"Because of my education here I have been able to tackle child abuse issues in both Los Angeles and Belize, to campaign against adolescent suicide in rural Arkansas, to train school teachers and nurses in Seychelles in the elements of counseling, and to strengthen HIV/AIDS peer education programs in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Ukraine and Central Asia," Elders says.
Last month, UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research and the UCLA Department of Social Welfare honored Elders as an outstanding alumna. In her presentation she detailed her career path. She started work as a high school English and journalism teacher. Then she became a caseworker for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.
Her travels began as a state adolescent and school health coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Health. Her most recent work has been with the Peace Corps, where she is now a programming and training specialist for health for the Peace Corps' Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research in Washington D.C. "Much of my work with Peace Corps has to do with HIV/AIDS prevention work, but I'm also able to work to address issues such as maternal and child health, health education, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide prevention," Elders says.
Elders thinks that working abroad can be a good fit for social welfare professionals. "I firmly believe that MSWs have cultural competencies and transferable skills that can serve them in good stead in a variety of international settings," Elders says.
Elders credits some of her successes with the principle of "just showing up." At the age of 39, the same year her son started college, Elders returned to the classroom. She graduated from UCLA with her MSW in 1978. And in 1987, at the age of 50, she signed up for her first stint as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Elders once saw a saying from Zimbabwe on a poster. She has since made it a guiding principle in her work: "If you can walk, you can dance . . . If you can talk, you can sing."
"It reminds me that it's vital to seek opportunities to move from the mundane, the ordinary, to the special, in the work that we do," Elders says. "When I received my MSW here in 1978, twenty-five years ago, I had no clue that this degree would take me to some of the ends of the earth nor provide me with opportunities in such a wide spectrum of social work practice."