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Student Organizations Dedicated to Service

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Student involvement in the College of Social Work has never been more robust. With four active organizations, students have an array of options. Students in the COSW can join the Undergraduate Social Work Student Association (USWSA) or the Social Work Student Association (SWSA), and students with a 3.5 GPA are eligible for membership in Phi Alpha Social Work Honor Society. Students can also share their thoughts at “town hall meetings” hosted by the Dean’s Student Advisory Council (DSAC) which was created two years ago. The USWSA is open to all undergraduates majoring or minoring in social work; SWSA members are predominantly graduate students, but undergraduate majors are welcome. These groups don’t just serve a social purpose, though. Each group is passionate about giving back to their community.

The USWSA has chosen to focus on the homeless population in Columbia this year, hosting a blanket and coat drive and preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. Thanksgiving is a USWSA tradition: those who remain in Columbia for the holiday usually cook together, and they relish the opportunity to bond as a group and share with others. They’re also making fleece blankets to distribute to the homeless. The blanket crafting is part of a social event for USWSA members—as members make blankets to keep others warm, they’ll be warming themselves by a bonfire. Both the USWSA and the SWSA are adopting families this holiday season, too.

Phi Alpha takes a different approach to service. As President Rey Miller describes it, the goal of Phi Alpha is to “push our students to do more” by engaging in long-term service projects that last 3 months or more. This year, Phi Alpha has partnered with three Columbia agencies: Protection and Advocacy, American Red Cross, and the South Carolina Vulnerable Adult Guardian Ad Litem Program. All three are hosting trainings for current and prospective Phi Alpha members this fall, with service events beginning in the spring. Miller explains that working with community partners benefits everyone; long-term service projects “extend [the students’] reach into the community,” while also providing a valuable resource to the community agencies.

These organizations serve an academic purpose as well. The focus of SWSA is “professional development with an emphasis on connecting students with resources,” says President Aaron Guest. The goal of their monthly meetings is “to make students aware of opportunities” on campus and in the community. SWSA meetings are open to faculty, as well. Guest’s mission is for students to be “aware of what the faculty are actually doing” and view them not just as teachers but as “content experts and resources.” This fall, SWSA planned two Brown Bag seminars with faculty speakers—one on the topic of domestic violence and another on gerontology. The DSAC also strengthens connections within the COSW. Dean Anna Scheyett reflects that “as a Dean I really need to know what students think—the issues they have and their reactions and thoughts to faculty and staff ideas. The input of the DSAC has been invaluable in making the College of Social Work a school that is more responsive to student needs.”

Professionalization and service opportunities are wonderful reasons to get involved, but USWSA President Casey Schumpert also stresses the importance of building community within the COSW. Joining a student group is “a way to get to know people in your class, people coming in to the program, and people going to grad school.” To that end, the USWSA and SWSA have collaborated on a mentorship program that pairs seniors with MSW students. The USWSA also pairs sophomores and juniors with seniors in the COSW, and the SWSA matches first-year MSW students with second-year students. “We want to ensure that the social work students can transition from students to professionals,” says Guest. For social work students in particular, he says, “learning occurs outside the classroom,” and the organization wants to facilitate that by hosting a variety of events that allow faculty and students of all levels to interact. Miller believes Phi Alpha serves students in the same way: “We really give our students an opportunity to explore and apply their skills and to revise and extend their learning.”

These organization presidents find many reasons to get involved. For Schumpert, leadership in a social work club “was a confidence booster, because I always had the ideas, but I never had the confidence to do anything about it.” Collaborating with other social work students is an easy way to effect change. As Guest explains, there is value in getting to know people in the program. “We all want to make a change; we’re all fighting for the same social justice cause.”

Serving Those Who Served Us

Rayford CropRevisedFlagTonia Rayford admits that when she entered USC’s MSW program in August 2012 after 30 years in the Air Force, the change wasn’t easy. “It’s a big transition, but it’s a good one,” she said, noting that her transition to civilian life came just at the right time. “I love coming to campus. I love jeans and flip flops. I love that people call me by my first name.”

But it is a different world—both within academia and beyond—especially for veterans like Rayford who have served multiple combat tours. The growing needs of military and veteran populations are part of what prompted Rayford to apply for the College of Social Work’s new military certificate program. “We need to be ready to support our troops when they come home,” Rayford said, citing the numerous factors that affect the health and well-being of service members and their families, from losing friends to facing divorce. “Even if they don’t have scars you can see, they have scars.”

It was these hidden wounds that inspired Dr. Nancy Brown to develop the Graduate Certificate for Social Work with Military Members, Veterans, and Military Families, which admitted its first group of students last spring. Dr. Brown’s son was in the Army, and when he came back from Iraq, his childhood friend, who had also returned from deployment, suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eventually committed suicide.

“We owe veterans who have risked so much for us. People survive, they have injuries, and they have to come to terms with their experiences,” Dr. Brown said. “Our military men and women and their families have proven themselves to be resilient through the challenges of multiple deployments. The majority of people are doing very well despite adversity and difficulty. So it isn’t just about fixing what’s broken but also maximizing what’s working.”

The certificate program requires 18 credit hours and focuses on helping students understand the military and military culture, recognize injuries associated with military service and combat exposure, and develop skills and strategies for working with service members, veterans, and their families.

“I think people are really hungry for this information because it’s a population they need to know something about,” Dr. Brown said. As the mother of a child who was deployed, Dr. Brown is also concerned about equipping those who work with the families of the deployed. “My goal is to train people everywhere,” she said, noting the online, non-degree program that the College of Social Work offers for community members called “Military 101.”

From students’ field placements with veterans’ groups to government-funded research conducted by faculty, the College of Social Work is working from all angles to improve the lives of service men and women and their families. As Dr. Brown notes, it’s a three-pronged approach—educating social work students, educating the community, and conducting research.

In terms of research, Dr. Nikki R. Wooten, LISW-CP who teaches two of the military certificate program’s four core courses, was recently awarded a five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Behavioral Health Care in Army Warrior Transition Units (NIDA 1K01DA037412), to study military service and deployment-related factors associated with mental health and substance abuse problems. The research will also examine service members’ utilization of behavioral health services and health disparities among racial/ethnic minorities and women in the military.

“This will be the first study to focus on deployed Army service members assigned to Warrior Transition Units—a high-risk, understudied group that includes the most severely injured Army service members,” said Dr. Wooten, who is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard with over 25 years of military service. Utilizing Department of Defense Military Health System data, Dr. Wooten hopes to gain a better understanding of behavioral health problems among service members who return from war and the risk or protective factors associated with post-deployment health.

As for Rayford, her social work degree and military certificate will give her the evidence-based practices and theories she needs to better serve military members and veterans. Not only did she get hands-on experience through an internship at the Ralph A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, but she’s also recently been hired by the Veterans Administration to work on a PTSD research team when she graduates.

“Because of the courses I’ve taken, I now have a clinical perspective of what service personnel go through,” she said. “When I say ‘I support our troops,’ it will come from a deeper level of commitment where I can advocate for them from an evidenced-based, social work perspective.”

Making Decisions in Ambiguous Cases

When students in USC’s master’s of social work program reach their final semester, they are required to take a course that provides no answers, but rather forces them to make difficult decisions in ambiguous situations—just like the ones they will face in the practice world.

The course was started in 2000 by Terry Wolfer and his College of Social Work colleagues. He had gotten the idea shortly after joining the College as a young professor in 1996. At that time, doctoral students were raving about a class taught by Dr. Mike Welsh, a professor of education who is now retired. Welsh used the case method for a class called “Principles of College Teaching.”

The case method relies on presenting students with written accounts of actual events that portray the kinds of situations students are likely to encounter in their careers. Students are expected to read the cases, judge what problems exist, formulate the challenges or dilemmas, and write a paper summarizing the decisions they would make.
When students return to class, they discuss the case and their responses in depth.

Wolfer was already a faculty member at USC, so he got into one of Welsh’s classes by serving as a teaching assistant. Wolfer was amazed at the intensity of discussions by adult learners arriving after a full day of work as community college teachers.

“We ought to use case method in the College of Social Work,” Wolfer recalled saying to Welsh. “But we don’t have any cases.”

“Go write some,” Welsh responded.

So Welsh helped Wolfer and his colleagues develop the case method class that has been held every spring for the past 14 years. The class is called a “capstone” class because it can only be taken in the final semester of the master’s program and because the work of the course should be the culmination and synthesis of all the student’s work in the program.

Wolfer has since co-authored six books of decision cases. He has presented papers and led workshops on the case method at universities across the nation. His work demonstrating the value of the case method was a major factor in the Council on Social Work Education’s decision to present him its Distinguished Recent Contribution Award in 2009.

Wolfer believes the study and discussion of cases allow students to engage in critical thinking and employ theory in situations that reflect reality.

“These cases are like cadavers,” Wolfer said. “Everyone can cut away, and no one gets hurt.”

Wolfer and his colleagues facilitate the capstone discussions, letting their students wield the scalpels.

“He didn’t give us his opinion; he didn’t tell us if we were right,” said Brenda Ferguson, who took the course last spring before graduating from the master’s program.

Ferguson, a 53-year-old Army retiree, and other students had to come up with a solution, even though they could never know whether it would have solved all or part of the problem. But then, making decisions within uncertainty had been part of her Army training. The Army philosophy, she said, is that “any decision is better than no decision. You can always adjust from a bad decision, but it’s hard to adjust from no decision.”

Ferguson said the class forced her to apply her understanding of the theories she had been studying for the past two years to justify her responses to cases.

“To me, the case studies were challenging because I had to say why I made that decision,” she said.

Noël Busch-Armendariz said Wolfer was already her mentor when she took the capstone course before receiving her doctoral degree from the College of Social Work in 2000. Students sometimes became anxious because they were being forced to think, analyze, and summarize based on evidence from real-life cases.

“This is a new skill and may be difficult to achieve, although once students learn how to learn, the light bulbs shine bright,” said Busch-Armendariz, now a professor of social work at the University of Texas in Austin.

Case method was a common teaching tool in social work education until the mid-20th century when professors turned to more evidence-based approaches. But science has its limits, too, Wolfer said. “There will never be research about everything a social worker will encounter,” Wolfer said. “At the end of the day, a social worker needs good judgment for handling particular situations.”

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