University of Vermont

University Communications

Social Work Students Take the Field

Release Date: 05-05-2010

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Ashley Elder

Senior Ashley Elder, shown here at the Burlington Community Justice Center where she runs a progressive youth diversionary program for juvenile offenders, is one of 46 undergraduates in social work currently working on their field education requirement. (Photo: Sally McCay)

For UVM social work students, the moment they know they've made the right career choice doesn't usually happen in the classroom. It often happens with a client during their field education placement with a local nonprofit or public agency. For senior Ashley Elder, one of those moments occurred this winter while working with a young woman at the Burlington Community Justice Center.

Elder's field placement, a requirement of all social work students, has her on the front lines of a cutting-edge diversionary program for juvenile offenders. Her job is to run restorative justice panels designed to bring together victims, offenders and community members to discuss the impact of a crime and find ways to make amends to all parties. Needless to say, not all of the young offenders -- whose crimes range from shoplifting to auto theft to simple assault -- want to be there.

Elder has proven adept at helping offenders understand the advantages of making amends to their community while also avoiding the penal system. One such case involving a young woman who had committed a misdemeanor offense wasn't going so well and appeared headed back to the court system.

"The client said no to a panel at first and almost got dismissed, but Ashley created this beautiful relationship with this woman who was no longer feeling as defensive," says Karen Vastine, Elder's supervisor and Community Justice Coordinator. "It's a very powerful situation because Ashley taught her how to be resilient and overcome some things, which empowered her and positively impacted other areas of her life."

Finding meaningful field placements

Elder is one of 46 undergraduate social work students currently in the field along with 60 graduate students, which is a combined all-time department high. Students are expected to spend between 450 and 600 hours in the field working directly with clients at agencies around the state. They work under employees at the agencies known as field instructors who are often UVM social work alums with memories of their own field education experience. JB Barna, field education coordinator and senior lecturer in social work, says they tell her that being a field instructor helps them think more deeply about their current work.

"I went through the same thing six years ago," says Mark Prior, a program manager in developmental services at HowardCenter and field instructor for senior Emily Depman, who works with students with Asperger syndrome and autism through the SUCCEED program. "Emily's placement allows her to work with clients from a population she'd never been exposed to before, in a variety of settings. She's done a good job providing guidance and helping her clients achieve independence."

Barna is well known for her ability to match students with appropriate social agencies. Her goal isn't to create comfortable or even compatible placements, but rather to create situations where students can learn more about their strengths and weaknesses and which area of social work they might want to pursue. "Field work is where the rubber meets the road," says Barna, who credits colleague Susan Haggerty with helping make the program run smoothly. "They learn how a social worker approaches situations and does their job with the ethics and values of the profession. It's also a time for them to develop their own social work identity. It really is identity forming for them to actually see themselves in the social work mirror."

One of the primary goals of the social work program, which is imbedded in every field education placement, is to produce graduates who are dedicated to helping vulnerable populations, but also committed to human rights and social justice. The department's philosophy, which Barna says sets it apart from many other social work departments, states that "human rights and social justice provide the moral grounding for social work practice and research ... since respect for basic human rights (freedom and well-being) provide the necessary conditions for a just society, they are both the starting points and ultimate criteria by which we judge the value of social work practice and research."

Progressive programs

Elder and Depman are working with innovative programs that are among the first in the nation of their kind. HowardCenter, in collaboration with UVM, offers SUCCEED, which provides comprehensive education, campus life, career development and student housing services to students with developmental disabilities. Depman is helping students with disabilities learn how to adapt socially in a college setting, attend classes and live in a dorm. She's had to help students navigate through some awkward situations, but has learned ways to help them avoid similar situations in the future.

"I'd never worked with this population before," says Depman, "but I've gained a lot of confidence by helping them make important decisions that affect their lives. I've also learned the importance of self care and realizing that I need support sometimes. It can feel overwhelming at times, but it's one of the best things that's ever happened to me."

The Restorative Justice Panel that Elder facilitates is also considered progressive programming and is currently used in only a handful of states. Gale Burford, professor of social work and author of the report, "Reparative versus Standard Probation: Community Justice Outcomes," is an example of a faculty member who is an expert in an area in which students conduct their field education work.

"I've had a lot of help and learned so much about social work as a profession," says Elder. "You really need to learn how to communicate with all kinds of clients, and this placement has taught me how to do that. I didn't realize the importance of it until I started working here. I'll feel way more confident heading into my first job after graduation. I'll definitely miss the people I've worked with -- that's been the most rewarding part."