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Student Life, Alumni Stories

DSW Without Borders: How One SP2 Alumna Steered a Global Course to Success

From winning the green card lottery in Bulgaria to securing a teaching appointment in Australia, Rumyana Kudeva, DSW ‘15, is proof positive that the trajectory to a rewarding and impactful social work career is often far from linear.

By the time she enrolled in the program at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), Dr. Kudeva had already completed her Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria, moved with her family across the globe, and amassed years of experience in mental health and clinical social work settings. Kudeva’s aspirations to challenge herself professionally, deepen her practice knowledge, and ultimately segue into teaching full-time at a university all led to continuing her studies at Penn.

The decision to pursue a Doctorate in Social Work was one intrepid step in a journey that would find Kudeva traversing the country and, eventually, the globe once again. Kudeva’s path to career growth, hard-won success, and thoughtful words of advice serve as inspiration for current and future DSW students alike.

“I Didn’t Even Have a Plan B”

After completing her MSW, Kudeva won the green card lottery and moved to the United States with her family in 2005. Unsure whether her degrees would be transferable in the States, Kudeva worked in the hospitality industry at a nearby hotel in Atlantic City for almost a year.

“I decided, OK, I’m good with people, let me try hospitality,” she recalled. “Towards the end of the year, I realized that it didn’t really make sense. I started looking for jobs in the social service sector that didn’t necessarily require a degree– I just wanted to get back in the field.”

Eventually, Kudeva found full-time work assisting individuals with developmental disabilities, and a per diem case management and counseling position with at-risk and homeless youth. She then applied for licensure to practice clinical work and began working in a community mental health clinic, which spurred her decision to apply to a DSW program.

“Once I started practicing, I started discovering all these things I wanted to know more about. You can have some vague ideas about theories, structural issues, or trauma-informed practice, but the depth wasn’t there,” she said. “What I wanted from the degree was to build on my professional knowledge and that solid experience of practice, and to tie the loose ends that you can’t just do through workshops. I wanted a good, credible social work program that had a lot of years behind its existence.”

When she came across the DSW program at SP2, Kudeva felt it was an instant match—so much so that she didn’t apply anywhere else.

“I didn’t even have a Plan B—I couldn’t find anything else that could meet my needs. It was one shot,” she added with a laugh. “Thankfully, it worked out!”

Finding What Fits, & Giving Back Through Education

When she began the DSW program, Kudeva was pregnant with her second son and working in a community mental health clinic, where she completed 2,000 hours of clinical supervision to attain an independent clinical license (LCSW). Wanting more stability, she left the outpatient clinic in her third year and worked as a private practitioner in a clinic specializing in maternity, post-partum, and perinatal psychological services. She began her dissertation work around the psychological issues and grief faced by women after difficult childbirth experiences, and completed graduate training for post-partum mental health clinicians. In need of insurance benefits to cover her family, Kudeva then took a job through Rowan University, providing mental health services to individuals with intellectual disabilities.

As she was finishing up her dissertation, and with direct practice and supervisory experience under her belt, Kudeva decided her next step would be giving back and teaching.

“The way I see social work is that a big portion of the work you do, even as a direct practitioner— it’s really not that clinical piece. It’s more so the education, whether it’s to the community or directly to the people you work with. You give back and inform the profession with new, evidence-based research and findings,” she said. “I didn’t just want to go into a university, start doing research, and teach on the side.”

Kudeva focused on applying to universities where much of the workload involved teaching, with the rest allocated for research. She secured interviews with the help of the community education and workshops she provided in prior positions. Having a DSW from Penn, she said, went a long way as well.

“I think I was able to get those interviews because people have high opinions of Penn, and the DSW program itself. I was also able to show the education I provided as a program coordinator, including speaking at police academy and cadet trainings, and training to first responders around intellectual disabilities and psychiatric crisis— what they can expect, and how they can de-escalate without using force,” Kudeva said. “But I’m sure, 100 percent, that the DSW degree from Penn helped a lot in finding a job so quickly on the academic market.”

Kudeva was offered an assistant professor position at Eastern Washington University, resulting in a cross-country move. After two years there, she relocated to Australia to take on a permanent continuous teaching appointment (the equivalent of tenure-track) as a lecturer at Federation University. Currently, she is furthering her professional development as a social work educator through a post-graduate diploma degree in tertiary teaching, which focuses on pedagogical skills, assessments, and student-centered learning.

Words of Wisdom

Kudeva’s advice to prospective or current DSW students is a characteristic combination of resolute and introspective. As she assures, the work is rigorous, but it’s possible to push through self-doubt and obstacles with support from those around you.

“Just go for it! Don’t overthink, and when it becomes hard, keep going,” Kudeva said. “Reach for support and ask for help, because it is there. With any graduate or doctorate work, it can be lonely. Don’t stay there—ask for support from your peers, the program director, your chair, and other professionals.”

“There were so many times when I thought that maybe I’m not cut out for this. Like, maybe if English was my first language or if I had gotten my Master’s in the States, it would have been easier. I had to learn a lot on the go— how to use a library, what Blackboard is, things you don’t even think about until you’re faced with them,” she added. “It’s intellectually challenging, but the program was a personal transformation. I learned so much about myself as a practitioner, and as a person. It was very difficult, but it was so rewarding.”

If Kudeva’s story is any indication, all of those challenges were certainly worth what awaits on the other side.

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