Interview with Martha A. Fuller – Director of Field Education at the Univ. of Louisville, Kent School of Social Work
About Director Martha A. Fuller, MSSW, CSW, ACSW: Director Fuller earned her MSSW from the University of Louisville and is licensed in the state of Kentucky; she also earned the ACSW credential. Prior to coming to U of L, she practiced as a community social worker for over two decades, primarily in the field of public child welfare. She has held the position of Director of Field Education for the past 16 years, during which time she has collaborated with more than 1,000 practicum placement sites in more than 25 states and other countries, on behalf of over 4,000 graduate students. Martha A. Fuller was compensated to participate in this interview.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Field education is a major component of MSW programs and is a requirement for graduation. Can you briefly explain the field education requirements for the MSSW program at U of L?
[Director Fuller] Students in the traditional 60 hour degree program are required to complete 450 hours in practicum for each of the two years of practicum, for a total of 900 hours for graduation. Those students enrolled in the 30 hour advanced standing program must complete 450 hours in one year of advanced practicum, assuming they already earned 450 hours in their BSW program prior to coming into the MSSW program as advanced standing. Generally, students complete 16 hours weekly in practicum and take the practicum courses concurrently with the practice courses, which are offered only in the Fall and Spring semesters. Students remain in the same placement for the entire academic year and then change placements for their advanced year.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you give a brief overview of how field education works? For example, how is field education integrated into the program and do students have a faculty mentor as well as a field instructor?
[Director Fuller] Students follow a particular curriculum plan chosen by the student among several options, which specifies which year of the program the student will take the practicum courses. Students take their practicum courses simultaneously with their practice courses during the Fall and Spring semesters of the foundation year. In the advanced year, students take the advanced practicum courses along with the advanced research courses and the advanced practice courses, again in the Fall and Spring semesters. Assignments from the practice and research practice courses are integrated with the student’s practicum and draw from the student’s experiences with clients and other practicum assignments. Students participating in one of the four specializations we currently offer online, will also participate in a bi-weekly, online Field Seminar. Students not taking one of these selected online specializations will not have a Field Seminar class for their graduate studies.
As with the traditional, on-campus program, students in the online practicum are supervised on site in their practicum agency by a staff member with an MSW degree from an accredited program and a minimum of two years of post-master’s experience. Also, as with the on-campus program, students in the online program also have a practicum faculty throughout the two semesters of practicum, who connects via videoconference with the student and supervisor five times across the two semesters for an initial visit and formal evaluations. Additional conferences are held on request. Online practicum students complete electronic weekly journals, monthly blogs, and monthly time sheets.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students entering the traditional program, field education may be a completely new experience (as opposed to BSW students who already have experience with field education). What is a typically day like for a student at a field placement and how does that change as they gain more experience? How is field education different for students in their foundation year versus their advanced standing year?
[Director Fuller] All students, foundation or advanced, begin the practicum with an orientation to the placement site, the staff, and the operations of the organization. This typically lasts 2-6 weeks. As students gain a clear understanding of expectations and assignments in their placement, and as the practicum supervisor gains confidence in the student’s abilities, the student is given assignments on a gradual and progressive basis. After orientation, students may begin with one or two clients, may begin by observing other staff conduct interviews/assessments/counseling sessions, and may progress to conducting similar activities while being observed by their supervisor and will eventually begin to complete assignments independently.
As the supervisor assesses the student’s current skill level, the student will be given more and more complex client situations and other assignments that will continue to challenge and stretch the student’s development. Always, the practicum supervisor will review the student’s work and continue to teach and mentor the student’s professional development. Students may be included in weekly staff meetings, in committee work of the organization, in program development/evaluation, may represent the agency to community coalitions, etc.
Students may enter their MSSW studies with years of social service experience, or may enroll with only limited volunteer experience; students may have extensive knowledge in one field of practice. Regardless of where students begin their graduate studies, the practicum offers the opportunity to expand their practice skills into new realms and to deepen their knowledge of professional social work practice. Practicum provides students the opportunity to explore potential career fields and/or to experience an area of practice previously unknown to them. The learning opportunities made available to each student is somewhat customized to the student’s interest, and their skill level at the beginning of their placement.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Field Education requires a significant time commitment from students. Many online programs are geared towards working professionals, how do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities?
[Director Fuller] We find that most students, whether online or on-campus, are working professionals. The time commitment for practicum is indeed significant and challenging for those employed full-time. We encourage students to consider working part-time, or 80% time as a way to retain benefits but also freeing up one whole day to devote to the practicum. We also allow students to split their time into four 4-hour days, or one 8-hour day and two 4-hour days, as a way to integrate with their work schedules. Some students are able to negotiate moving some of their employment time into the evenings or weekends [in order to] free up weekday hours for the practicum. We encourage students to consider limiting their course load to no more than two additional courses each semester they are taking the practicum, if they are also employed full-time.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How are field placements determined for both students who live in Kentucky and students who live in other states? If students are interested in working with a specific demographic, does U of L attempt to match a student based on interests when possible?
[Director Fuller] The field placement process is the same for both the local as well as the remotely located students; it is a collaboration between the student and the Field Director. I provide a roster of established placement sites for students to review. Students submit the application for practicum which includes the practice areas of interest to the student along with the preferred geographic area as well as specific agencies where the student may like to be placed.
Sometimes, students are interested in a setting not yet included in the agency roster listings. In these instances, I work with the student to explore the educational opportunities available at the site and if appropriate, then negotiate for a formal contract allowing our students to be placed within the newly identified organization. Whenever possible, the student’s preferences are honored, assuming the availability of the agency and an appropriately qualified practicum supervisor. It is rare to find a practicum supervisor who routinely works evenings and/or weekends, and those that do are scooped up very early in the placement process. Consequently, almost every practicum is completed during the usual working hours, M-F, whether for online or on-campus students.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who already work at a health services agency, are they allowed to complete any of their field education requirements at their current place of employment? If so, how does this process work and are there any restrictions?
[Director Fuller] Students must be employed at least six months prior to the start of their practicum and then may be considered for a practicum within their employment organization by submitting a written proposal on letterhead stationery from their employment supervisor, identifying their current employment responsibilities and then proposing their new practicum responsibilities. These duties must be different, with different supervisors, and working with different clients and/or assignments. Whenever possible, the student should be in a different physical location (floor, building, satellite office) for the practicum than their usual employment office.
The proposal must outline their employment schedule along with the proposed practicum schedule. The proposal must be signed by the student, the work supervisor, and the proposed practicum supervisor so that all parties are well informed and approve the proposal. The best educational experience is gained by students experiencing a completely different population served, and different type of practice (micro or macro) than they have done in the past. So, while we support a student requesting a practicum within their employment organization, we do encourage students to consider other practice settings as well. A very few placement agencies will offer a stipend for students; and some employment settings will pay their student/employee for a portion of time spent in their practicum.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who are matched to an agency where they have not been previously employed, are they required to interview for a position? If so, how do you recommend students prepare for interviews?
[Director Fuller] Most students are placed in settings where they have not worked previously. Whether or not students are pursuing a practicum at their employment site, all students are required to interview with the potential practicum supervisor at the placement agency. Generally, students must interview with three prospective sites before finalizing their placement choice. When making the formal referrals for students to interview for a potential placement, I include a tip sheet for preparing for the interview, based on feedback from previous student experiences.
I encourage students to consider their own learning needs, their own learning styles and what they want to gain from a particular setting. The best matches are made when students prepare themselves thoughtfully for the interview and explore the learning opportunities available at each potential placement site, along with gaining an understanding of the prospective supervisor’s teaching style and expectations of students. Both the student and the agency supervisor must agree to accept the other before a final match is settled.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Since the MSSW program accepts students from several states, has U of L ever had issues finding a local agency for an online student? If so, what happens in these situations?
[Director Fuller] U of L uses a collaborative process for arranging practicum placements for students, so whether local or distant, students assist in identifying potential settings for their practicum experience. I also work through our local organizations which have regional/national sites as a resource, along with our own faculty and staff, who have professional contacts in other locations, as well as researching through the internet and on occasion, through other field directors. I never give up and we always find a good placement for each student, no matter the challenges involved.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] What are some of the main questions and concerns students have while completing their field education requirements?
[Director Fuller] Whether local or distant, students are generally anxious about juggling work, classes, family, and practicum. Students want to succeed well with their studies, and the time demands create real pressures. I discuss with them the counsel as offered in item #4 above, and sometimes encourage students to care for themselves and reduce their stress level by pacing through their graduate studies over a longer period of time with a reduced course load, than originally planned. The learning through practicum is often the most exciting part of the curriculum for students, and their enthusiasm for their field experiences often propels them through the other stressors inherent in graduate studies.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Finally, can you summarize the importance of field education in online MSW programs and why students should consider pursuing their online MSW/MSSW at U of L?
[Director Fuller] Practicum is considered the “signature pedagogy” for social work education, in which all the theories and practice of social work come together to improve the quality of life and impact social policies for real people struggling with significant life issues. Practicum is the heart of social work education, incorporating the passion students bring in becoming professional social work practitioners. Students have a strong voice in the selection of their practicum site and lots of support throughout their placement experiences.
Students in our online program can also specialize in Gerontology, Psychosocial Oncology (the only one in the world within an MSW program), Alcohol and Drug Counseling, or Mental Health. Additional specializations may become available to our online students in the near future. The online program at U of L – Kent School of Social Work offers flexibility within an accredited program which is nationally recognized.