Interview with Kristina Whiton-O’Brien – Assistant Director of Online Advising and Field Education for the Online MSW Program at Boston University

About Kristina Whiton-O’Brien, MSW, LICSW: Ms. Whiton-O’Brien joined Boston University School of Social Work in 2010 as a Faculty Advisor for the Southeastern Massachusetts Off Campus Program. In 2012, she became the Assistant Director of Online Advising and Field Education. In this role, she oversees advisor hiring, training and assignments, supervises the development of and placement of students in internships, and creates policies, procedures and materials for the online Field Education program. Additionally, she is a section instructor for WP 700 and ET 753 in the online program.

Ms. Whiton-O’Brien received her BSW from Providence College in 1991 and her MSW from Boston University in 1995. She has served as a Field Instructor for both macro and clinical students at various schools of social work since 1998. Prior to her positions at BUSSW, her experience focused on the field of child welfare, specializing in adoption preparation, placement and support. She has worked in a group practice providing individual therapy for adults and at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. She has also worked at Children’s Friend & Service in Providence, RI in management and clinical positions. Most recently, Ms. Whiton-O’Brien was the Director of Continuing Education and Clinical Issues for the Massachusetts Chapter of NASW. Kristina Whiton-O’Brien was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] 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 online MSW program at Boston University?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] Field Education is a dynamic and integral part of the curriculum at Boston University School of Social Work. It provides students with opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom to actual practice in social work and other human service settings. Field placements are done concurrently with practice courses to foster the integration of classroom and practical learning.

The following guidelines apply to all field placement arrangements:

Students in the traditional track are required to complete two internships (14 total credits):

  • The foundation internship consists of 16 hours per week, over 2 semesters, for a total of 480 hours in the field. Students in this track enter the foundation field placement in the 4th semester in the program.
  • The advanced internship requires a total of 720 hours in the field and can be completed at 16 hours a week for 3 semesters, 24 hours a week for 2 semesters or as a block placement. Students in this track enter the advanced field placement in the 6th semester of the program.

Students in the human service experience (HSE) track have (14 total credits):

  • A single, extended internship consisting of 1,000 hours in the field which is completed on a consistent schedule, ranging from 16- 36 hours a week. HSE students enter the field in the 4th semester of the program (12 credits).
  • A Capstone Course related to the field experience (2 credits).

It is important for students to consider how they will accommodate the hours required for field education internships, which must be completed during normal agency working hours. The goal of an internship is not only to develop clinical skills, but also to be a part of the life of an agency during regular business hours. Safety in the field is a priority of the School and proper supervision needs to be in place at all times during placement.

[] For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you give a brief overview of how field education works at BU? For example, how is field education integrated into the program and do students have a faculty mentor as well as a field instructor?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien]

Students begin planning for their field placement(s) in the second semester of the program when they meet their Regional Advisor. During this semester, students complete a field placement form for either the foundation placement or the HSE placement. The information provided by the student helps the field education team identify either a foundation or HSE field placement that will build on a student’s previous experience, introduce them to new populations and fields of practice, and support their learning goals. The Regional Advisor, a member of the BUSSW Online Field Education staff, collaborates with the student to develop a list of agencies to explore as potential placement sites. The BUSSW Online Field Education Program has over 300 agencies from around the country in its database. Students are also encouraged to identify potential field sites with which they are familiar. Once it is determined that the agency has an opening, the student sets up an interview. If it is an agreeable match to all parties, the placement is confirmed.

The BUSSW field education model is based on concurrency with clinical practice courses. Students must be in a field placement in order to take the foundation clinical courses.

Students enter field in either September, January or May. Generally, students in foundation placements are in the field two days/week (16 hours), and students in advanced/ HSE placements are in the field three days/week (24 hours). Students are expected to complete the majority of their field placement time during regular weekday business hours when they can participate in the “life of the agency,” e.g., staff meetings, case conferences, and in-service training. Students should plan to complete field education hours Monday through Friday between the hours of 9am and 5pm.

Agencies that offer alternative schedules are few and far between. The BUSSW Online Field Education Program will work with students to locate an agency that can offer some placement time during the evening and/or on weekends. However, alternative hours are not guaranteed. Any alternative schedule must meet with agency approval and cannot conflict with the student’s class schedule.

Written Requirements
Each field instructor and student is expected to develop a written learning contract that defines the student’s educational and professional goals and the role of the field placement in helping the student achieve required social work competencies. The learning contract is reviewed regularly and revised to accommodate changes in learning goals, circumstances in the agency, or logistical considerations, such as schedule changes.

The BUSSW Online Field Education Program requires the use of process recordings as a teaching and learning tool in the field placement. Recordings refer to detailed written accounts of professional interactions. Students must write at least 12 process recordings each semester, with the intent that these will be written over the course of the semester, approximately one per week. Field instructors may require more than this number and this expectation should be clarified in the interview process and documented in the student’s learning contract. In addition, once each semester students will write a 2-3 page reflection describing their development of the competencies in the field.

Field education is done concurrently with practice method courses, so that the field experience can be integrated with classroom learning. Throughout the program, students are enrolled and participate in a zero credit course, the Integrative Seminar (IS 100) each semester. By using written material, videos and live classroom seminar discussions, IS 100 is designed to:

  • Expose students to the social work profession and its core values
  • Assist students in utilizing specific learning tools in their social work classroom and field education
  • Integrate classroom and field experiences and inform students about licensing and the job search
  • First Semester Advising Sessions meet in a live classroom within the Integrative Seminar to help familiarize students with the seminar format

Upon enrolling in the program, students are assigned to an advisor from the BUSSW Online Program Staff who works with them in their first semester in the program.

First Semester Advisor

  • Provides students with supports and resources to help adjust to the demands of the program
  • Advises students on issues regarding personal or life challenges that arise during the first semester
  • Facilitates 3 Group Advising Session in the first semester

At the end of the first semester, the student is assigned to a Regional Advisor who:

  • Works with the student in planning for field internship(s)
  • Serves as the liaison between School and agency
  • Consults with the student and field instructor (agency supervisor) about assignments, learning contract, evaluation etc.
  • Serves as the student’s advocate to ensure that the School’s expectations of the agency are being met
  • Serves as a problem solver, and mediator in the event that a problem in the field placement is identified
  • Performs one agency visit per semester or more frequently as needed; visits can be conducted by conference call, video conferencing (preferable), or in person (if travel is feasible)
  • Recommends a grade for Field Education course(s)
  • Provides advice about career options

Field Instructor
The field instructor plays a key role in the professional education of the social work student. The field instructor, who has the closest and most continuous relationship with the student, serves as both a role model and a teacher.

[] For some students, field education may be a completely new experience, especially for those who have not earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). What is a typical 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?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] Foundation students are assigned to settings that enable them to acquire a broad understanding of the field of social work, to recognize and use generalist principles and concepts, and to select intervention methods to meet individual, group, family, and community needs based on a careful and comprehensive assessment. While students in foundation placements will focus primarily on clinical practice, they should have exposure to all methods of practice within the parameters of the agency’s services. Advanced students are assigned to field agencies that foster development of advanced clinical competence.

The BUSSW Online Field Education Program expects students to become involved in supervised independent practice activities within the first few weeks of field placement. Early work with clients, groups, committees, or projects allows students to begin integrating learning from class and field and it enables field instructors to begin the educational assessment of the student.

Foundation-year students are expected to spend half of their placement time in independent practice activities–e.g., face-to-face contacts with clients, preparation for practice activities, family meetings, team meetings and case conferences around their clients, participation in committee or community group meetings, resource development, telephone contacts, and recruitment for groups. Advanced-year students should spend two-thirds of their time in this way. Advanced-year students are expected to demonstrate more independence in their practice, to apply advanced theoretical and research knowledge in their work with clients and to work with more complex clinical situations and problems. The remaining hours for all students include time for supervision, in-service trainings, administrative meetings, documentation, and recordings.

Assignments are based on consideration of service needs, the student’s skill development and learning goals, and in some cases recognition of the student’s personal and professional experiences that may influence the learning process.

Field instruction is an essential part of a student’s experience at the internship. The BUSSW Online Field Education Program requires two hours of weekly supervision. A minimum of one of those hours must be individual face-to-face, closed door supervision focused on the student’s learning and professional development provided by the primary MSW field instructor. Although administrative issues are a component of supervision, the educational and supportive aspects of field instruction should be the primary focus of the individual supervision hour. The student is practicing under the auspices of the agency and the field instructor’s license so it is important that there be enough time to discuss the student’s work.

The second hour of required weekly supervision can be provided more flexibly in the context of the agency culture and an assessment of the student’s learning needs. The second hour can be provided by someone with an MSW, another related master’s degree, a Ph.D., or by a bachelor’s level staff person with expertise and program responsibility. All secondary supervisors must be approved by the BUSSW Online Field Education Department.

[] For students who already work at a health services agency (or placement site with field instructors), 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?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] BUSSW Online Field Education Program recognizes that some students are employed in agencies, which can provide them with excellent learning experiences while they continue their employment at the agency. The employer agency option enables students to do placements at their employing agency as long as specified conditions are met. An employer agency placement is not a situation in which a student gets credit for work experiences. It is a field placement with an educational focus that happens to be at the student’s place of employment.

The criteria for employer agency placements are:

  • The agency and field instructor meet the basic requirements for all field placements outlined in the “Criteria for Field Instructors and Agencies.”
  • The field placement time at the agency (16 hours for first [foundation] year and 24 hours for second [advanced] year) is spent in a different department, unit, or program of the agency from the one at which the student is employed.
  • The field instructor is someone other than the supervisor to whom the student is accountable for his or her work assignment.
  • The student assignment is substantively different from the work assignment in terms of client population served, interventions used, and skills developed.

Agencies wishing to develop employer agency placements for students need to complete an Employer Agency Proposal form. All employer agency proposals must be approved by the Field Education Department before the start of the placement.

BUSSW does not offer paid internships. If the student is able to locate a paid internship, it must be approved by the Field Education Department before the start of the placement.

[] 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?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] It is estimated that the BUSSW Online Program requires 20-25 hours per week of study, reading and writing time. Field education begins in the fourth semester of the program and adds another 16 hours per week. The field agency dictates the hours of availability for placements. Therefore, students need to make themselves available for field internships during regular weekday business hours. A few agencies are able to offer limited evening and/or weekend time for placement. It will be important to determine prior to enrollment a work/life/school balance.

[] What are some of the main questions and concerns students have while completing their field education requirements?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] It is very important for students to be prepared for the rigor of our program. Having a flexible schedule and time to dedicate to their MSW education will allow students a better chance of locating a competitive and robust field placement. Students often question how they will add field education to courses and other life obligations. While field is certainly an addition, it is one that can be considered complementary to the course work that students are enrolled in during placement(s). In addition, students will be in the program three semesters prior to the start of field to become accustomed to the course expectations and develop time management and other needed skills.

Life happens and our program is designed for students to take time off from the program if necessary. The program can also plan field experiences if students have to move.

[] Finally, can you summarize the importance of field education in online MSW programs and why students should consider pursuing their MSW online at BU?

[Ms. Whiton-O’Brien] Becoming a social worker involves acquiring knowledge and skills as well as demonstrating attitudes and values that are congruent with professional standards. BUSSW has high standards and provides students with between 1000 – 1200 hours of face to face hours of field placement, depending on whether they are in the traditional or HSE track. Students who graduate from the BUSSW Online Program are engaged in competency-based field education and are provided support from a team of instructors, advisors and administrators.

In addition to the strong field education component, online MSW students at BUSSW are taught by Boston University faculty, who are committed to providing leadership and mentorship, and to sharing their expertise and current research initiatives in the online MSW program. The program focuses on clinical practice with individuals, families, and groups, with an integrated curriculum that emphasizes ethical practice and both social and economic justice. Part of Boston University, the School is committed to producing social workers who possess excellent skills and the ability to practice within a variety of contexts, from clinical counseling to community-based settings.

Thank you Ms. Whiton-O’Brien for your time and insight!

Last updated: April 2020