Shirley Yuanrui Li came to the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) as part of her career plans to become a mental health therapist, a career trajectory that brought her first to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“Psychology was founded in the West. In China, if you’re interested in mental health, you get a medical degree,” she says. She attended Mount Holyoke College where she received a BA in psychology in 2013.
After graduation, she volunteered at Harvard University as a research assistant on a mental health project and took a job as a mental health counselor at a children’s hospital in Boston. At the hospital, she observed that the re-admission rate was high and that the children needed far more than therapy. She began to think that treatment needed to be integrated in a child’s environment at home as well as at school. She also wanted to learn more about how public policy could help to shape and optimize mental health care delivery to children. These complementary experiences gave her a clearer picture of the population that she wants to serve and helped her decide to pursue a social work degree.
She chose SSA because of its reputation, history, international reputation, and academic rigor. While researching programs, she found an article on SSA’s website about Rachel Forman, AM ’87, PHD, who is the Executive Director of the Grand Ave Club in Milwaukee, WI and thought “this is exactly the type of work that I want to do. It made me feel good about my choice to attend SSA as Ms. Forman’s work resonated with my career aspirations.”
Prior to starting SSA, Shirley went home to China for the summer and interned for a few months in a Beijing hospital’s psychiatric unit at the Outpatient Psychiatry & Recovery Center, Peking University Sixth Hospital in Beijing, China. Social workers there are primarily involved in case management, she learned.
Her first year field placement was with Perspectives Charter School in Chicago where she did need assessments of students as well as both group work and individual one-on-one sessions. Her field instructor was the Dean of Student Support Ben McKay, AM ’10 and her day-to-day supervisor was School Social Worker Valerie Papillon, AM ‘14.
Shirley helped to form groups so that seniors could talk about the stress and anxiety they were feeling during their senior year around issues such as affording college or leaving their home and friends. “I now realize that as a therapist, both the goal and how you approach that goal are very important. It’s easy to drift in therapy sessions. Therapy is also a much slower process than I expected. As social workers, we want to address the immediate issue, but it is important to stick to the goal set for the treatment.”
From her experiences at Perspectives, she also feels strongly about prioritizing mental health and managing expectations of parents and teachers who have their own sets of expectations. “Mental health is often not a priority in a school setting, “ says Shirley, “but it should be as addressing a child’s mental health sets the groundwork that other expectations are built upon.”
During her second year, she learned about mental health therapy in a hospital setting at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in a program that utilizes a behavioral health model for children and adolescents who need short-term intensive care. Shirley worked with an interdisciplinary team to do crisis intervention, one-on-one counseling, and held sessions with families.
Shirley continued to gain research experience as a Research Assistant to Assistant Professor Miwa Yasui who’s research project studies the cultural influences of individuals seeking mental health services. She’s enjoyed Lecturer Shipra Parikh’s Core Direct Practice classes and took psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral (COB) practice method classes. She developed strong friendships with other students who continue to be part of her network as an alumna, she says.
Shirley intends to pursue a social work career doing psychotherapy in China’s emerging mental health arena. She has also developed an interest in the international population in the U.S. and wants to learn more about the nonprofit system in China. Those interests could inspire her to add more academic work to her career plans and pursue a doctoral degree, she says. However, Shirley believes that she needs more experience before returning to school. “If I do, my dissertation might be about the mental health of immigrants … or even of international students,” she says.