Hannah Oliver was just trying to help, but the woman kept calling her stupid. Loudly.
The woman’s husband was on a computer in the Chattanooga Public Library downtown, trying to fill out an employment application. Oliver, a senior majoring in social work at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was trying to guide him through it. “It was my first week on the job and, while I was helping the man the whole time, his wife was just like, ‘You’re so stupid!’” Oliver says.
“As the new kid on the block, I was terrified, but I just let it roll off my back. Then when it was done, I went to the other room and was like, “Oh my gosh! Am I stupid?’”
No, she is not.
Unfocused anger is one of the realities of trying to find help for people who may be in stressful or unhappy situations. Maybe they’re homeless or hungry and have no idea what to do or where to go. Maybe they just need to talk. Maybe it’s a child who’s having problems at school and needs to find professional help. And maybe in a happier moment, they’re kids who want to have fun by making art or finding a book to read or watching a movie.
“I’ve definitely had my moments, like we all do, of, ‘Am I doing this well enough? Or would someone with more experience do this way better than I’m doing it?’
Oliver also is dealing with the fact that she’s something of a unicorn—the first social work intern at any public library in Tennessee. “It’s just really exciting. I’m so glad to be a part of us kind of making history in Tennessee,” says Oliver, who also has a full-time job as a cake decorator at Whole Foods.
On the day of her interview, she says she missed her regular morning dose of coffee for energy, but it’s darn near impossible to see how she would need it. Her effervescent enthusiasm is a constant, and she bubbles with friendly intensity that includes dramatic alterations of her voice to indicate her level of excitement, joy or self-doubt. “She’s confident. If she has any fear or apprehension, I think she allows that to feed her determination or feed her drive rather than draw back from it,” says Cathy Scott, assistant professor and director for the undergraduate Social Work program at UTC.
The relationship between UTC and the library seems destined to happen. At the start of fall semester 2019, the UTC Department of Social Work was tossing around the idea of starting an internship with the public library while, at the same time, the library was studying the idea of bringing on a social work intern. “The really large library systems, like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have been hiring social workers for the last three to five years,” says Corrine Hill, executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library. “My staff and I have been having a conversation on whether it was time for us to do that.”
When it came time to choose a student for the internship, Oliver was the obvious choice, say faculty members in the UTC Department of Social Work. “Hannah is a fireball. She is a go-getter. She’s teachable. She’s coachable,” says April Wilson, clinical instructor and interim director of field education in the department. “We needed a student that was strong, a student that could operate autonomously, a student that could think critically, handle conflict situations. Somebody who was able to go into a situation, assess it and find opportunities to make a difference. We knew that Hannah had it.”
Hill describes Oliver as “so smart and so engaged and so curious and she just really wants to help. She has gotten a really good education at UTC.”
Along with helping library patrons, Oliver is also teaching techniques the library staff can use when difficult situations crop up. “She has identified training that the staff needs to be better prepared to do their jobs. She brings the staff a level of training that up to now they haven’t had,” Hill says.
While Oliver loves the internship, she now understands that, despite all her efforts, she won’t be able to solve everyone’s problems. “You have to go from the young and courageous and save-the-world mentality of a student to being thrown into the real world and realize, ‘OK, I know what I can do. I will always try my best, but I have to accept the reality that sometimes there’s things I just cannot change for people.’