After two years of learning Social Work theories, practices, and social policies, third year brings the welcome introduction to placement. Placement brings with it mixed feelings: there’s anxiety about implementing theory into practice, fear of being with service users for the first time, but excitement to finally see what the field is like. That’s why second year Social Work Student Union Reps decided to hold an introduction to placement event.
“We wanted to hold this event to give students a chance to ask other upper year students who had already been in placement, what it was really like for them,” said second year rep Anna Stevenson. Michael Friedman, another second year rep, mirrored this sentiment, “We really wanted to give people that had been through the placement process a chance to tell others about how they found the experience.” Them, along with fellow second year rep Erica Francis organized the event hoping it would put their colleagues at ease going into third year.
The event consisted of a panel discussion with four fourth year students and faculty member Jennifer Clarke on Monday March 16th from Noon to 3pm in the Layton Lounge of the Oakham house. The event was intimate and provided audience members space to air their concerns and ask for tips on how to balance work, school, and placement.
Professor Clarke spoke first about the unique challenges posed by placement. “It’s intimidating. For the first time, you [might] have a caseload.” She spoke about how students now enter the power dynamic as a placement student as they learn about an agency’s policies and work with another staff member, their field instructor.
Although with power, there are great feelings of uncertainty when practicing as a professional for the first time. Because of this, Clarke told students to not shy away from asking for more supervision and to ask questions, “Don’t just go through the motions. This is your learning.” She reminded students to not take on tasks that they feel may be too large when they are only there twice a week. “If the task is too large to take on during twice a week and you don’t share that with your field instructor, you will receive a bad evaluation if it is left incomplete. So talk to your field instructor and be open with them.”
Clarke also highlighted the importance of creating your own structure at placement. By setting up your own structure, this helps keep you organized and prevents you from becoming overwhelmed. She really stressed that you must remember that you are only their twice a week. “Learn to say no sometimes, because you have to put yourself first sometimes,” Clarke said.
Once you’ve created structure and started integrating yourself well into your placement, Clarke moved onto the topic of self-care: “How do we help others if we don’t deal with our own traumas?” Making self-care routine was essential, no matter what your routine may be. Self-care can help facilitate the transition between the role of student, placement student, and employee within the various roles you may play in your life. It will also help you stay grounded and provide more balance on your life. Journalling came up a lot as a suggestion among Clarke and other fourth years, as it provided the space for you to reflect on your learning, your mistakes, and your successes. It also helps you sit with your discomfort. But, as Clarke said, we all have our own self-care practice.
Review from the audience was mainly positive. “I found it really informative,” said Katie, a second year social work student. “I like how her [Clarke’s] points were all connected. It’s very useful.” Katie is still waiting to hear back from the field office, who is often busy away matching third and fourth year students at this time. “I’m really anxious…I’m not really sure about what I want to do yet. I’m nervous, but excited.”
“[This was] Very informative, it will help me out later on because I’m in first year!” said an amused Ruth Ambrocio. “I hear all my friends talking about placement, and I don’t know what I want to do!” Ruth expressed that she said this has been the first time ever hearing about self-care, and that third year seems like it’s going to be stressful, mainly when it comes to balancing your own stress and engaging with clients within the same timeframe.
Erica Francis, second year student and Social Work Student Union member found the workshop crucial. “In second year, we are like chickens with our heads cut off! We’re asking third years, we’re asking fourth years. It was great to have a faculty member here with prior experience as a field instructor and in social work.” Erica identified that she needed to work on her own self-care routine, or at least find the time to. “It’s so hard to find the time!”
After a quick break where students got to grab fruit and snack sandwiches, Anna presented the fourth year panel for the second part of the discussion forum. Here, the floor was open for audience members to pose questions so that a flowing dialogue would ensue. Hearing from peers who have recently gone through, or are still going through, placements was great because their experience is relevant and recent.
The discussion that ensued surrounded helpful tips, self-care practices, and reflections. The panel consisted of fourth year students Caitlin Keating, Carolyn Tulini, Cathy Huynh, and Anna Ho. “We did have quite a few fourth years who wanted to be a part of our panel, so many that we actually had to turn a couple away!” said Anna. According to second year reps, there were up to 10 fourth year students who volunteered, however, time constraints would not allow all a fair amount of time to speak.
The fourth year panel reflected on what they wished they did more of. “I wish I was more assertive. In third year I was a shy little mouse, but it helped prepare me for fourth year. As time progressed, I found my voice, which helped me in fourth year,” said Carolyn Tulini.
Caitlin Keating shared a similar sentiment. “I wish I knew that you can ask to do what you want, and there is power in asking. I know students feel pretty powerless in this position.” Caitlin also suggested not being too fixed about placements. She commented that she went into a placement she thought she wouldn’t like, but ended up liking it. She noted that it differed than her expectations.
Other fourth year students highlighted that filling in the ‘additional comments’ section on placement forms was really important. This section of the application allows students to mention any of their preferred agencies or express other skills they have or want to learn.
When it came to dealing with conflict, Anna Ho suggested: “Conflict resolution skills are very important. Power dynamics are at play when dealing with conflict as a student. This is why dealing with conflict strategically and constructively is crucial.” Conflict can take many forms and within various relations. Placement students might encounter conflict with service-users, staff, supervisors, partner agencies, or with client family members.
Conflict can be mitigated and handled, depending on how it is approached. Anna suggested, “Using the positive sandwich approach is helpful. That is, starting and ending the conversation with a positive statement and placing the issue in the middle of the sandwich. Your faculty consultant will also be available to advise you if needed.”
If you weren’t able to make it, you missed a great forum. This was a great chance to really quelm any anxieties by providing the opportunity to speak directly to fellow students and faculty. “I can’t speak for everyone, but the attendees that I spoke to said they really liked the idea of connecting students with the comfort offered by those who have been through the placement process,” said Michael.
“I believe that a workshop or informational session similar to our event would be very beneficial to second year students in the future. I do believe that this should be something that the union, or the faculty looks to recreate each year so that students can continue to be welcomed to a more intimate setting,” said Stevenson. Personally, I wish I had an event like this to prepare me for third year. Hopefully next year’s Social Work Union holds this again for second years.
Sara Moscatel is a third-year social work student focusing on sexuality, gender, anti-colonialism, and settlement concerns for Portuguese-Canadians. When she’s not dedicating herself to something, she can be found at home eating and bingeing on Netflix with her partner.