I am only six weeks away from completing my BSW degree; a degree that has taken nearly twenty years to complete. As I am nearing the end of my current educational journey and in the final hours of my field placement, I have found myself becoming quite reflective about my educational experience.
Now, I am not your traditional BSW student, and as such, my experience is dramatically different from many individuals who enter a BSW straight out of high school. I have never sat in a physical class or classroom; I have never met any of my classmates and my professors or instructors face-to-face. I am thirty-six years old with two children, and I work full-time in a field where I have spent the last sixteen years in. No, I am not your traditional BSW student; I am a new breed of student, an older nontraditional online student.
Advances in technology have flung wide the doors of innovation in higher education. Online programs, developed in the last ten years and refined in the last five, have drastically changed the face of higher education for non-traditional students like me, who would have had no other opportunity to complete a degree.
Due to their ability to offer flexibility to students, online programs have become a permeant feature on the higher education landscape, and their popularity and student population are growing at an exponential rate. The academic training of future social workers has not been exempted from the advancements in technology and education. My soon-to-be alma mater and one of the leading online social work programs in the nation have reported a 34% increase in the number of students enrolled in the online BSW program this year alone.
While there have been major leaps forward in distance learning and online education, there has been little to no innovation regarding CSWE accreditation policies concerning this new breed of students, especially as it pertains to their field placement.
As it stands, all CSWE accredited schools, including non-traditional online programs function under the same blanket policy regarding field placement. Students enrolled in BSW programs are required to perform a minimum of four hundred unpaid hours of field placement at a social service agency. The policy also requires that field placement hours be served in conjunction with educational direction.
The CSWE considers field placement the “signature pedagogy” of social work education as it offers future practitioners the opportunity to apply theories learned in the classroom by exposing them to all sorts of problems and situations. There is no debate concerning the importance of the field placement experience. Incongruence occurs, however, due to a lack of nuance in policy when it comes to the unique needs and strengths of non-traditional learners.
Many non-traditional students, like me, who find an educational home in online BSW programs, are typically older adults either seeking to complete a bachelors degree they forsook earlier in life, seeking to further their current career, or shift their career entirely into a new filed. While the reasons non-traditional students have for returning to school through an online program vary, one thing is common for us all. Each student brings many years of life experience and employment history to the program.
Personally, when I started my online BSW program, I had over sixteen years of social services experience; working for years in a therapeutic boarding school for teenagers on the verge of incarceration, pastoral ministry, and serving as the Executive Director of a large non-profit social services organization. I am not alone in bringing this level of experience in my current distance learning program.
In an informal survey conducted by current and former students of my school’s online BSW program, sixty percent of students reported that their resumes reflect positions comparable to that of social workers with fifty percent of responders stating they were employed by a social services agency while also performing their field placements. Students reported they have or are serving in capacities such as SUD Therapist, Program Coordinator, Outreach Specialist, Case Manager, Addiction Recovery Specialist, Youth Career Specialist, and Parent Mentor.
It is safe to assume that students from other online programs would report the same data. As such, it is important for the current CSWE and school policies concerning field placement for online programs be reviewed and discussed to create the most effective learning environment for these unique students. If the current policies are followed, older non-traditional students will not have the desired experience as CSWE and accredited schools for BSW students.
If there is no change in how these students are viewed and the policies surrounding their placement, the CSWE and institutions of higher learning run the risk of non-traditional students viewing their service hours as a mere assignment that must be completed to graduate.
To be honest, this has been my thinking on more than one occasion during my field placement. While I have learned a substantial amount about the agency I have worked in and it has been truly informative, I have also found myself questioning whether this experience was truly fulfilling the mission and vision the CSWE and my school had in mind when policy was crafted concerning BSW field placement making it the signature pedagogy.
Often times in my placement, I found that due to my life and employment experience, I was more qualified to perform the duties and tasks than those I was shadowing and being supervised by. I do not relay this out of a sense of arrogance, but sheer professional experience.
Due to the nature and requirements of my field placement setting, I have spent a majority of my time shadowing new social workers or others who do not have a BSW at all. There is much to be gleaned by working with these individuals in an agency setting and hearing about their roles and responsibilities.
There is also great value in navigating through interpersonal issues that arise in a field placement setting. This aspect of placement has been invaluable to me. What has become cumbersome, however, is trying to relate to my agency, my placement, and my future practice of social work as if my life experience and employment history were non-existent and as if the position I may potentially secure after placement will be my first professional job.
The current framework concerning BSW field placement is to provide students with experience in generalist practice with the hope that after field placement and graduation, students will secure jobs in social services agencies as entry-level generalist social work practitioners. This is a fine and noble objective to have, but the reality is a majority of older non-traditional students will not seek entry-level positions.
As their resumes reflect extensive knowledge and experience, the addition of a BSW degree will only elevate them to higher levels of employment. To use a professional metaphor, these older non-traditional students will most likely not be starting at the “bottom of the ladder.” With that being the case, it would be prudent and wise for these students to be placed in advanced practice settings with more intensive supervision, settings that will mirror the level they will be entering the profession of social work in.
While this may not be true for everyone enrolled in online programs, it is true for many; and those individuals deserve to have a field placement setting and experience that will rightly prepare them for the work they have before them in the professional field.
I am by no means suggesting for a cessation of field placement for older non-traditional students. Field placement is imperative and a means by which students safely test theories and gain invaluable experience. I desire to open a dialogue concerning the needs and strengths of the non-traditional students and how to best serve them during this crucial time of learning.
However, a new examination of the CSWE requirements, policies, and procedures of institutions of higher education with a manner of nuance should be given to this growing student population. It will ensure these older non-traditional students who are finishing their degree and entering the practice of social work receive a placement that meets their educational and professional needs rather than being an exercise in futility to complete a requirement.