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Source: Massey University

Suzi Gallagher with her family (from left): sons Dylan, Carter and husband Jesse.

Suzi Gallagher’s path to gaining her Master in Applied Social Work has involved many twists and turns. A solo mum when she started as an undergraduate in 2008, she’s relocated, bought a house, had another baby and got married.

After completing a Bachelor of Health Science (Psychology and Applied Mental Health double major) – studying by distance and block courses at Massey’s Auckland and Manawatū campuses – she worked with youth in West Auckland before deciding to do more study.

Family has always been her source of inspiration, fuelling her determination to gain the qualifications she needs to help others. “My biggest inspiration has always been my Nanma [her grandmother Patricia Carter] and my son, Dylan. During the last year of my master’s, I also added new inspiration – another son, Carter, and my husband, Jesse.”

Far from a purely academic exercise, her thesis topic: Self-Care Strategies of Social Workers Working in End-of-Life Care was inspired by her Nanma, whom she nursed through the final stages of her life. “She passed away with my mum and I by her side in late 2015. I started working in the aged care sector for an NGO not long after that and it reignited my passion and I went back to study.”

“My research was a labour of love, so I was so happy and proud to find that I received an A.”

Findings from her research included the power of spirituality in relation to self-care; the benefits of supervision and effective leadership; and “the importance of the little things, like taking a lunch break, finishing work on time, and connecting with nature,” she says.

Being the person she once needed in hard times

Ms Gallagher says she didn’t have the greatest adolescent journey. “I have always wanted to be the kind of person that I needed during the hard times. I never saw myself ending up being a social worker though!”

She found out about the NGO Social Work study awards (implemented through the Ministry of Social Development) in her first job in youth work, applied and got it. Highlights of being a postgrad student include learning and experiences from the placements at Anglican Action and an in-work placement at Tai Aroha Special Treatment Unit (Department of Corrections). 

“My colleagues and the work we were doing with youth inspired me to want to develop further in my career,” she says. “All of the people I have worked with and alongside during this process have inspired me and reassured me that I’m doing the work that I was made to do.”

And as a postgraduate student, the support from her supervisor, Lareen Cooper, was vital. “My one year research paper became two, and she was with me the whole way through.”

It was not all smooth sailing however, and she’s had to adapt her plans along the way. “When I started I was working with youth in West Auckland and had the NGO scholarship, but my son was having issues in school so I moved him into my parents’ house while I wrapped up with work and my studies, which also meant that I had to let go of my scholarship. 

“I decided to leave my study and I started working as a vegetarian cook for a woman’s meditation group before my Nanma took a turn and I dropped everything to nurse her,” Ms Gallagher says.

“Being a solo mum for so long, I wanted to be able to put some roots down for my son, so with my inheritance from Nanma and help from my mum, I was able to put a deposit on a home in Hamilton. I found a part-time job at Tai Aroha Special Treatment Unit in Hamilton before I found a house, so I spent a couple of nights every week in Hamilton while my son stayed with my mum at the end of 2016. We eventually found the perfect home for us and started to settle down.”

A few months later, she met Jesse and a whirlwind romance ensued. “Our son, Carter, arrived in August 2018, so I had to figure out what to do about my study. I got as much of my research done as I could before Carter was born – I did all of my interviews over the phone as I was heavily pregnant, just in case!”

She postponed the rest to the following year, her final year of study. While on parental leave from Tai Aroha, she did her second placement at Anglican Action three days a week, while juggling Jesse’s work hours, breastfeeding Carter, Dylan’s school and other activities, and pulling together her research project.

If that wasn’t enough, she and Jesse were also planning a wedding, but decided to elope. “We were married in Waihi on Halloween 2019 – a week or so after finally handing in my research project.”

“Lareen, my supervisor, told me multiple times through the final two years that she doesn’t think she’s had a student who has accomplished so much while doing master’s level study – solo mum, relocating away from family, buying a house, having a baby, getting married.” 

Ms Gallagher has just finished working at the Department of Corrections as a Reintegration Coordinator, and has stepped into her first leadership role at Barnardos Waikato as team leader of social work.