Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Field Practicum in Social Work: Transformation and Empowerment through Experiential Learning

As a faculty member at USU, one of the exciting parts of my career has been mentoring students to become my colleagues in the profession of social work. I have supervised students in the field for the past 21 years. The field practicum (internships) in social work represents the culmination of undergraduate and graduate social work education. The practicum internship is the most significant, most productive, and most memorable component of social work education. This opportunity allows students to integrate and apply the fundamentals of the profession in real world settings under professional social work supervision. It forms the basis for the transition from the student to professional practitioner role and is a critical component of their training.

In addition to supervision in the field, I also conduct a weekly integrative seminar with student interns. The essence of this seminar is to facilitate the process of Alearning through doing. There are three kinds of learning that students accomplish: (1) learning to know, where mastery of knowledge is applied, (2) learning to understand, where you confront directly the reality of working in an agency and use of self, and (3) learning to do, where performance in the field is directed toward professional intervention. There are three phases in the practicum that facilitate the process of Alearning through doing. The first phase focuses on orientation and exploration, the second phase is about integration, and the third phase deals with endings. My role as a teacher and supervisor is facilitating student success in each one of these phases.

The new beginnings phase of orientation and exploration focuses on how students take responsibility, builds relationships, and assumes an active stance. In this phase I have students explore several questions: (1) how can I get what I want out of this experience? (2) What am I passionate about? (3) What are the expectations of the agency? And (4) how can I perform at the level expected of a professional in this agency? Each of these questions is centered on assuming responsibility for learning. Building relationships is another important part that I emphasize in professional development of students.

As the Practicum Director, I work in conjunction with the agency Practicum Instructor to ensure a student’s professional development through supervision and coordination of their learning. These support systems can help students to assess their goals and expectations and develop specific strategies for realistic responses associated with anxiety and unexpected emotions related to the demands of building relationships with clients and coworkers. Finally, I expect students to assume an active stance in their internship which entails taking initiative as they strive to gain confidence and experience effectiveness. It has been my experience that students who are self-starters will move much smoother through the normal cycles of success and discouragement associated with the internship experience.

Moving along the path phase entails integration within the agency and focuses on how a student develops an assertive orientation, effectively utilizes supervision, engages in productive activities, and develops a sense of civic responsibility. I believe that assertiveness is essential for a student to take direct action in being completely familiar with the agency and in feeling a part of the team. Being assertive entails high accomplishment and investment in the work of the agency.

Students are also successful to the degree that they effectively utilize supervision. Supervision provides students with mentorship, evaluative feedback for growth and development, and the opportunity to be engaged in worthwhile tasks. Finally, an important outcome of a college education is developing a civic capacity that emphasizes citizenship, engagement in communities, and social responsibility. I feel that social workers have a moral obligation towards volunteerism and community service which are the hallmarks of the social work profession.

The culmination of the practicum has to do with the phase of developing a new direction and centers on endings. In essence this is the culmination of the practicum field experience. It entails endings with clients, supervisors, coworkers, faculty, and peers. It entails the identification of feelings, reflection, feedback, and a plan for continuing career development. I have found that endings are much easier when students approach the practicum with an attitude of excellence. I promote excellence and define it as an active stance of going the extra mile, making practicum a priority (make any adjustment in your life so you can balance your life in a more effective way), being on time, behaving professionally, developing positive rapport with all agency staff, and taking every opportunity you have to learn social work. In the end result excellence takes time, discipline and hard work but the alternative is a mediocre ending.

Overall, I think the practicum experience can best be expressed in a quote by T.S. Eliot, "Awe shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It has been a highlight of my faculty career to work with so many talented students over the years and watching their success in the profession.

Diane Calloway-Graham, Associate Professor and Practicum Director of Social Work

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