U-M's School of Social Work: Not Just an Ivory Tower

The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own. 
- Benjamin Disraeli
Washtenaw County is home to two out of seven universities offering Master's of Social Work degrees in Michigan. Both University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan have MSW programs; U-M's is nationally ranked. And another large MSW program is housed a short hop away, at Wayne State.
It might not seem that these programs would affect life in Washtenaw County that much --  students, after all, come and go and while they contribute a great deal they don't always have a lasting impact. But the MSW programs are unusual in that a centerpiece of their program is field education, where students spend between two and four days a week actually working at local nonprofits, doing everything from policy analysis to direct client service. 
Out of 438 students currently in the field, 250 of them are placed somewhere in Washtenaw County, says Susan Crabb, a social work professor and interim director of the field instruction program for the University of Michigan. U-M students structure their field placement in a variety of ways depending on their previous experience; most common are for them to do two placements during their two-year program that run concurrent with the academic year, or one placement that runs for a calendar year and requires them to do four days a week during the summer. 
It’s a benefit to the nonprofit to have students there, but that's actually incidental to the true purpose of field work, Crabb says. It's meant to enhance students' learning as professional social workers more than provide free labor for nonprofits. That said, students do have an impact on the agencies where they are placed. 
Zoe Zulakis is an MSW student placed at U-M's Center for the Education of Women. There, she counsels women seeking to further career, economic and personal goals. She says her experience has allowed her to see the world in a different way. 
"Social work has taught me to adjust my lens," she says.  "I cannot accept things as they are, because they are never as they seem, and they are often not as they should be. Instead, I can still honor those among me, and honor myself, with the courage to listen, the audacity to understand, and the will to do something."
There are 13 social work competencies students must address in their field work, and they work with their supervisors to create assignments that will enhance those competencies. Students have done everything from one-on-one counseling with women looking to improve their financial status to rewriting campus sexual assault reporting policies.  
"Because of the pressure in today's economy on nonprofits, we have a lot more people needing services," says Crabb. "I think students are taking some of that burden by working in conjunction with paid staff to figure out a project agencies just don't have time to do. That in turn enhances the community and makes it a better place to live."
Nonprofits who agree to take on a student tend to take the responsibility of teaching them very seriously. That’s true for Larry Voight, president of Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County. He was recently reading annual reports from the organization's founding more than 50 years ago, he says, and discovered that even it its earliest days U-M social work students were working at the agency.
Now, they take on around 30 interns from U-M, Eastern and Wayne State. Voight says he thinks it's important for nonprofits like CSS to practice stewardship of the profession's knowledge base. Any benefit to his agency is beside the point, he says, but it does, in fact, benefit them greatly have students around. 
"Interns come into the organization with a tremendous amount of energy and shiny new knowledge from class to inspire and challenge our way of thinking," he says. "Their own passion to learn puts them in a position where they can take some risks. It helps clients and certainly helps us meet our mission."
Rachael Wiener, who is pursing a management track in her MSW program, works closely with Voight in her field placement. She's worked on employee engagement, helped with GIS mapping to provide funders with a visual understanding of Catholic Social Services' impact, and also investigated ways of fostering cultural humility and cultural competence as a framework for interacting with clients.
One of the most beneficial things to her has been the opportunity to develop a mentoring relationship with Voight and other social workers at the agency. 
"I'm fortunate to have a supervisor who not only inspires me but challenges me," she says. 
U-M in particular draws social work students from across the country, some of whom are likely to stay in the area and contribute to the success of nonprofits in the future. And that national stature also extends to a more global reach. Voight has had the opportunity to bring in interns from a social welfare university in South Korea, thanks to a relationship built many years ago with a student at U-M who did a field placement with him.  
Wiener says that many of her classmates were drawn by the university's proximity to Detroit, thanks to its high profile in the media right now and its plentiful opportunities for social workers to make a difference. 
"People come to Wayne or Eastern or U-M to be able to put themselves into true areas of need," she says. "They can dig their teeth in and find out that this their spot."

Freelance writer Amy Kuras has written about education – among a host of other topics – for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

For more great reading on the people and programs impacting Michigan kids, visit Michigan Nightlight.
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