Musical Roots

When Sarah Kaczenski ’18 was 8 years old, she would pretend to play the piano on a window sill inside her childhood home. On the surface, this might seem like just another instance of a young imagination at work. However, if you fast-forward 14 years later, it’s clear to see that Sarah carried her love of music with her throughout her college career, channeling her creative faculties to great lengths on and off campus.

Photo of the Elms Choir

In addition to double majoring in social work and sociology, Sarah made a conscious effort to make time for a music minor. In high school, her training as a classical pianist led to a deep appreciation of Beethoven and Mozart. Everything changed, though, when she began studying jazz music and music theory at Elms College with Professor Christopher Bakriges, Ph.D.

“When I started learning more about theory, I discovered that pretty much anything goes with the piano,” Sarah said. “You can justify doing anything. You can be really creative with something already written, or with your own endeavors.”

The Northfield, MA, native said that immersing herself in this type of music was a formative experience for her because it unlocked the spontaneous side of musical composition.

“I can emote more into the music now,” she explained. “I compose a little bit myself, so when I’m really stressed, I’ll just toss all the sheet music out and let whatever happens, happen.”

Creativity + Empathy = Connection

This wellspring of creativity permeated other aspects of Sarah’s experience at Elms, too. With the aid of Campus Ministry, Sarah founded and publicized the college’s first choir, providing students with the chance to exercise their vocals on campus and in local nursing homes. These gatherings were not only touchstones for personal growth, Sarah said, but also catalysts for unifying the campus community.

In the Elms spirit of developing the whole person, Sarah adapted her creativity as a musician into emotional intelligence as a social worker. Social work and sociology were the ideal pairing, according to Sarah, as they both emphasize the importance of empathy in providing services to the vulnerable.

“My majors helped me to learn how to do a better job of putting myself in somebody else’s shoes,” she said. “We really emphasize empathy. Over the years, learning more about the reasons why people might do what they do has definitely made me more empathetic, which is critical for social work.”

Putting It All Together

To provide effective services to individuals, groups, and communities, students like Sarah study the “biopsychosocial” model of personhood. This approach involves holistically analyzing the biological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to individual and community wellbeing. These concepts began to crystallize in the fall of Sarah’s senior year, when she started an internship at Catholic Charities Agency in Springfield, MA. Supporting the office of immigration, migration, and refugee services, she worked closely with refugees to help them obtain green cards, address questions about citizenship, and assimilate to cultural practices in the United States.

Interacting with immigrants and refugees was instrumental in preparing Sarah for professional social work. Not only did she gain a better understanding of the sociopolitical challenges that immigrants currently face in the U.S., but she also felt a burgeoning sense of compassion for people leaving their home countries in an attempt to better their lives here.

“You can see a lot of suffering in the world, and being blessed enough to have a college education — I think that social work is a great way to use my education and lessen that suffering,” she said.

‘Learning more about the reasons why people might do what they do has definitely made me more empathetic, which is critical for social work.’

Whether it takes shape in the form of piano keys on a windowsill, choir performances on campus, or consulting with refugees, Sarah’s imaginative thinking is the thread that binds her experiences at Elms together.

After graduating in May 2018 as one of her class’s salutatorians, Sarah has her sights set on gaining real-world experience as a social worker and, possibly, continuing her education in graduate school. If her previous track record is any indication, she will continue to harmonize her professional commitments with the sounds of music.

Elms encourages its students to pursue multiple passions. If you’re interested in a career as a social worker or sociologist — and even a music aficionado on top of that — contact us or schedule a campus visit to learn more.