In the Field. Learning About Social Work First-Hand

440.That's the number of hours Bluffton students majoring in social work are required to spend at a social service agency during one semester of field work. Of all the time social work majors can put into their learning experience, those 30 hours each week are the most valuable part of their education.

"Field experience is such a critical part of a student's education experience," says Jennifer Hughes, MSW, LISW, assistant professor of social work and director of Bluffton's social work program. "Students tell us what populations they are interested in working with, and we do our best to connect them with a social service agency."

The field experience affords students the opportunity to implement the theory and knowledge they gained throughout the curriculum and it allows them to demonstrate the practice competencies that they have learned. Students select three choice agencies and then wait for a placement. Bluffton's field work coordinator works to place students with one of their top choices.

Once placed, each student is assigned a field instructor within the agency who supervises the student's work. These instructors receive training to ensure that Bluffton students are trained along the lines of the program's educational goals. "It's a very structured learning experience," says Hughes. "Our students receive intensive instruction."

Students' experiences are varied, as they opt to work in hospitals, nursing homes, children's services, juvenile services and other agencies. Bluffton's social work program teaches a generalist approach, equipping students with a strong social science foundation and skills that can be applied across the board. "The generalist approach provides our students with a knowledge base and a common skill set," says Hughes. "They are trained to go into any type of practice or field of interest."

Tonya MooreSenior Tonya Moore (Lafayette, Ind.) is completing her field work requirement with Open Arms Domestic Violence & Rape Crisis Services in Findlay, Ohio. She works with Harmony House, a program that provides supervised visitations and exchanges between parents and children due to issues related to divorce or separation, child abuse, domestic violence, restraining orders between parties, threats or other safety concerns.

Moore shadows the place manager, monitors visits between parents and children, facilitates exchanges between parents and children who do not require supervision, answers the crisis hotline and sits in on a women's support group. She was recently tasked with creating programming for the youngsters who come along with their mothers to the women's support group.

"Working at Open Arms is teaching me a lot about agency procedures," says Moore. "Being at a smaller agency is great because I get to see what everyone does. I'm in an office next to the executive director and can hear her interactions with people. I get to follow each of the case managers and see them perform their jobs and run various programs. It's giving me a good feel for how an agency operates."

Megan Zorn, LSW, a residential care manager and Moore's supervisor at Open Arms, says Moore was trained as a fulltime employee. "We provide crisis intervention, so Tonya had to learn how to work in crisis situations and be familiar with all the programs we offer," says Zorn. "Our goal when working with students is to give them a real-world sense of what it's like to be a social worker. We want Tonya to work with clients and have experiences that will help prepare her for graduate school or a job as a professional."

Moore, who originally wanted to work with children but hadn't considered domestic violence, says working at Open Arms has allowed her to see a field she hadn't previously considered. "I've been able to see how this field relates to other fields and how many of the social work fields are interrelated," she says. "Oftentimes people call, looking for a particular service that we don't offer, and I get to recommend them to another agency. I'm becoming more knowledgeable of those services, and that's preparing me to work with different populations."

Chris PedersenSenior Chris Pedersen (Northville, Mich.) is doing group counseling at The Renaissance Center in Lima, Ohio, a residential mental health facility associated with Lutheran Social Services. The facility houses up to 14 men who are dealing with mental health issues. Pedersen meets with groups at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. "I sit down with the group and talk about what's going on in each of the members' lives," he says. "Many are depressed, suicidal or suffering from schizophrenia. Some are off of their medications, and I work to help them regulate and reach equilibrium."

Pedersen says his field work placement is an excellent fit with his interest in helping people make their lives better. He's even been offered a job with the facility following graduation. He plans to simultaneously begin working on a master's degree in order to become a licensed clinical social worker.

Hughes says oftentimes students' experiences at the agencies lead to job offers. "Several of our students finished their field work requirement on a Friday, and started their job at the agency on Monday," says Hughes. "Agencies are interested in our students because they know the skill set each student has because of Bluffton's generalist approach," says Hughes. "More and more agencies are hiring students like ours because they know they were a part of an accredited program and have received a certain core training."