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Social work provides encore career for finance professional

May 8, 2024

Story by Cheri Ghan

A woman poses for a photo in a field
Sarah Howell left behind a 20-year career in finance to pursue her Master of Social Work at Mizzou. While the two fields are quite unique, Howell said she has been able to discover new uses for old talents. Photo courtesy of Sarah Howell

Sarah Howell had a predictable, comfortable and successful career. For 20 years, she used her finance degree to work in risk consulting, auditing and investment banking. Although her efforts impacted lives, Howell yearned for a different way to help people.

Through compassionate care for others and a journey of self-discovery, Howell is poised to graduate in May from the University of Missouri with a Master of Social Work. Her new career path will involve guiding people through different types of life risks and investments.

Time for a change

Sarah Howell is a talented photographer who has used those skills as part of her social work practice. She created a photovoice project, which is a tool that can foster a sense of empowerment while helping people work through difficult situations. See Howell’s work using the link above.

While working in finance, Howell’s skill with a camera led her to the side hustle of photographing special moments in people’s worlds. One assignment found her documenting the daily trials of a family caring for a relative with ALS, while another involved the funeral of a close family friend. It was then that her future began to come into focus.

“Capturing their day-to-day struggles (with ALS) and their profound love for each other moved me deeply,” Howell said. “Photographing the funeral made me realize the precious gift that life is and the legacy we leave behind.”

The pivot point came through her own therapy and self-reflection. Howell said she could tell the best parts of her personality weren’t showing up in her day-to-day, and she felt a pull to use her empathy and understanding to support others more directly and positively.

“This longing led me to make a significant career shift to what I’m fondly referring to as my ‘encore career,’” she said.

Howell, a Marquette University finance graduate, was two decades into a thriving business career when she decided it was time for a change. Research into master’s degrees in social work led her to Mizzou’s three-year online MSW program.

The online format ideally suited Howell’s needs as she juggled the endless responsibilities of her busy family. After being accepted into the program, she left her full-time finance job to focus on her coursework and practicum requirements.

Rediscovering talents

The classwork in her new career area was a significant shift from finance. Howell embraced it and soon found herself blending skills that had gone unused in her finance work with the more familiar research and critical analysis techniques she’d honed for years.

“Finance and accounting often demand objective analysis and precise calculations, whereas social work calls for a harmonious blend of analytical thinking and emotional intelligence,” she said. “The field is about empathizing with people’s experiences and emotions, comprehending societal structures that influence them, and using this understanding to create meaningful change.”

She was deeply moved by specific courses in positive psychology, death, grief and loss. Howell said those courses helped expand her understanding of the human experience, giving her insight into grief theories that enhanced her empathy for people facing loss and mortality.

A woman hugs a small dog
Sarah Howell began taking Penelope, her half Yorkshire Terrier, half Maltese puppy, into her social work practice at Evelyn’s House. “My clients adore her as their companion on the couch,” she said. “I intend for Penelope to continue accompanying me to the office each day.” Photo courtesy of Sarah Howell

Danielle Easter, assistant clinical professor with the School of Social Work, recommended Howell take a class that placed her as a student clinician in the Integrative Behavioral Health Clinic. Easter said social work is a natural way for Howell to leverage her communication skills, empathy and compassion.

“At the beginning, there was some nervousness about doing something new,” Easter said. “When she put those nerves aside, she quickly built therapeutic rapport with her clients and ultimately found the impact she can have helping others.”

Through this clinical setting, Howell realized what she wanted to do for her encore career. After working with hospice patients and seeing the difference she could make by advocating on behalf of patients as well as their caregivers, she decided to double down by seeking a practicum placement with Barnes Jewish Hospital’s hospice program, Evelyn’s House, in St. Louis.

The science of the art

Howell’s final practicum is at Creve Coeur Community Counseling, a program that provides affordable therapy sessions to the community. In this setting, she manages her own clients and markets her services to expand her client base as she prepares to graduate and become a licensed clinical social worker.

Her clients understand she’s still a student, and some have expressed interest in continuing with her after she wraps up her education at Mizzou. Beyond building her confidence, it also provides a tremendous jump start on her new career.

Howell described her years in finance as more of a “science.” Although she worked to express her artistic side through her business acumen and skills, she said social work offers a better balance of these two sides of her brain.

“The ‘art’ of social work involves understanding, empathizing, and advocating, while the ‘science’ centers on applying research methods to understand social issues and evaluate interventions,” she said. “My social work courses fostered a growth mindset, encouraging me to question assumptions, seek diverse perspectives, and continually learn and adapt. This balance of ‘art’ and ‘science’ turned out to be a perfect fit for me, enabling me to apply both in my clinical work.”

As Howell graduates and moves on to a leading role in her “second act,” she appreciates how her past helps inform this new path. Regardless of someone’s career and life experiences, Easter said there are always ways to connect it to social work.

“The practice of social work is incredibly diverse, so people are able to use their past experiences to enhance their work with others,” Easter said. “It’s one of the things I love about this field.”

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Danielle Easter

Danielle Easter

Assistant Clinical Professor