Crafting the Perfect MSW Personal Statement: A Conversation with Michelle Bruxer, MSW
Join us for a great conversation with Michelle Bruxer, MSW aka the Founder of MSW Helper, helping future social workers with crafting the perfect MSW personal statements and applications. This application explores Michelle’s journey in social work, how she discovered how she can make an impact with future social workers, and imparts so much wisdom and expertise on us on applying for an MSW program. This is definitely one to be excited for!
0:00 – Intro
1:23 — The difference between social work and psychology degree paths
2:33 — Starting a side hustle while in grad school
5:17 — Leveraging strengths and experience to create a unique offering
10:19 — The value of a social work degree across any career
11:13 — Using a strengths based approach across different jobs
13:37 — Community field placement experiences
16:53 — Leaning on those you trust for feedback on your writing
17:48 — The importance of having a very clear “why” to anchor your personal statement
22:28 — Having friends and colleagues who understand the social work profession
24:36 — Social work is great for those who need change, options, and autonomy
27:14 — How to use your experience outside of social work to craft the best MSW statement
Michelle’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/msw.helper
MSW Helper Website: https://www.mswhelper.com/
Similar Degree Programs
if you’re interested in a similar MSW education path like Michelle, we at SocialWorkDegrees.org recommend checking out these programs:
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Visit our website at socialworkdegrees.org to learn more about the podcast and access additional resources for social work students and professionals.
Anna Shull 0:00
Hello, and welcome back to another episode of The Voices of Social Work podcast. I’m Anna, a licensed social worker interviewing social workers. And today I’m so thrilled to be joined by Michelle, founder of MSW Helper. Michelle not only was a social worker herself, but now has transitioned to being a social worker helping social workers with her business that focuses on MSW personal statements and applications. This is such a great episode hearing Michelle talk about how she got into social work. And also we get to hear some of her expertise in applying for an MSW program. This is definitely one to be excited for and I’m so glad you’re here.
Michelle Bruxer 0:31
Hi, thanks for having me. My name is Michelle Bruxer and I’m the founder of MSW Helper, where I basically support people who are applying to their Master of Social Work. So kind of a very unique area of social work to be in. I actually started it while I was in grad school, and it was always like a side hustle while I was working as a social worker in the field, as well. And over the last year, I’ve actually like, that’s when I kind of jumped into this full time.
Anna Shull 1:06
That’s so cool. So you started — when did you get the idea of like, this was what you were going to be doing?
Michelle Bruxer 1:12
When I was in grad school, I was looking for some additional income. I was looking to start, you know, a bit of a side hustle while I was supporting myself through school. And I actually started editing resumes. And I literally posted on Kijiji, which is the Canadian version of Craigslist, and I would meet anybody and everybody in my school’s Public Library and just edit their resume. And from that I kind of found this niche with supporting social workers with their resume since I was in grad school. So it kind of made sense for me to use my skills there. From that, you know, I kind of got the idea that, you know, I had just been through that experience of applying to grad school and I knew how difficult that process was. And there were so few supports for people who are applying to Master of Social Work programs. I remember I went to my school’s academic writing center, and I kind of felt like they didn’t really understand the nuances of like social work and what I thought they would be looking for on the personal statement. So I kind of just threw it out there that, you know, I was available to edit these personal statements and share my perspective and my experience from going through it myself. This was back in 2018. And it was always just a side hustle for me. It was, you know, I didn’t really set out to start a business but every single year, it kind of grew and grew as people learned about what I was doing. And yeah, it was just last year that, you know, I kind of decided to take the leap and pursue it full time.
Anna Shull 2:53
That’s so cool. And it’s cool that you were able to find like your strengths in what was like a way to make money during grad school, and then it fits so perfectly into a gap of things that people really need and that really didn’t exist.
Michelle Bruxer 3:08
For sure. Yeah, like, as far as I know, I’m the only person who is specifically editing social work resumes. And yeah, it definitely combines my strengths in both social work as well as, like my writing skills. I’ve always been a strong writer. So yeah, it’s kind of a nice blend of my strengths.
Anna Shull 3:28
Your unique toolbox. When did you start doing your business full time? Was it right out of grad school? Or did you do anything else? In the meantime?
Michelle Bruxer 3:39
Nope. So I after I graduated, I started a full time job as a social worker. I was working as like a case manager for families who had a child with a disability. And then I also worked as a therapist part time. So, you know, the stuff I was doing with the personal statements was always just a side hustle — a couple hours a week supporting people. So, you know, I started that in like 2018 and it wasn’t until fall of last year. So fall of 2022 that, you know, I decided I needed to make a change, you know, in what I was doing, I was very busy, and also, you know, wanting to like, pursue my own thing and pursue my own business.
Anna Shull 4:23
Yeah! What was the time when you were starting to do that full time — what was that like? I guess, like personally like taking the jump to pursue something that you loved?
Michelle Bruxer 4:33
A leap of faith. For sure. I basically got to a point in social work where I was feeling like I really needed a change. I was feeling a little bit, you know, burnt out from the profession, as we sometimes can be. So, I quit my job, and I actually didn’t really know that I was going to pursue MSW Helper full time at that point, even. I just knew I wanted to work for myself. And, you know, I actually had like other business ideas that I wanted to pursue. But at the time I quit my job it was August of 2022. And I knew the application season was coming up. And so I was like, okay, why don’t I just spend the fall working on this business because it makes sense. This is like the time of year when people are applying to grad school. And in January, I’ll start my real business. And I was, you know, planning to go into private practice or like, you know, do something more like social work-y. And, yeah, like I got through the fall, and it went really well. And I just decided, in January, I kept like, putting off the other business idea — the private practice, I kept pushing it down. And it kind of got to the point where I was like, you know what, I really think that I have something here. And I really want to see this through and see what happens if I just keep pursuing it. And, you know, taking it as far as I can.
Anna Shull 6:10
Yeah, no, that’s incredible. And I’m sure it was so scary, like in the beginning of being like, okay, how is the future gonna look, but it’s so awesome that it worked out. And like I said, I think it’s probably because you found such a gap. And you are also the only person that I’ve ever heard of focusing just on social work, which is so important, like the niche of the field, that is social workers, helping social workers. I think it’s an option that people don’t always know about, or think about.
Michelle Bruxer 6:35
For sure. Yeah, it’s definitely like a gap. And yeah, I think I’ve definitely had an advantage because I’m the only person doing it. And I have so many years of experience doing it too, right? I’ve been doing it for so long as a side hustle that, you know, I kind of have that the editing piece figured out. And so the last year has just been figuring out the business piece and how to actually, like create a real business out of it. But yeah, I realized over the last year that there’s so many things that we can do as social workers, that might not look as, like, that isn’t as traditional. Especially with like, you know, how big the internet is, it’s so important to like, niche down and really come up with something that really like speaks to somebody.
Anna Shull 7:20
Yeah. Because I’m sure whatever people Google like, help with my MSW personal statement, it’s like, Oh, hello. MSW Helper!
Michelle Bruxer 7:27
How did you choose to get into social work? Like back in the beginning, whenever you were deciding to pursue a degree?
Michelle Bruxer 7:36
Yep. So that was a long time ago for me. That would have been in about 2014. I did my Bachelor of Social Work and then my Master of Social Work right after. I always, like, when I was younger, I actually didn’t know what social work was. I had no idea. I did not know the term social worker. And so I always bounced between wanting to be a teacher and wanting to be a psychologist. And, you know, like, I knew I wanted to help people, but I never really was solid in either of those areas. You know, Psych, like becoming a psychologist, I knew that that was a very competitive field and a lot of schooling. So, you know, I wasn’t too eager to pursue that. And then so I kind of settled on, okay, well, maybe I’ll become a teacher. And, you know, then I was working when I was in high school, like, I took a gap year, and I was working at a summer camp. And I realized very quickly that I, my strength was not leading a group of 25 to 30 kids. My strength was really like seeing that one kid who needed extra support at the summer camp, who maybe had, you know, some extra needs and supporting them. So I really realized, you know, I am more of a one to one person, I’m not going to be the person that wants to like lead a group. And that’s just more where I naturally lie. And then I literally was, I think, I remember looking through like a university pamphlets being like, Okay, what the heck am I getting to go to school for? And I literally just saw the term social work, and I had no idea what it was. And so I Googled it and I was like, Oh, well, this kind of sounds like something that is up my alley. So as soon as I saw that, I was like, Yes, I think this is this is where I need to be.
Anna Shull 9:30
That’s funny. And it sounds so similar to like, my decision too where it was like you just kind of happen upon it and you’re like, yeah, actually, this is it.
Michelle Bruxer 9:41
I think a lot of us enter the field that way and a lot of people pursue social work not really understanding like the full like, really what social work actually is, right?
Anna Shull 9:52
Right! Yes, we definitely have, coming in, very narrow views of like, okay, I’ve heard about social work in of course child protection or like foster care. Sometimes hospitals or school, sometimes. But it is so amazing and like you’re an example of how social work as a degree and as like a toolkit that you get, you can do so many different things. Like your life can look so different while having the same educational background and someone else.
Michelle Bruxer 10:17
Totally. Yeah. And that’s one of the things I love about having a social work degree is that, like, there are so many places that we can work with so many different people at so many different levels. And we can even like our degree is super marketable to like, employers love to see a social work degree even in like other industries and stuff, too, because we have such good placements that we do. And we bring so many like skills to the table.
Anna Shull 10:46
Yeah, because it’s like those soft skills with people and it’s also like problem solving.
Michelle Bruxer 10:52
Anna Shull 10:52
Do you find yourself using skills that you learned getting your social work degrees in your current day to day life doing MSW Helper?
Michelle Bruxer 11:01
Definitely, yeah, I, you know, that’s something I think like, once you become a social worker, the values of the profession just like become who you are a little bit. Like, for example, something that’s really important to me is a strengths based approach. So when I’m editing personal statements, I’m not just ripping people’s personal statement apart, right? I’m highlighting the things that they did really well. And I’m saying, Wow, you really demonstrated critical thinking skills here. And you, you know, like, yeah, I always like try to show them their own strengths in the personal statement. And then also meeting people where they’re at, right? People come for services who come from so many different backgrounds and experiences, and it’s really about like, supporting them where they are, and like helping them feel more confident about their application, and that it’s achievable for them to improve their application.
Anna Shull 11:56
Yeah, no, that’s incredible to hear. Because I’m sure that it would be so possible for you to do like the editing, and someone would come away from it feeling like, oh, wow, like, I was awful at this before I started, like, I don’t know, anything. I don’t have any experience, but the way that you can use your social work skills to actually like, empower people and point out in them. Because sometimes it’s hard to see our own strengths, but being able to read what they’re doing and being like, no, that’s so cool that you did this, and that I’m sure sticks with people as they begin their MSWs that they get into.
Michelle Bruxer 12:26
For sure. I find sometimes that’s like, the biggest thing that people need is just like, knowing that they’re on the right track, and that they, you know, they do have the skills and strengths and that they can apply with some confidence knowing that like, Okay, I’m on the right track, and I have the skills and you know, this person sees that in me too.
Anna Shull 12:45
Yeah! What was your degree experience like whenever you were getting your MSW?
Michelle Bruxer 12:51
I would say overall, pretty positive. I went to school in Canada. Yeah, I kind of picked my program based off of like, just the school that I wanted to go to. And you know, it was a long time ago. So for me to think back and it’s like, yeah. The program I did was like generalist in nature. So it didn’t really have like a specific—I know, sometimes there’s like clinical focus or macro focus—the one I did was very much like, balanced in that way. And I really liked that, because I didn’t really have like a specific area that I wanted to go into as a social worker. So I wanted to be as marketable as possible and pursue as many different areas of social work as I can.
Anna Shull 13:39
Mine was kind of the same way where I took so many different classes and even taking the class at the time, I was like, Okay, I’m sure I’m never going to use this. And then I get so surprised by how many different things still pop up day to day of like, oh, yeah, I did learn that. And like, I did do that one project that one time.
Michelle Bruxer 13:53
Yeah, for sure. Yeah, definitely. I find the most valuable thing for me out of like pursuing Social Work was probably the placement experiences. I think that is where I, you know, like learning something in class is one thing, but definitely like getting into the field and having some really awesome placements is where like, I would say, I did most of my learning.
Anna Shull 14:17
What were your field placements while you were in school?
Michelle Bruxer 14:20
So while I was in my Bachelor social work, I was in like a community center in a community that was supported by social housing. So people who were rent geared to income, low income housing. So a lot of clients came to us with, you know, housing issues and just a lot of different things that they needed support with. That was an awesome placement. Because I like I said, I wanted to be more of like a generalist and, like I had a very supportive placement experience where I was able to like work one on one with clients, but also kind of do that like mezzo community events, like being part of the community. And then I even got to do some macro level projects as well. So like grant writing, and like advocacy and stuff like that, as well. So for my BSW placement, that was an awesome way to just get, like a whole bunch of experience in a bunch of different areas. And then, for my master’s placement, I did like a clinical placement. So I was doing therapy in like a doctor’s office.
Anna Shull 15:31
Oh cool! Those sound like such good learning experiences, especially that BSW one where, um, that’s that’s something that I found, like, in my current position, too, is like, I never know what I’ll be doing in a day like, but whatever someone brings me is what we’ll focus on. Yeah, having the toolbox, little tool skill set to pull from, it challenges you for sure. But I’m sure you came out of that feeling like, I can conquer things.
Michelle Bruxer 15:57
For sure. And I think the biggest thing is I dipped my toes in a whole bunch of different things. And so when it came to applying to jobs, and I was applying to a bunch of different jobs, I was able to just like, Okay, I’ve kind of done a little bit of this, or I’ve done a little bit of that. And so I was really able to, like stand out, because I had like just like a bunch of experience in a bunch of little areas.
Anna Shull 16:18
That’s so cool. Have you, now that you’ve like gained more experience and expertise writing personal statements, have you like reread back the one that you use when you applied? And what do you think about it now?
Michelle Bruxer 16:30
I have, yes! So when I applied, I thought my personal statement was pretty good. You know, I was pretty proud of what I had come up with. And I did get accepted to a couple schools. So you know, it was obviously okay. But now, five years later, looking at my personal statement, there are a lot of things that I would have changed. So that’s something I always tell people too, is like, it’s so important to have an extra set of eyes from someone you trust on your personal statement, because you might have blind spots or things that you’re missing or didn’t consider that you haven’t even thought of. So just having somebody to like, check that stuff is so important, especially for those of us who do consider ourselves to be pretty strong writers, and we’re pretty independent. Yeah, yeah, I think I would have benefited from my own services.
Anna Shull 17:21
Yeah, and so it’s cool that now you get to be that person for other people who are coming in, and then can give them that extra leg up while they’re writing.
Michelle Bruxer 17:30
Anna Shull 17:32
Very cool. What advice do you have for prospective students? And what’s kind of funny is I always asked this question, and it’s like you work with prospective students like, in your day to day. But what would be, I guess, one or a couple of pieces of advice that you have for people who are thinking about becoming social workers.
Michelle Bruxer 17:48
So, I guess when it comes to applying to your Master of Social Work, the biggest thing that I would recommend is to have a very clear “why” to anchor your personal statement. Most schools will ask about you and your experiences and why you want to become a social worker, as well as like a social justice problem, and like ethical values and like things that social workers can do to solve a social justice issue. So the biggest mistake that I see people make is they just start answering questions without like really thinking through why they want to be a social worker, and what they hope to contribute to the field as a whole. So I always recommend that people instead of like talking about your experience, and you know, regurgitating what you can see in the resume, really think about your insights. What are the things that you realized? So like, for example, going back to that summer camp example, when I was, you know, my job duty, what I was doing was supporting children that summer camp and like planning activities. Yeah, those are great activities. My insight was that kids who were attending summer camp who had those extra challenges that needed support, didn’t have the support. And so they were getting kicked out of summer camp. Those parents were relying on that summer camp for childcare for the summer. So that caused a huge problem for these families who needed that extra support. So you know, that’s like, that’s an example of like an insight you might have based off of your experience. Then when you get to the social justice issue, you can talk about the research. Okay, what does the research say about kids who have extra support needs and how often are they getting kicked out of school? How often are they getting kicked out of other community places where they can’t participate? And how is that impacting kids with those support needs as a whole. And then instead of talking about what a social worker can do about it, talk about what you want to do as a social worker to solve that social justice issue. So it really takes it so much deeper and shows the need for social work in your area of interest. When you position yourself that way, it pretty much makes it a no brainer that the admissions committee is going to accept you beause it’s like, yeah, you’re going to fill like a much needed gap in an area that needs to be addressed.
Anna Shull 20:21
Yeah no, that is interesting, because it’s not just oh, this is an area that social workers currently working can go work and do. It’s like, No, you need me, right? I’m the only person.
Michelle Bruxer 20:35
It’s all about marketing yourself.
Anna Shull 20:38
Right? Interesting. That makes me want to go like read back mine a little bit. I’ve no idea what I wrote about back in my day.
Michelle Bruxer 20:43
Yeah, even mine, like, yeah, there were things— I don’t think I did it as in depth. But yeah, that’s like what I’m helping people do, right, is like, take those like, just take it little bit deeper and connect everything. Like all of your questions should be connected back to that “why”, and what you’re hoping to do as a social worker?
Anna Shull 21:00
Yeah, and that’s even just a good mental exercise I feel like. Whenever people are like, Well, I have no idea like, where I want to end up or what I want to do and thinking too, like, what, in the experience that you have, what have you seen that you maybe like feel passionate about, where there’s a gap that you could fill or like resources that just aren’t there? Because I think that happens a lot too, that working in the field, you’ll be like, oh, there must be a solution for this. And there’s like, not yet. So you get to do that!
Michelle Bruxer 21:30
For sure. And I find a lot of people will say like, well, I don’t know what I want to do as a social worker. But when you are able to start with your insights, it’s like, okay, let’s take it back a few steps and just like, think about the things that you’ve experienced, and what you, based off of your, your experience, skills and strengths, what could you do to fill the gap? It’s not like you’re necessarily saying, like, you’re committing to this thing but you’re showing that okay, there is a need and this is something that I could potentially contribute to the field.
Anna Shull 21:58
I’m sure even thinking on experiences, even if it wasn’t like something you want to do for the rest of your life, but being able to pick out well, this aspect of it I really enjoyed and like maybe this aspect, I don’t want to spend as much time in in the future, but kind of parring away those details to help figure out a direction.
Michelle Bruxer 22:16
Yeah, for sure. Yeah. It’s like such a good way, like a good starting point. For sure.
Anna Shull 22:21
Yeah, I feel like my brain is being like exercised right now. So interesting. Who has inspired you throughout your social work journey?
Michelle Bruxer 22:32
I made a lot of friends while I was in social— like going through my social work journey—so I think that that’s been something that was that has been really important for me, is making friends in the field and in my program to A— like, support, you know, support each other through school, but also now in our careers, it’s like, you know, having people in the field who like understand, you know, what we do and having, you know, ideas to bounce off of, or even just vent right? Sometimes it’s nice to have those friends who understand what you do, and you can kind of vent.
Anna Shull 23:07
You can vent without all the different like disclaimers and explanations of like, social work.
Michelle Bruxer 23:12
Yeah, that’s huge. And yeah, even just, you know, I’m sure you know, sometimes when you tell people Oh, I’m a social worker, you’re met with a lot of very interesting responses like “Oh, I could never do that.”
Anna Shull 23:27
“Like oh you’re an angel”, and I’m like, oh, it’s just like a day to day job. Nine to five.
Michelle Bruxer 23:35
It’s always funny, I always think when people say, Oh, I could never do that. And I’m like, Oh, well, I could, I guess. I don’t know exactly. I enjoy it.
Anna Shull 23:43
Like well I guess that’s good that you’re not then.
Michelle Bruxer 23:45
To be fair, I understand. I totally understand why people say that. Because I always say that to people who are nurses.
Cause I can’t deal with some of the…
Anna Shull 23:57
All they got going on.
Michelle Bruxer 23:59
Yeah, all they got going on.
Michelle Bruxer 24:01
So yeah, it’s funny. But yeah, that’s why yeah, it’s been so important for me to have people who I can just like, who get it, who I can just bounce ideas off of, and seeing like, we all support each other in our careers, right and seeing like, supporting each other through job interviews and like getting like ideas and inspiration from each other.
Anna Shull 24:19
Totally. I think community is so so important.
Michelle Bruxer 24:24
For sure. What are some other things that kind of keep you going? I know, you mentioned that previously, you’d felt burnout at a job and obviously, that’s kind of something that we’re always fighting away. So what are some things that you do to help yourself out?
Michelle Bruxer 24:36
I think the biggest thing for me, and I mentioned this earlier, is having options and like how, how much, like how many options there are with our social work degree. So I think, you know, I went into my last job and it was, you know, it was a good job like it was, you know, overall, but I think for me, it was just that I needed a change. I am somebody that really loves to do new things and try out new things. And so I think for me, that’s why entrepreneurship is like really a good fit for me because there’s always like, so many different things to learn, and so many different things that you’re doing, and there’s so many different directions that I can go right? What I’m doing now might not be what I’m doing in two years. So yeah, I think, like, it just comes down to like, knowing what your needs are. Because I think that’s what was happening, right? I had an unmet need and that was the need for like, change, and variety, and having control, like a little bit of control over my own schedule, too. I think that was kind of the biggest piece for me was, you know, being in a position where, like, things weren’t innovating as fast as I wanted it to, or in a position where like, I, you know, we had like policies in place that were I felt like, it didn’t really make sense. So yeah, I think for me, like being able to use my degree to find other things to do that support a lifestyle that I want to live.
Anna Shull 26:15
Yeah, no, I totally agree. And that is something that I think it’s becoming so much more common is like moving through jobs, and not staying, you know, at one job for 40 years until retirement, and social work is such an opportunity to almost have like an entire career change, while still using the same skills. And that’s something that is unique.
Michelle Bruxer 26:37
For sure. Yeah, yeah. I definitely am glad that we—I don’t live in a time where the norm isn’t to stay at the same job for 40 years, like a few generations ago. That would have been hard for me. So yeah, it’s nice being able to use our skills in so many different ways and get a change of scenery.
Anna Shull 26:57
Yeah, I guess a question I have is for people who are maybe making a career change, like into social work and don’t have too much social work experience under their belt, how do they market themselves to start a social work degree?
Michelle Bruxer 27:14
Oh, yes, yeah, we can definitely talk about that. Because that is something that so many people get so stressed out about, and I totally get it. But it’s the same thing. It’s all soft skills, right? And being able to show that you have the skills that admissions committees are looking for. So for example, I had a client recently, who he came from the banking industry. And at first glance, you would think, Okay, well, banking and social work, like that’s not really related. And I think he was providing financial advice to like people in the bank. And so my first question, well, was okay, like, you know, you’ve obviously got that training and like the best practices and like, here’s what you should be doing for financial advice. How did that really work when you were in the field, working with people from so many different like socioeconomic statuses, so many different walks of life? Like, did that traditional advice that you were taught work for everybody? Probably not. Right? So you had to learn to really tailor your advice to meet people where they’re at, and probably work with people from some very difficult situations, like people’s finances, that’s like a huge source of pain for a lot of people. And so like, you know, guiding people through that, and supporting them with their finances is huge. And then I had another client who came from marketing. And she was a news reporter in her home country. And she was able to identify that she was sick of reporting on social justice issues so she wanted to become a social worker, so that she could be an agent of change and work towards advocating for those social justice issues. So if you’re coming from a different field, it’s all about like, finding that overlap between what you were doing and what you want to do, or like what wasn’t working in your last career and what you are hoping to do as a social worker instead.
Anna Shull 29:19
It’s so amazing to see the connections that you make like that, because having started whenever you’re like, oh, he was in banking. And I’m like, so what’s the similarity there? And then the way you explain it, it’s like, oh, wow, that makes so much sense. That’s awesome.
Michelle Bruxer 29:31
For sure. And that stuff comes quickly to me, right? Because I’ve been doing it for so long that I see, that’s what I do. Right? I’m pulling out all the strengths of people from like, their past careers or even like, just the different things that they’re doing and saying like, you can talk about this. This is great experience.
Anna Shull 29:47
That’s so cool. Um, where can people find you if they want to follow along on social media or utilize your services?
Michelle Bruxer 29:57
Yeah so, on Tik Tok and at Instagram I’m @MSW.helper and my website is MSWhelper.com and that’s where I have, you know, you can either work with me directly, but I also have a ton of free resources, like different templates that people can use, blog posts, and throughout the fall, I’m actually doing a weekly webinar every single Tuesday where people can come on, we’ll talk about how to write a strong personal statement and answer any questions that they have.
Anna Shull 30:28
It’s so cool. Well, thank you so much Michelle for taking the time to share your story and what you’re up to.
Michelle Bruxer 30:35
Awesome thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.