Last spring, Ashley Ford was only a few classes away from graduating with a degree in theoretical and applied mechanics when an impulsive decision to accompany a roommate to a class in the School of Social Work changed her life.
Career choice Senior Ashley Ford decided her passion was with social work, not the discipline she had been focusing on, so she switched majors. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
“I knew for a long time that I didn’t necessarily see engineering as a satisfying career,” said Ford, a senior from Peoria, Ill. “While I was good at it, I didn’t really have a passion for it, so I always wondered what I was going to do with that sort of degree.”
Although Ford had never envisioned herself in a helping profession – “I always thought I was too awkward,” she said – during her roommate’s social work class she realized that she had stumbled upon her calling. When the class let out, Ford made a beeline to the school’s administrative office to see about changing her major to social work.
Call it fate or good fortune, Ford’s wake-up call was well timed: The school was preparing to reinstate its bachelor’s of social work degree program after budgetary constraints had forced the school to suspend it a decade earlier.
The School of Social Work reopened the BSW program this fall, after a needs assessment indicated a strong demand for it based upon student interest and societal and employment trends, said Brenda Coble Lindsey, the director of the BSW program and a faculty member in the school.
The inaugural class of 50 students is expected to graduate in 2012.
To be eligible for admission to the BSW program, among other requirements, students must have 50 hours’ recent experience in volunteer or paid positions with social service agencies. Additionally, they must be eligible for junior standing and have at least 60 hours of undergraduate credits.
Some students, such as Ford, were drawn to social work through fulfilling experiences helping others. In the process of recovering from a severe anxiety disorder, Ford ran a self-help group for adolescent girls. Additionally, she also had shared in her family’s caregiving for her grandmother, as she slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.
Relatives who work in helping professions inspired other students, such as Abby Ortiz, 20, of Chicago, who sometimes assists her mother in working with special-needs children from immigrant families. Melissa Reiman, a 20-year-old junior from Lombard, Ill., grew up emulating her father, a police officer who conducted Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs for youth in the community – and sometimes recruited his daughters to serve as his audience while he rehearsed his presentations.
During the second year of the BSW program, students must complete a one-semester full-time field placement at a community agency or organization related to their area of interest. Service learning components in various courses also provide opportunities for students to work with clients and address real-life problems.
Earning the BSW degree, which prepares students for generalist social work practice or work in fields such as communications, health care, human resources and public service, enables students to enter graduate social work programs with advanced standing.
The School of Social Work, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006, graduates about 120 students each year. The school was one of the first in the U.S. to offer advanced degrees in the field.
It was a difficult month for 30-year-old “Emily Epperman.” She was unemployed, and her husband abruptly abandoned her and their two teenagers, leaving her with a pile of debts, $20 and two bus tokens. On the way to pawn the family’s TV, she was robbed and the set was stolen. At the welfare office, she battled bureaucracy and indifference in her ill-fated attempts to obtain food stamps and public assistance. Before the month was up, her two teenagers were picked up by the police for truancy and later arrested for dealing drugs.
Those were the personal experiences of “Emily,” portrayed by bachelor’s in social work student Arielle Williams, of Chicago, during a poverty simulation with her classmates in Social Work 200 in September.
Conducted by volunteers and staff members of the Champaign County United Way, the simulation enabled students to experience a month in the lives of the 35,000 Champaign County residents who live in poverty.
“It’s important to understand the obstacles and difficulties that people encounter that the students haven’t had to deal with,” said Samantha Hack-Ritzo, who has taught the course for three semesters while completing her doctorate. “We can give the students charts, show them slides and have them read about poverty and learn statistics, but the important thing isn’t for them to be able to recite statistics about poverty, it’s for them to understand what poverty feels like.”
Donte Wilkins, a 21-year-old senior from Richton Park, Ill., who aspires to be a family therapist, said he chose social work because “I’m really good at analyzing other people’s problems and figuring out what they should do.”
But this particular day the solutions weren’t so clear. During the poverty simulation, Wilkins portrayed a 43-year-old father who had lost his job, then his unemployment benefits, and, like Emily Epperman, was forced to scramble to support his family.
“Don’t treat this as a game!” United Way director Sue Gray cautioned the participants. “It’s not a game for the one in every eight families that is food insecure.”
Tables around the perimeter of the classroom represented various assistive agencies, businesses and other resources – a food pantry, a welfare office and a predatory lender among them – that could help, if the families were aware of them and had the bus fare to get there. While families struggled to use their meager resources wisely, and sometimes schemed to get them illegally, United Way staff members roamed the room, portraying criminals who preyed upon the vulnerable. They also arbitrarily dispensed luck-of-the-draw cards that could bestow good fortune on a family or burden it with a crisis that would further strain its finances, such as an unplanned pregnancy or a child’s sudden illness.
The classroom was a scene of frenetic activity as the family leaders dashed among agencies, sometimes getting the runaround by uncaring workers who claimed they hadn’t received the proper paperwork, and sometimes getting swindled by an unscrupulous landlord.
“You’ve got to feed your families!” Gray called out over the hubbub. “Your kids haven’t eaten.”
Despite students’ best efforts, only one family among the eight represented managed to get its children to school every day. Many families went without food, were evicted from their homes or had their utilities disconnected for nonpayment before the hourlong simulation ended.
“It was nothing like I expected,” said Robyn Besana, 20, of Skokie, Ill. “My son got arrested. My children didn’t eat for three weeks. All of the problems were so cumulative; it was really daunting, knowing that people deal with these problems every day of their lives.”
Exercises like the poverty simulation can be emotionally moving experiences that give students insight into their potential clients, said Tara Earls Larrison, a social work educator for 15 years.
“We have them do all kinds of experimental learning activities that are hands on and interactive, and help them understand, in different avenues, the concepts and issues that we teach in class,” said Earls Larrison.
Earlier in the week, the class engaged in a privilege walk, an exercise that illustrated how privileges and negative experiences – such as getting an education or being discriminated against – move people ahead in life or set them back. Accordingly, a values exercise requires students to prioritize a list of clients and decide who will receive financial assistance with their health care needs and who won’t. An empathy exercise gives students a simulated disability for a short time so they can experience the challenges that people with disabilities face each day.
According to Linda Kingery, an adjunct instructor in social work who also is a child welfare investigator for a state agency, the first rule of working with clients is “to respect those we serve.”
“The key to good social work is an excellent knowledge base with a whole lot of human compassion and a love for what you do. I feel that the most important tip I am able to share with students is the importance of a genuine respect for humanity. I don’t believe in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ framework. We are all in this humanity thing together. Some of us have been helped in the past and are helpers today. Others are helpers now and will need help in the future.”
“Passionate” is a word that comes up a lot when the BSW students share their feelings about helping others through careers in social work. They describe the school’s faculty members and learning environment as positive, supportive and stimulating. They like that the school’s facility, which moved to a newly constructed building last year, has state-of-the-art technology.
Since the school’s enrollment is small –
50 BSW students, 225 master’s and 25 doctoral – students are in many of the same classes together and get to know each other well. Students say instructors also work hard to learn students’ names and often greet them by name in the hallways.
“You know you’re in social work when somebody sneezes and the entire class turns around and says ‘Bless you,’ ” said Ally Cherveny, a junior from Wilmington, Ill.