently I attended March for Our Lives and March for Reproductive Freedom in Detroit. On a smaller scale I subscribe to and get regular petitions sent to me for me to sign and communicate through my channels.

Any advice for current students looking to get involved in community work?

My advice is to try not to underestimate yourself. You won’t know everything there is to know just out of school. There were many times when I first started my position where I questioned whether I had the right skillset, exhibiting “imposter syndrome” as so many others do. I had to power through and commit myself to using to my strengths and identifying what I wanted to learn to get better. And find an organization that’ll foster that kind of self-growth and learning. If you’re ever in a position where you feel like your drowning and there’s no one to throw you a life line, leave. There are other places out there that will value you and your inexperience!

What is an interesting fact others may not know about you?

In my spare time I like to do tricks with my hula hoop!

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