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Social Justice Advocates: Students Reflect on Their Time in the MSW@USC Program

online MSW grad party 2014

This year, 160 MSW@USC students traveled to Los Angeles from as far away as New Jersey, Florida and Alaska to take part in graduation celebrations. For many MSW@USC students, it was the first time they visited the University of Southern California campus and met their classmates in person.

On May 15, USC hosted a Master of Social Work graduation reception at Border Grill where I had the opportunity to speak with several class of 2014 graduates during the MSW@USC graduation celebration about what drew them to the online MSW, their most memorable moments in the program and what’s next for these social justice advocates. For more student stories, take a look at our previous post in this series, “Ready to Create Change“.

Arielle May, Online MSW grad

After her husband received a permanent change of station order from the military to move to Florida, Arielle confessed she was thankful she was enrolled in an online Master of Social Work program that would fit with her military family lifestyle.

Not only was she able to continue working toward her MSW, but the USC placement team worked with her to find her an internship near her new home.

Arielle was placed at an agency, where she worked with adults with developmental disabilities, primarily focusing on assisting with behaviors in the workforce.

“My job was to help my clients maintain and stabilize, so that they could find and keep a steady job,” she said. “On the job site, I discussed appropriate behaviors for the workplace and helped to break down why certain behaviors were unacceptable.”

Arielle’s most memorable experience in the program was her first day of field placement. Something triggered a high emotional response from a client who proceeded to strip naked. Arielle found herself wondering, “What in the world did I get myself into?”

After the initial shock wore off, she said the internship helped her grow as a social worker by allowing her to apply the skills and knowledge she was learning in the classroom.

In another memorable incident from her field placement, Arielle encountered a teenage father who, while high on methadone, threatened her with a PVC pipe. She was able to keep the client calm by using the tools she learned in her developmental course and had someone call for emergency assistance.

“That’s when I first realized that not everyone is ready to get help. You have to meet the client where they are,” she remarked.

After graduation, Arielle is looking forward to the possibility of working in a clinical capacity with children and families at a military base in Florida.

Cathy Sanchez, Online MSW grad

“My biggest take-away from the program is definitely the relationships we built,” Cathy said.

Though Cathy lives in Florida, one of her closest friends in the MSW@USC program was based out of Texas, breaking the stereotype of an impersonal online program.

“I always had classmates I could rely on as a support system,” she remarked. “Although I’m in an online MSW, I have a family of students going through it all with me.”

While she spoke highly of the faculty, staff and students, Cathy made it clear that her field experience was a critical part of her education.

“Field placement gave me the chance to learn from my mistakes,” she said.

Reflecting back on one of her first field experiences, she said she learned the importance of dotting her i’s and crossing her t’s when working with a client.

“I was dealing with a client who had a long past of psychosocial concerns, but I was focused on dealing with more urgent matters,” she said, admitting that this was a mistake. “I missed a question about his past experiences that could have given me important information about how to address the problem.”

The opportunity to have the hands-on practice helped her learn that in order to handle an urgent matter, social workers need to get as much information as possible. A big lesson learned from the program was that social workers need to understand policy.

“I used to hate policy,” Cathy said. “But I learned that policy affects everything that we do. It’s important that we know what’s happening around us because in the end it really matters.”

Providing an example, she continued, “If my clients are in public housing, they need to have and maintain a steady job, but clients that are mentally ill may not be able to find regular employment.”

“In cases like this, we need to create exceptions to the rules because one size doesn’t always fit all,” she reasoned.

Cathy added that with the knowledge and skills she has gained through the MSW@USC, she is ready to take on whatever comes her way.

“Wherever the military takes my husband next, I am prepared to meet the needs of each state’s requirements,” she said.

In the meantime, she is looking forward to leveraging USC’s professional development resources to get help with resume building, her job search and with interview practice.

Kaitlyn & Isaac, Online MSW grad

Kaitlyn and Isaac share a unique experience in the MSW@USC: They met in the program and have been dating for a year and a half.

“It all started when we had the same classes, and we began chatting on the platform through the chat box,” Kaitlyn laughed. Shortly after chatting, they began emailing, texting and eventually started talking on the phone.

Technology played a vital role in the early days of their friendship. After some time, Isaac traveled to visit Kaitlyn in her hometown, and the rest is history.

Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn said her most memorable and favorite part of the experience in the MSW@USC was her internship.

“The ability to learn a theory and skill in the classroom and then apply and hone it in a real-world application was incredible,” she said.

Kaitlyn worked in a domestic violence shelter for her first field placement and later practiced clinical work in a foster care agency, helping to integrate children into stable home environments.

“My first field experience was terrifying, but it really taught me how to do social work well,” she admitted.

Kaitlyn said her Grief Therapy Crisis Intervention course provided the foundation for her field placement work because the students got to practice and role play with one another. She added that the experience was “nerve wracking, but extremely helpful.”

Kaitlyn was later hired at the foster care agency where she interned, but said she is looking forward to trying out different kinds of social work in the future.

“I want to find my niche in the social work profession, one that makes my heart happy,” she said.

Isaac

Beaming with pride, Issac speaks enthusiastically about the MSW@USC program and advises any prospective students to be ready to give their all.

“Much like in therapy, you get out of the MSW@USC what you put into it,” Isaac said. “I’m extremely grateful for my whole experience in the program. The online setting is so intimate with a class size of 10-to-1 that you have to come to class prepared, or you will get called out in front of everyone.”

However, he said that although the MSW@USC is an extremely rigorous program, the professors are in touch with the complexity of students’ lives and their many demands.

Not only did he find the classwork important, but his field placement was a major part of his learning experience as well.

“My substance abuse course was awesome and a few weeks into the placement experience at the methadone clinic, I could tell how much the course readings and discussions enhanced my work,” he said.

Isaac was hired at the methadone clinic just one month after he started his internship. He speaks extremely highly of his co-workers and said he loves the people he gets to work with in substance abuse prevention.

“I really wouldn’t change a thing about my USC experience,” he said.

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