July 18, 2023

Mona Mokaddam

Mona Mokaddam, CCSW ‘16, is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) in the state of New York. She graduated with a BSW from SUNY Stony Brook University with a specialization of policy practice and minor in philosophy. Shortly after, she obtained her Master’s Degree in Columbia University's School of Social Work with a specialization of health, mental health, and disabilities. Today, Mona Mokaddam provides professional services in both English and Arabic. She promotes holistic healing in everyday living and is dedicated to creating a positive impact for future generations.

Our Kareem Kubeisy sat down with Mona for an Alumni Spotlight interview.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself currently: Your role, where you live and what you do?

I'm a social worker - I do individual one-on-one therapy sessions and I provide emotional support for the incarcerated population at Rikers Island. This is not a career that you do primarily for the money - it has to be something that you genuinely love doing. When I applied to Columbia for grad school, I remember my dad saying, "What do you mean? Grad school? You already finished college! There's more?." 

'Social work' is not really a word in Arabic. Anytime I talk about it with my dad he says 'social work' in English. It's hard to translate. I'm hoping to penetrate that culture barrier. 

Social work has had a big impact on the incarcerated population as it spreads awareness of mental health and introduces person-centered methods to motivate individuals towards achieving positive psychological functioning. Incarcerated individuals trade their freedom for ‘care, custody and control,’ which can leave many feeling hopeless, stuck or worthless. Social Work installs hope by reminding individuals that they matter; and that although they are physically imprisoned, their minds are not.

I was part of the first group of Social Workers to be hired under the Department of Corrections.  I was working on Riker’s Island for a little over a year when my fellow social work colleagues resigned.  For about 7-8 months, I was the only Social Worker under The Department of Corrections left to service the island.The lack of resources is unfortunate but it really is such a great opportunity to show what social work can do for people with a traumatic past. Last year Rikers Island had 23 deaths. Seven months in, and we have had only 2 deaths this year, which is a hopeful sign that our work is making a difference. Sometimes two people talking and connecting makes all the difference.

Can you share a little bit about your journey at Columbia, what inspired you to pursue your current path?

I graduated with my bachelors in social work at Stony Brook University with a specialization in policy practice. When I was at Stony Brook, the notorious case of Kalief Browder was active. He was arrested when I started my my social work career and had committed suicide by the time I graduated. 

I had learned a lot about Rikers island so I really started considering a move to the city where I could get closer access and leverage my policy background, which I supplemented with clinical work and once I got to Columbia.

When I went to Columbia, I studied Clinical Social Work with a specialization in health, mental health, and disabilities. The experience opened my lens of how I can be a practitioner to any population. 

I was working in geriatric care and then transitioned to pediatric therapy. Now I work with the incarcerated population at Rikers Island. So my experience gave me exposure to every extreme of the population. 

How connected are you to your Columbia community today?

After graduation, I went  back for my alumni card just so I could go to the library. But it also helps me stay connected with Columbia Alumni more generally through events and I feel like it's such a privilege. Sometimes I come across people that I can't personally help but I can reach out to the alumni network and see if someone else might have an idea or have been in that position, and the Columbia community has been very good at that.

To be in the first pool of social workers to get hired was such an incredible compliment, and Columbia really helped me build my confidence. Columbia was really good at introducing me to the network of social workers who gave me a lot of support. Just check in with the Alumni Association whenever you are doubting yourself.

Did any aspect of your identity have an impact on your career or simply shape your experiences thus far?

I never realized how unique my experience was until I went to social work school. This is very different from when I was a kid where I would rather hide being Arab for fear of being bullied. Social work school empowered me to tap into my identity and be and proud of who I was and the unique lens I had to offer. I would feel more confident to go into jobs. They would never guess that I could possibly be Lebanese because we're a minority, but now I embrace it.

You realize that your culture is not the same where women carry themselves differently. But having that empowerment from Columbia to challenge those doubts and remember that despite your ethnicity, you're educated and you're prepared, that was something that always helped. When people find out that you went to Columbia, they see you as someone who wants to strive really far.

What was your favorite place to hang out on campus?

Butler Library. When I applied to Columbia, I remember looking at Butler Library and thinking it was the most beautiful library I've ever seen. It's just so funny that it's the one place that I still keep visiting after graduating.

A big part of your job is working with detainees at Rikers. What's the biggest thing you've learned from them that you can share with all of us?

Rikers Island is not a prison, it's a Detention Center. So there are people who get arrested and are just literally waiting for court. The outside society is labeling them as a criminal.

Coming in at first, I wondered, how do I even start a conversation with an incarcerated individual? I came to realize that the foundation of being a good social worker, is just being kind, and the detainees I work with really appreciate and enforce that every day. If you come in and you're happy and smiling they will give you that same energy back.

What is your favorite book written by or about Arabs?
I really enjoyed reading The Riddle of Life by Hassan Ismail.

What do you think CAAA can offer current or future alumni?
Staying connected, and also not allowing alumni to forget that Columbia really was our foundation.
In-person events are so valuable. Columbia does put a lot of effort into hosting events and it's nice to know that in a city as big as NY I'm not forgotten. So that's definitely something I look forward to with CAAA.