, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Well, it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to write anything. As many of you know, I’ve been working on finishing my Master’s degree at Keuka College in Penn Yan, New York, and while the classes weren’t at all difficult, graduate level work is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. It’s a lot of writing, which I enjoy, but it’s also a lot of pressure. Things were going well, and I should have graduated last month and taken my exams to be licensed as a therapist this summer. I had good grades and a lot of positive and encouraging feedback from my instructors in all of my courses, and so it should have been a fairly easy slide right through to graduation. Or so I thought!

I started my field placement at Syracuse Jewish Family Service in August of 2017. I had done a previous internship there in my undergraduate years (while working at the Jewish Home) and was looking forward to seeing all of my old friends, and being back at a place I had loved. Within the first few weeks of training, however, it quickly became apparent that things were not going to go as well this time around. I had enjoyed my interview back in the spring with the field placement instructor, and had a subsequent one with the other two directors of SJFS, and both interviews went well. They had asked about my religious beliefs during the interview, but because it is a Jewish organization, and I had worked there for years without ever having a problem, I assured them that I didn’t foresee any possibility of there being a conflict while in my field placement. The field instructor and the other two directors freely shared their own personal religious beliefs with me and the other interns over the next few weeks, in meetings and in supervision, and it became more and more uncomfortable and difficult to keep things at a clinical and professional level, without being pressured to violate my own personal beliefs and values. I desperately just wanted to finish my clinical training and get out.

What I did not foresee was that my field instructor (who told me during supervision that she was a Catholic Christian) had ‘found’ Zen Buddhism at some point over the years, and brought it into the Jewish Home, not realizing – as so many don’t – that the two opposing belief systems are completely incompatible. In our first day of training for the PEARLS program, she had all of the interns engage in a guided meditation exercise, and then tried to teach us how to do something known as ‘alternate nostril breathing’. I will write more on what this is later, but as a Christian who has studied and written quite a bit on spiritual and occultist practices, I knew that this was something I would not participate in. I was completely caught off guard, and although I just sat quietly while the other students followed her lead, my discomfort and lack of participation was noticed, and later addressed (not very kindly, I might add).

One of my assignments was to attend a weekly group that was supposed to end an hour after I was scheduled to leave for the day on Thursday afternoons. (I was scheduled to be at SJFS from 12:00-4:00 p.m. on Thursdays, but the group was from 1:00-5:00). This left me with less than an hour to meet with clients on Thursdays. I pointed this out in supervision, but my field instructor ignored this and scheduled me for the group every week anyway. The first week of the group, the woman who was leading it (one of the directors of SJFS) suddenly had everyone stand up and she began to lead us in the practice of qigong (chi kung). I had no idea that this was going to happen, as all it said on the schedule was “exercise”. I couldn’t stand in front of all of the clients and not participate without making them uncomfortable, and I also knew it wasn’t the time or place to state my religious beliefs and objections, so I excused myself from the room and waited until they were finished. My intention was to discuss this with my field instructor during supervision, and ask her what to do.

When I next saw her, she said that she had heard that I had left the room on Thursday, and that I didn’t participate, and she wanted to know why. I said that I would not be participating in any of the Buddhist or Hindu practices at SJFS, because as a Christian I am unable (and unwilling) to do so. That should have been all I needed to say (according to both state and federal law) and I should have been given a different assignment.

She immediately lost her ‘zen’ however, and all hell broke loose – literally. She then abruptly left the room, saying she needed to go and talk to her supervisor (the director of SJFS) and I didn’t hear from her again until we met the following Tuesday for supervision. As soon as I sat down, she informed me that she “found my religious beliefs to be offensive, arrogant, and self-serving” and then proceeded to let me know that she didn’t think she could give me a passing grade unless I was willing to participate fully in all aspects of my internship (specifically meaning qigong) which from her perspective meant that I should put my own beliefs (and conscience) aside while in school. She also took it upon herself to inform me that the NASW Code of Ethics is ‘now my bible’ and that I could be a Christian, but not at work. Mind you, I was not witnessing to other employees, students, or clients, or in any way enforcing my beliefs and practices on anyone, nor would I. I am very familiar with the Code of Ethics, and nowhere does it state that we have to participate in all of our clients religious practices as a licensed professional. I’ve had a lot of clients over the years, and if I had said to any of them “I’m sorry, but I’m a Christian, and I can’t do that” they would have immediately said “okay” and respected that. Not one of them would have been offended, or even questioned it – nor would I have had to explain and defend my beliefs, especially during clinical hours.

The fact that this meeting with my supervisor took place in public (we were meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts in North Syracuse) made her behavior even more appalling. She was rude, condescending, and unkind, and I am ashamed to admit that I cried. The whole experience was humiliating and painful. She let me know, in no uncertain terms, that not only was my field placement in jeopardy, but my graduate degree and entire career were also in jeopardy, informing me that “she knew people at S.U.” and could call them. What she meant by that, I didn’t know, but the implication – the threat – was clear. I graduated from Syracuse University in good standing, with good grades, and did not have any problems while there, however, so this was clearly a manipulative statement.

To make a very long and painful story short, she failed me on October 31st, when I refused to sign a document that required me to participate in qigong, and which would have required me to agree to other statements that were false and misleading, and when she failed me, the program director of the School of Social Work at Keuka College dropped me from the program.

They are social workers. The very people we are supposed to be able to look up to and learn from – people we are supposed to both trust and respect. Licensed by the NASW, they are supposedly committed to exemplify and abide by the standards of the Code of Ethics. They are also required (both Syracuse Jewish Family Service and Keuka College, as an organization and as an institution) to uphold and respect state and federal Civil Rights laws, and to violate a student’s (or anybody’s) legal rights in such a manner is unacceptable, not to mention illegal. I have appealed to the school to no avail, and to say that I’m disappointed in my experience with Keuka College is an understatement.

I don’t want an apology, I want my money back. I want my credits, and my internship hours, all of which they stripped from me (despite my having an “A” on every assignment and paper for that semester) and all of which has to be done all over again. I have tried to apply to other schools, as I only have two classes left, but I would need a letter of good standing from the Department of social Work in order to transfer, and so completing my degree isn’t possible.

Needless to say, the last few months have been extremely painful, and knowing that my class just graduated without me has kind of ruined my birthday this year. God is in control of my life, and I know in my heart I did the right thing, but this hasn’t gone at all the way it was supposed to, and I am broken-hearted over the whole thing. I also miss my friends at the Jewish Home, and I was so looking forward to being there. But, my hope is in God, not in schools, or degrees, or organizations and institutions, and so I know that it will all be okay in the end – even if I didn’t handle everything right, or do everything perfectly – I know my God, and my faith is in Him, and His abundant and overflowing grace and mercy. This is a difficult, difficult time, but a friend posted this verse on Facebook this morning, and it helped:

“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” Revelation 7:17 KJV