When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, Marthe Guirand was just 11, living with her aunt in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Ten months later, she and her brother left the shattered city to join her parents in Stamford, Connecticut, and begin a new life in the United States.

She’s never forgotten how a social worker helped her and her family make that transition. And soon she’ll be in a position to offer help to others in need. On May 21, Guirand will graduate with a Master of Social Work from the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS).

To get there, though, she had to overcome some misconceptions about the field. Even though she was attracted to it as an undergraduate at Long Island’s Molloy College, she changed her major three times—from criminal justice to psychology to computer science—before settling on social work.

“I think a lot of people have just one perspective of the social work field—that they’re social workers that take children away from families,” she said.

Guirand attended Molloy on a basketball scholarship, and she said her coach encouraged her to stick with the social work field if it was really what she wanted to do.

“I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because I’m learning so much and it’s all I ever wanted to do. A social worker helped me, and I wanted to be able to give back,” she said.

When she first began taking classes with GSS remotely from her home in Norwalk, Connecticut, she was working part-time as a caregiver with Assisted Living Services. In February, a field placement assignment introduced her to Family & Children’s Agency (FCA), where she currently works as a social work supervisor, and where she will remain after graduation. Her focus is on geriatric care, an area where the need for social work is growing as the U.S. population ages.

“A lot of seniors, especially during the pandemic, haven’t had contact or relationships with other people, and as they get older, their family members kind of drift away from them,” she said.

“I want to be able to support them. If they need someone to speak to, or they need something that their family members can’t help them with, I want to be that person they can always call.”

The onset of the pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, Guirand missed what would have been her final year playing basketball for Molloy, and in September 2020, when Covid infections were still spiking, her father had to travel from Stamford to Manhattan to undergo a non-Covid-related lung transplant.

At the same time, remote learning meant that she didn’t have to commute from Connecticut to Fordham’s Westchester campus, where she would have been taking classes if they were in person.

She was grateful, though, that her current placement with FCA is in person and has brought her face to face with clients—even though mask-wearing can sometimes pose a problem.

“One of my biggest challenges was communication, at least in the beginning. The clients are older, so they’re hard of hearing, and plus I have a mask on. It’s a lot of repeating and raising my voice, which I’m not used to,” she said. It made it difficult to establish trust.

“I want to build that rapport with them and coming off too strong, depending on the person’s personality, could be a problem.”

She has also learned the importance of being an advocate for her clients.

“It’s so important because they’re not aware of certain benefits they can receive, or how to advocate for themselves. I’m kind of a point person,” she said.

Linda White-Ryan, Ph.D., associate dean of student services and an adjunct professor at the GSS, said that Guirand helped create a sense of community in her class, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a task made more challenging by the fact that it was held exclusively on Zoom.

Social work is fundamentally the act of building relationships, and Guirand, she said, is the quintessential role model for a social worker.

“One of the things that professors do is model that for students in the classroom and break them into small groups so that they begin to work on case studies together, practice interventions together, or pair up with other students to role play,” she said.

“Marthe helped students engage with each other by creating that safe space. I was impressed with her contribution to making the class such a comfortable place to be—a comfortable learning environment where students could challenge things that were being taught, and also contribute creative ideas.”

When the war in Ukraine began, talk in the class turned to the trauma felt by refugees fleeing conflict, and Guirand shared her own story of leaving the country she called home, White-Ryan said. Guirand detailed how she had to adapt to a change in the pace of life, the mix of excitement and fear associated with the move, and how she had to embrace a new cuisine.

Guirand said that she’s excited to follow in the path of her mother, who has also worked as a caregiver. She’s also taken joy in the fact that she is making an impact in the lives of the elderly people she works with.

“I see that every day with my clients. A phone call just to check in makes the biggest difference. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, Martha, thank you for calling.’ You know, it it’s things like that that make my day.”

Guirand said her favorite phrase is “In a world where you could be anything, be kind.”

“I really like that because you never know what someone is going through or has gone through,” she said.

“That person may act this way or say that, and maybe something is going on with them. So being kind is something that all of my classes at Fordham have emphasized. Empathy plays a huge role in this field.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.