MSW student, Abby Pinkston, talks about her field placement at Esther House

Abigail (Abby) Pinkston is in her first year of UNE’s MSW Program, expected to graduate in May 2022.   As part of her MSW, she is also pursuing the certificates, Training in Aging and Diversity (TRIAD)* and Trauma-informed care.  She is doing her field placement at Esther Residence in Saco, ME, a transitional sober house for previously incarcerated women.   We reached out to her recently for an interview.  Keep reading to hear what she has to say!

*TRIAD comes with a $10,000 Stipend (offered as part of on campus program only)


What initially drew you to social work?

In undergrad, I was actually on the Pre-Physician Assistant Track.  I was not enjoying my chemistry classes, however, and so I decided to step back and have a look at what else I could do with my major in psychology. After some research, I stumbled upon social work. Somehow I just knew that this was the career for me.  I also remember mulling my ideas over with close friends and family, who only further confirmed my ideas. 

Abby enjoying the outdoors

What do you want to do with your MSW?

My ultimate goal is to work with combat veterans and their families while also having some involvement with substance use treatment in an outpatient setting.

Why did you choose to pursue the TRIAD And Trauma certificates?

I have always been drawn to working with the older generation rather than working with younger clients, which is what led me to pursue the TRIAD certificate.  The Trauma certificate, however, is the main reason I chose to attend UNE.  Prior to my time at UNE, I volunteered at the VA Hospital in Madison, WI, where I found the population I want to work with. The trauma certificate will help me become better educated on trauma-informed care practices that I will use throughout my career.  I also like to highlight that another reason I chose UNE over other programs was how personable the faculty and staff are. Professor, Craig Owens, for example, reached out to me right away after I was accepted into the program.  He made me feel extremely valued and comfortable.  

Check out our post, Trauma-Informed Social Work: A Radical Health Experience, to see an example of what other UNE students are doing with the Trauma Certificate


What is Esther Residence?

Esther Residence is a transitional sober house for previously incarcerated women run by 3 nuns.  The sisters are great! They really care a lot and consult one another with all their decisions.  They could be a sitcom, in and of themselves!  Residents are either legally referred to Esther Residence and agree, but perhaps would not come on their own volition , while others seek us out willfully.  They generally stay an average of 6 months or so, but there is no official cap.  Some women are here only briefly while others stay well beyond the 6 months.  There are 7 or so beds.  The women do a lot in their time with us.  They work on getting a job, housing, education, and/or training.  They do reflection every night Mon- Thursday together where they may reflect on a specific passage and how this resonates with them or they may just talk about their day.  They’re required to do three NA or AA meetings a week and there is a house meeting every Monday.  Residents rotate certain house duties like cooking and cleaning, and there are certain incentives in place for fulfilling these duties as well as other life goals.  Overall, the house serves as a community- a safe space to provide resources and support to help get them back on their feet. 

Portland Press Herald: Women credit Esther Residence with changing their lives

What are your primary duties at your Field Placement?

I do a lot of different things there. My primary duties include helping residents obtain their HiSET (formerly GED) by tutoring them in schoolwork, assisting them with finding housing or applying for jobs, and overall, just being a support for them when they need it.  I also attend drug court sometimes to observe how interdisciplinary teams work with clients battling addiction.

Can you speak to how field has expanded your social work/knowledge skills?

One things my time at the Esther Residence has taught me is just how complex substance use disorders are. I’ve learned how to better understand clients presenting with SUDs by acknowledging the grip that substances can have on them and how this has affected their lives thus far. Some women come to us incredibly motivated to become sober, while others are less so.  Despite their level of motivation, they share similar struggles with relapsing and sustaining motivation.   I see how incredibly challenging it is for them.  Esther Residence is not punitive though.  There are instances of relapse, but if the residents are willing to work with the sisters and with the staff and they are honest about things, they will do well here. 

What aspects of class/theories learned have been most helpful to field?

I have definitely used motivational interviewing a lot.  Scale rating has also been really helpful.  I often use this in conjunction with motivational interviewing. In addition to using it for gauging moods, I also use it to as a way to measure intensity of cravings or motivation to stay sober etc.

What are the greatest challenges at your field placement?

I would say the greatest challenge, or rather, frustration, does not come from the Esther Residence or the clients themselves, but rather the social system that makes it unnecessarily more difficult for previously incarcerated people to find jobs and affordable housing. They have so much going against them it can be easy to get discouraged. All they are trying to do is improve upon themselves, but they are constantly getting told “no” because of their background.

What are the greatest rewards at your field placement?

The greatest reward for me is seeing the residents achieve their goals. Whether it be by getting a job, graduating drug court, getting through Intensive Outpatient Therapy (IOP), passing tests, or moving out of the house to continue their recovery journey, it’s extremely rewarding to see them excel in every way and seeing the impact that the Esther Residence has on these women.

How does field seminar help you navigate your field placement?*

 I look forward to seminar every week. I use my “check-in” weeks to talk through anything that may arise during my time at field placement and use my classmates as sounding boards as I am working through things.  I especially love going to seminar because I find it’s helpful to know my peers may be experiencing similar feelings or thoughts about their placement(s) that I am about mine. There is no one else in my seminar specifically working at a sober house, but there is someone who used to and their insights are so helpful.  There is another student who works in the prison system and does similar work that I do in helping with finding affordable housing and findings jobs.  In fact, despite our different placements as students, I find we all encounter similar issues as students and it’s so helpful to have a space to discuss these issues together.    

*All MSW students take a field seminar course alongside their field placement

What is your relationship to your Field Supervisor?  

I feel very comfortable with my field supervisor. I speak up about how I feel about my placement, and I share my perspective about how I think residents are doing.  She definitely values my input and takes my suggestions into consideration.  This makes me feel heard and valued.  We have a very good relationship. 

We also reached out to her supervisor for comment. Here’s what she had to say:

“I have been supervising Abby since September when she began her internship.  She is well respected by staff and the residents, who love to work with her.  We have had 2 women who are working on HiSet.   Abby has worked with them on Math.  She found materials on the internet and made binders for them.  They both needed to focus on math this semester.  When residents don’t want to work or get discouraged too quickly, Abby has the ability to reach them where they are and allow them freedom that usually leads to a decision to continue their work at that moment.  She’s also worked with other clients on job search, applications for housing, and other agency forms they needed to read, discuss, and sign.  She is very skillful with internet issues, and has been helping all of us, staff and residents with internet tasks.   

She adapted extremely well will everyone.  She is observant, offers her suggestions at staff meeting and house meeting.  She is talented, has good judgement, and is very skillful in responding to the residents.  They are very comfortable with her.  They share easily with her, and her responses are very appropriate.  Interns are gifts lent to us for a brief time, persons we enjoy and love to work with.  We give and receive from them. ”  – Sister Joanne Roy MSW

Where will you do your placement next year?

I’m really interested in doing something at a VA clinic, but I’m not sure I’ll get this placement as I know spots are limited.   I’ve submitted a cover letter to Maine Med P6 (inpatient medical geriatric psychiatry unit) as well and am excited to hear back from them.  We’ll see!  

Do you have any advice to other MSW students as they think about where they’d like to do their field placement?

My advice would be to keep an open mind about your field placement options. If you are hesitant to consider a field placement because it isn’t exactly where you thought you might want to end up. You may be happily surprised once you get there to find that placement completely changing your views on your future.