Heather Opsahl

Interview with Heather Opsahl

Date: March 13, 2012

Name: Heather Opsahl

Major, minor, and graduation year: Social Work Major, Speech Communications Minor

Job Title: Executive Director

Organization/ Place of work: Lake Superior Medical Society

You're an Executive Director, what does that entail? What are your duties or responsibilities?

I manage a Nonprofit Association for Physicians. I am the only employee, so I do everything.

What are the highlights of your job that you enjoy most?

My job is in a field nicknamed, "Organized Medicine". It is where physicians pool together to have a voice in legislation (similar to lawyers). My county association is affiliated with the American Medical Association (national) and the Minnesota Medical Association (state). I enjoy seeing the benefits of my work impact healthcare in the state of Minnesota- and also nationwide.

What are the challenges that you face with your job that are not enjoyable?

The challenges I face are making sure that I wear a different hat when needed/learning something new.I never thought I would graduate with a Social Work degree, and then have to learn how to design a website from scratch (an IT department would be wonderful).

How do you spend your work days? Do you spend a lot of time office/lab/meetings/outside/flex work?

I work 40 hours per week, primarily in my downtown office. Most board meetings are at 6:30 a.m. (when physicians are available) and some meetings/events are on weeknights.

How did this type of job/field interest you and how did you get started?

My background included Nonprofit Administration and Director of Social Services (Medical Social Worker). I was sought out by a close friend of the family for this position.

What qualifications did you need to obtain this job?

Bachelor's Degree, Nonprofit Administration Background, Communications Degree

What personal qualities or abilities do you believe contribute most to success in this job/field?

Communication skills are crucial in politics and non-profit administration which I hold as a personal ability that contributed to my success.

What organizations were you involved in College that helped you towards your career?

I was the UW-Superior Student Activities Director in 1993.That position taught me how to organize an event from start-to-finish (idea, funding, marketing, decorations, meal preparation, budget, etc.).It is identical to what I do in my current profession. I was also on the Student Advisory Council (SAC) which helped me to work with nonprofit boards/community leaders.

What degree/ is appropriate for this line of work?

Business, Communications, Social Work

Where and/or what do you hope to be in 2-5 years? 5-10 years? What are the keys to this career advancement?

I pray to be in the same job for the next 5 years or more. After that, my kids will finally be getting a little older, so I would like to pursue a job with more travel opportunities.

What was the best piece of advice you received and from who that helped you towards your career?

I received helpful advice form Elizabeth Blue at UW-Superior who said, "Document EVERYTHING." That piece of advice has saved my license too many times to count. Document immediately after an incident- don't wait until the next day when your memory is not as sharp, or you forget altogether.

Do you have any advice or "words from experience" for a college student interested in this job/field?

Social Work is a unique field that has a strong potential for burn-out. In my past work experiences, I suffered through some really tough times of major stress and burn-out.They teach you about boundaries with clients in college, but in real life it is often difficult to leave your work at the office. Often times, client hardships and internal budget concerns add huge amounts of stress to your already full case load. My advice is to familiarize yourself with the signs of burn-out now, and revisit them from time-to-time. Definitely get help if you need it. Also, know that Social Work salaries can be minimal for the amount of workload.

If you knew all this back in college, what would you say were the most important classes? Is there anything you would have paid more attention to? Any additional classes you would have taken?

When I took Social Work Methods III & Political Science 101, and learned about community policy/action, I could not picture myself ever working in that field (in fact, they were my least favorite classes). Here I am 18 years later, utilizing everything I learned in those classes and wishing I could retake them.

In college, people claim that a bachelor's degree isn't enough anymore and that you need a master's or doctorate degree to get your foot in the door.  What's your opinion?

I disagree. I worked in the field of Vocational Rehabilitation for 7 years (finding employment for dislocated workers and people with disabilities). I discovered it is really who you know and not what you know that will get you hired.Communications skills are so important. Learning to sell yourself is an art that needs to be practiced throughout your life, even when you think your job is secure.