Would you commit a crime to pay off your grandmother’s medical debt? What about if your child was starving? For many people, these “thought experiments” are part of their real-life decision making, says Nathan Nyitrai, a rising second-year student in the master’s of social work (MSW) degree program at the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2). For Nyitrai, who studied psychiatry and criminal justice during their undergraduate degrees, it’s important to integrate a holistic understanding of people and their circumstances and take responsibility as a community to address their needs.
That includes LGBTQ+ communities, who may be impacted by multiple intersecting identities. Nyitrai, who uses both he/him and they/them pronouns, is specifically interested in trans studies and activism and chose SP2 because it was the only school where he could focus on criminal justice and LGBTQ+ studies within an MSW program. “I wanted a degree that would position me to fill the needs of my community,” Nyitrai says.
Nyitrai is part of the third cohort of students earning an LGBTQ certificate. Open to all graduate schools, the certificate includes three classes (one on human sexuality, a course in advanced clinical or applied practice, and an elective related to gender, sexuality, or LGBTQ+ communities) as well as 150 hours in a related work placement. The program was started in 2020 as part of the Penn Futures project with the intent to provide supplemental education about the legal, health care, and social service needs of LGBTQ+ communities.
Often, this kind of education is limited to “gay days,” where “we have a guest speaker coming for an hour.” Nyitrai says. These meetings focus on the basics, he says. “There are pronouns. Also, there are queer people, we should respect that.” This kind of patchwork, ad-hoc training “doesn’t really integrate the LGBT experience,” they say. “Taking specific time to learn about topics through queer lenses is very beneficial.”
Nyitrai is currently a social work intern for the Goldring Reentry Initiative, working with clients three months before and three months after they’re released from prison, helping with jobs, housing, interpersonal relationships, and more, they say. Nyitrai says having a nuanced understanding of LGBTQ+ identities helps their work.
Putting marginalized groups at the forefront is important to address inequality because they often have insights that get overlooked, Nyitrai says. “People get really caught in the worlds that they exist in, and it’s hard to recognize what experiences are like for different people. And then you miss out on cultural knowledge for all these different groups.
“Expanding your understanding of how humans work challenges your own assumptions,” they say. “If you don’t open yourself up to learning about different groups, you’re really doing yourself a disservice.”