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Rutgers Field Education program turns students into practicing social work professionals

As a first-year MSW student, Lauren Wilson was assigned an internship by the School of Social Work Field Education Program. Although the internship at Trinity Counseling Service in Princeton wasn’t something Wilson had picked, she had a memorable experience and got hired for the summer as a development assistant.

“I love it at Trinity Counseling Service,” Wilson said. “Just that one placement set my roots and helped me make a lot of connections. I feel very lucky that I happened to be placed there.”

Wilson is one of the nearly 1,200 to 1,500 students who get the opportunity to be placed at organizations throughout New Jersey, greater New York City, and greater Philadelphia with the help of Rutgers’ Field Education program, which partners with agencies that are looking to train, shape and potentially, hire these aspiring social workers. Students serve alongside professional social workers and are supervised by experienced field instructors.

Each of the required four Field Education Practicums is a 3-credit course at Rutgers that allows Masters in Social Work students to work in settings like hospitals, correctional facilities, addiction treatment centers, mental health centers, child welfare centers, schools, churches, senior centers, trauma centers, and even the United Nations, among others, said Mark Lamar, Executive Director of Field Education.

“Field education is where students start to apply what they are learning in class. They develop the ability to establish helping, therapeutic relationships, and they learn about the complex array of services that clients and their families require, leading the fullest lives possible,” Lamar said.

Although the internships are unpaid, the benefits of professional field instruction are invaluable, he said.

Every year the students indicate their interests and the Field Education Program tries to align students’ placements with those, Lamar said. The purpose of this process is to open up students to a multitude of options./p>

“We very much try to line up what students want to do to their internships but we also help students to develop breadth in their skills and interests” he said. “They must become knowledgeable and able to engage and serve a wide variety of populations. “

Wilson developed her counseling skills at her first-year placement; for this upcoming year she is better prepared to work with the population that will be her specialization, professionally. She has been placed at Atrium Health, where she will work with older adults in the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit.

“I want to do gerontological social work,’ she said. “This is a great facility for me because I would really like to work with people who have Alzheimer's or with hospice.”

Another benefit of Field Education is the opportunity to embrace and experience cultural and linguistic diversity, Lamar said, since it can be a tremendous professional asset. Paola Stevens, another MSW student, was able to use this to her advantage.

Stevens interned at the Early Childhood Center in the Perth Amboy School District. She recalls having a rich learning experience not only because she is interested in issues like education and immigration but also because she could use her first language, Spanish.

After working 15 hours a week their first year and 22.5 hours a week their second year, students choose their specialization between direct clinical practice or management and policy. Stevens said the program helps to set a foundation for working in the real world.

“The Field Education program is important because it is based on experience,” she said. “You learn while doing things and that's exactly how you put your field into practice.”

In 2008, the Council on Social Work Education deemed field education as the “the signature pedagogy" of social work, Lamar said.

“This is the place where students first inhabit the professional social work role,” he said. “Field education prepares the learning social work student to transform into the practicing professional social worker.”

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