As increased enrollment numbers came in to the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) last summer, Jan Miner, M.S.W., found her appeals growing increasingly earnest.
Miner, GSS’ assistant dean and director of field instruction, is responsible for finding every GSS student a field placement for 14 to 21 hours a week in the metropolitan area. With enrollment surging from 950 to 1,100 last year, Miner scrambled to increase existing opportunities and to enlist new agencies.
“It was a tough summer for me, and a record one,” said Miner, a GSS graduate herself. “My e-mails with the subject line ‘begging and pleading’ got laughs, as did jokes about promising people brownies if they’d just take another student!”
In social work curriculum, field placement is no trivial matter. For graduate students, field placements are as important—if not more important—than class instruction.
“Fieldwork is known as the signature pedagogy for a social work program,” Miner said. “Our students’ primary training is on-the-job training; that’s where they apply the theory they learn in a classroom. Over the course of the curriculum, they will do 1,200 hours of field placement.
“Social work students might forget their teacher’s name,” Miner said, “but they’ll never forget the name of their field instructor.”
In the field, social work students learn the basics of hands-on social work, Miner said. They are required to do “process recording” of their client/worker interactions and develop both their own assessment and observational skills in the process. In exchange for their efforts, the assigned field instructors must analyze the students’ skill levels—something that Miner said can be time-consuming.
That is why, in a social work school as large as GSS, getting more than a thousand students into field placements can be a chore. There is no shortage in the New York area of social service agencies, including hospitals, schools, substance-abuse agencies, community centers, homeless shelters, adoption agencies, nursing homes and other nonprofit programs.
But there is also no shortage of social work schools. Fordham, explained Miner, competes with 10 other schools in and around the area.
First-year students are not given a choice of assignments. “We try to match them either to a population, such as kids or adolescents, or a field of practice, such as domestic violence or mental health,” Miner said. “But there are a lot of variables.”
Claire Grainger (GSS ’10) returned to Fordham in her forties to get a master’s degree, partly because she was drawn to hospice work and end-of-life care.
But Grainger’s first-year field placement was in a grammar school. “I was so disappointed,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the opposite of what I want.’”
Nevertheless, she opened herself to the experience, which turned out to be life-enhancing.
“I learned so much,” said Grainger, who is currently an oncology social worker counseling all ages of patients at all stages of cancer.. “I had great supervision and took away important social work lessons—excellent listening skills, keen observation skills.”
Second-year placements are done primarily along tracks of study—clinical, administrative or research. Despite her desire to work with adults, Grainger, a clinical track student, ended up working with at-risk youth. She considered asking for something new, but at the end of two weeks, she was loving it.
“My point is to be open to any experience,” Grainger said. “You may end up doing something related to what you want or something completely different—and more wonderful—than you ever thought. As social workers, we have to be open to many things.”
There is no direct compensation for being a field instructor, said Miner, and it is quite selective. Instructors must have at least three years in the field (post-master’s) and must be licensed by the state.
Why do social workers do it? Lucille Berberich (GSS ’00) said it is her duty to “pass the torch” to the next generation.
“You have to squeeze it into what you are already doing,” said Berberich, who works as a field instructor and counselor at a substance-abuse outpatient center. “But if it is done right, it results inthe student embracing a social work perspective: engaging the client, doing assessment, developing an intervention plan and effecting agreed-upon goals.
“What makes social workers different is that we have this practice experience when we graduate,” she continued. “Between the practice piece and the academic piece, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”