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Field placement makes real social workers of them

Since its start 35 years ago, Eastern’s social work department has been kicking students out of the classroom. Most would agree that this is the key to its success, including the department chair, Dr. Edward Kuhlmann.

The field experience part of social work is crucial to the major, Kuhlmann explained.

“It’s a more realistic experience of what being a social worker is going to be like,” he said.

Starting with the first year, students are sent off campus to visit various social work agencies for paper writing. Sophomore year includes 15-20 hours of observation. By spring of junior year, students are shadowing supervisors in real agencies, and by senior year, students are interning for two eight-hour days a week, both semesters.

Yet the classroom is not completely left behind. Juniors and seniors must still attend class the other three days of the week. And do the classes ease up on account of the field experience.

“Social work is often called the paper major because you write and write and write and write,” Kuhlmann said, adding that one professor required 11 short papers written on a weekly basis.

Senior Katie Castle works with refugees at the Nationality Service Center in central Philadelphia, helping them to get social security and find jobs. Castle puts in 16 hours a week at the agency. This, combined with classes, can be quite taxing.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re still at college when you’re doing something off campus all week,” Castle said. “It definitely cuts down on time with friends and extracurricular activities.”

Junior Rachel Hinton, who shadows at Children and Youth Services in Upper Darby, agreed that the bouncing between class and field is tough.

“It’s really weird, especially being an RA,” Hinton said. “People come to me with their problems and I think ‘big deal–this is nothing compared to what I saw today.’ It’s just a clashing of worlds.”

Yet to Kuhlmann, tired students like Castle and Hinton are proof of their own learning.

“Real learning is a profoundly uncomfortable experience because it requires that you give up something, that you relinquish what you think you know,” Kuhlmann said.

While the field learning is unique, Kuhlmann emphasized the need for it to be paired with classroom learning.

“There’s something about the interplay of the intellectual to the hands-on that ultimately makes a social worker at the end of four years,” he said.

Field education director Dr. Sandra Bauer agreed.

“Sometimes a student says ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ but then a crisis arises, and sure enough, they know how to deal with it, how to put themselves in the person’s shoes,” Bauer said.

Bauer is fully understanding of interns like Castle who meet with real clients who have real problems.

“I admit it can be a little scary,” Bauer said. “That’s why we have a seminar class that goes with it.” The class acts as a debriefing room, where students can share problems, concerns and advice with one another.

As well as facilitating these classes, Bauer places juniors and seniorss in their agencies and visits them regularly there.

“The thing to do is match [the agency with] where the students sees some of their gifts and talents as well as where God’s leading them to go,” Bauer said.

She facilitates informative class meetings followed by individual meetings to figure out a student’s interests and match them with one of the 200+ agencies in the Delaware Valley area.

“We bend over backward to involve student choices and preferences in the placement process,” Kuhlmann said.

Before even imagining a field placement for junior year, a sophomore following the social work track must first apply for admission into the major. The application process is reputably rigorous, as it requires three references, five essay questions, a health screening and an hour-long interview with an unfamiliar social work professor.

There is a reason for the application’s reputation.

“When students graduate from Eastern University with a major in social work, they are social workers, qualified to perform social work,” Kuhlmann explained. “We [faculty] are the gatekeepers; we’re the last line of protection to clients who have problems out there.”

Hinton recognizes this gravity.

“These are real people,” Hinton said of the child abuse clients she works with. “The choices I make and skills I use, whether I use them well or poorly, are going to affect these people’s lives.”

According to Bauer, the skills that Eastern’s program teaches qualify its seniors for an advanced standing, allowing them to jump immediately to their second year of the master’s program if they so choose.

Castle agreed about the value the field experience gives to her future career.

“Eastern’s always been good at broadening horizons within the classroom,” Castle said, “but when you can actually be out there and see it and bring it back to Eastern, it can be much more of an educational experience because it adds a whole new dimension to whatever you’re learning.”

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