Alumnus champions work-life balance as an MSW in child welfare

Story by Tricia Howley

Alastair Johnson

On paper, School of Social Work alumnus and combat veteran Alastair Johnson’s career change seems to be an about face: from British Army to child welfare case work. But for Johnson, who completed his M.S.W. in 2014, it was more of a gradual and logical evolution.

Johnson came to CSU as an undergraduate and initially began working toward a degree in Natural Resources Management. At that time he worked at the Adult Learner and Veteran Services center on campus, and served as president of Veteran Students of America-CSU Chapter.

Passion for helping others

It was his role as president that allowed him to engage with veterans and adult learners on campus, and discover a passion for helping others and community involvement. “That’s how I got into it, because I enjoyed that aspect of working with people, of working with a minority community,” said Johnson.

After meeting with advisers at the School of Social Work, he changed his major and enrolled in the B.S.W. program. The department’s field education team led him to a connection which became a pathway to a new career field.

“After I started my undergraduate major in social work, I took an internship at Larimer County Department of Human Services, and they offered me a job, and then they offered me another job, so I had two temp positions,” Johnson said.

He decided to return to CSU and pursue a master’s degree to advance his career. “If you want to get anywhere in the field, I would recommend the M.S.W.,” said Johnson. “It leads to a better salary, more training, more experience, more responsibilities, and definitely more exposure.”

“I dropped both the jobs and took an internship with my current unit while I did my M.S.W.,” Johnson said. “About two weeks before I was due to graduate, my same unit in Larimer County offered me a position, and they said you can get it as soon as you graduate.”

Looking back, it’s clear to him that Colorado State University was the right choice. “I’m glad I went to CSU. This is an advanced generalist program,” said Johnson. “I chose CSU because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a particular field and then find out ten years down the road, ‘I don’t want to do this.'”

Child welfare work

So far working in child welfare is exactly what he wants to do. “I work with adolescents 10-18. They’re all at risk of out-of-home placement and in the juvenile justice system, so a lot of mental health issues, substance abuse problems, poverty…kids that struggle. But spending time one-on-one with professionals
around, that’s the most enjoyable piece.”

His work with children and families has led to successful transitions out of the county’s support system. “These young adults now live by themselves, they’ve got jobs, they’re driving, they’re not using drugs, and they’ll call me from time to time and tell me something they’ve done or they’re proud of,” Johnson said. “I’ve got some parents as well who I’ll see out in the community and they’ll say, ‘hey, it was nice working with you.’ It’s good to see those successes.”

With his M.S.W. in hand, he connects some day-today challenges with larger policy issues. “Looking at it on a macro level, I’d definitely change policy for mental health and substance abuse treatment,” Johnson said. “When parents get thrown in jail and they’ve got two kids, isn’t there any other way of removing that cycle of addiction? Addiction is a mental health issue.”

Ironically, for Johnson, the pressures of his job are alleviated by his military experience. “I did four combat tours–Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan–situations that are a lot more stressful and life-threatening than what I do now. I can balance those eggs without breaking them.”

He also advises leaving work at work, and doing something enjoyable, to stay focused in this demanding field. “I like getting out with my camera. I do a lot of astrophotography at night. I’m pretty good at being able to switch off,” Johnson said. “That sounds very clinical, very black-and-white, but if I don’t, that’s when burnout sets in.”

Being based in Fort Collins, Johnson maintains connections he made with faculty. “I occasionally run into them,” he said. “People teaching in the CSU M.S.W. program are fantastic. They’re so good at their jobs I think. They’re passionate and available; you can call or stop by and it doesn’t even have to be coursework-related.”

The M.S.W. program at Colorado State University provided him a strong foundation for advanced generalist practice, while also moving him quickly to the field experience he needed to take the next step in his career. Said Johnson, “I definitely enjoyed my time at CSU and I miss it.”

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.