Interview with LaShon Sawyer – Associate Director of Virtual Field Education for the Online Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) Program at CWRU
About Associate Director LaShon Sawyer, MSSA, LISW-S: LaShon Sawyer joined the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), a 2U powered program, in January 2013 as the Associate Director of Virtual Field Education for the online MSSA program. She also earned her MSSA from CWRU with a concentration in Children, Youth and Families. Associate Director LaShon Sawyer is a licensed social worker in the State of Ohio and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice.
Associate Director LaShon Sawyer has been working in the field of social work for over 18 years and has worked with small children, juveniles, adults, and families in an array of services including individual counseling. Specifically, she has worked with corrections and re-entry settings to help individuals who were previously or currently incarcerated. In addition, she has worked in both government and non-profit settings for these services.
[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 online MSSA program at CWRU?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Our students have to complete a certain number of hours during their time enrolled in the program, and the number of hours students have to complete towards field education is dictated by how they come in the front door. If a student has a BSW (Bachelor of Social Work), they can use some of the credits earned from that degree towards their Master’s. As a result of that, they have to complete 900 hours of field education. If a student comes through the front door without a BSW or a BSW that was earned some time ago, then they have to complete the full number of hours of field education, which would be 1050 hours.
Students are at one field placement for the entire term that they’re in the program, and the great thing about Case’s field experience is that students begin field immediately when they begin their first class. So, when they enroll in their first course, they also begin field experience at that same time. That allows for students to take what they’re learning in the classroom and immediately apply it to their field placement study. This way they receive immediate feedback about using those intervention techniques or using the things that were discussed in their courses. Students receive feedback at the field site from their field instructor, and then they also have a field advisor assigned to them who gives feedback as well. So, the field experience begins Day 1 and it carries throughout their entire time in the program.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Just to confirm, at CWRU, students complete their field education requirements at one field agency instead of two like for some other online MSW programs, correct?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Correct. One of the differences with our program is that students try to do an average of 8-10 hours a week, whereas the programs that you’re talking about where students do two placements or where they start field education further along in the program, typically require students to work 16-20 or 16-24 hours a week. Whereas with CWRU, starting field education from the very beginning allows students to work a smaller number of hours each week. This helps with the work life balance of maintaining obligations outside of the classroom, keeping up with their academic requirements, and also fulfilling their field requirements.
[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?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] I would say a broad stroke overview of field education is the opportunity to get hands-on experience with the things that are talked about in the classroom. What they’re learning, they’re also allowed to or able to apply when they’re in the field setting. In terms of requirements, each student needs to keep a time log because, as I mentioned in the beginning, the number of hours has to accumulate during their term and that is part of the requirement for the program and impacts a student’s graduation status. As part of that, students must keep a regular time log that’s approved and signed off by the field instructor each month and then submitted to Case Western.
Students also have to develop a learning contract that puts in writing what they will be doing in their field experience. Although it is called a contract, it is actually a very fluid document. For example, if a student comes and they’re interested in running group sessions, then in their learning contract it will say I will conduct groups. Obviously, there is more detail to it than that, but it allows students to have something in writing, so that everyone who’s supporting the student has the same information and understands the plan of how to move the student through their field experience.
Students have support in various ways. There is a field instructor. The field instructor is the person who is a Master’s level social worker with [at least] two years experience that actually works at the agency or the field site that the student is at. There is a field advisor. The field advisor works at Case Western and specifically oversees the field experience that the student is in. Then students have professors for their academic classes. Students are definitely welcome to ask questions about their field experiences as it relates to the topics that they’re discussing in class.
Finally each student has an academic advisor. If the student has questions specific to upcoming classes they will be taking, or other issues that relate to their academic progress they can reach out to their academic advisor. At CWRU, there is a lot of support in place, and everyone is onboard to support the students through the process.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] To follow up on that answer, do students typically have the same field instructor the entire time in the program, or do they have multiple field instructors at the agency?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Typically it’s the same field instructor but we understand, depending on the size of the agency, that as the student grows, some agencies are fortunate to have different departments, different sites, different programs. Or they may have received a new grant for a new program, so a student may shift within the agency to take on more responsibility or to learn new skill sets. But, in most cases, it is the same field instructor at the same agency.
[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?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Good question. I would relate it to a similar experience that anyone would have at an employment site. On your first day of employment, you may go in and meet with your direct supervisor. There may be some type of orientation process or paperwork completion that needs to happen for that day. Then an employee may shadow another employee to learn the ropes and to become familiar with how services are done. And that’s pretty much similar to the field experience. When students come in, similar to a new employee, many times field sites have students go through the employment orientation process so that they can learn about the agency.
In addition, similar to employment, as the student grows, they become more comfortable with their experience, the supervisor becomes more comfortable with them taking their own projects, and then they’re able to work independently. In many ways, it’s similar to the on-boarding process for an employment opportunity, but the difference is that students are not viewed as employees. They are in fact viewed as interns, and the field instructor is very aware that this is a learning experience. So, in that regard, it is different from an employment opportunity.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students with a BSW who enter the advanced standing program, is the process the same or different since they already have field education experience?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] In some ways yes, and some ways no. If a student is coming into the advanced standing program, even though [they have gone through the field experience before], it is still important for them to go through the orientation process because the agency is new. They’re in a new agency learning a new skill set, and their Master’s level internship should be different from their Bachelor’s level internship.
It is still important for them to adjust to the setting, but you’re right, they should be building on the skills they acquired during their Bachelor’s degree and have the opportunity to dive into activities probably at a faster rate than foundation students. With that, it’s based on what the student brings to the table and the field instructor’s observation of those skills. For example, even two foundation students are not moving through the process at the exact same speed because again this is a learning opportunity. We want to make sure that based on what a student needs for their learning and what supports need to be in place, that’s how they move through the process.
Some students have a much richer learning experience when they are observing, so they may have an opportunity to spend more time observing. Whereas, other students learn well by hands-on experience, so in that placement setting, there may be some observation but moving the student into a position where they can start to have hands-on experience might be most meaningful for that student. And that’s the great part about field education, there is not a cookie cutter approach for each student, but rather the support team that’s around the student works together to identify what’s the best course for that student.
[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?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] We encourage all students to have “conversations” before they’re accepted into the program with their friends, their family, and whoever they identify as their support system. The reason I say have conversations with them about entering into the program is not necessarily to ask their permission, but it’s your friends, your family, your support system that’s going to be your cheerleaders and they’re going to support you through this process. Having that conversation on the front end to say: I’m taking on this huge responsibility of graduate school that has this field education component, what ways can you support me through the process.
I think that lays the foundation for having some idea of who can support you during the program and it could be anything from, “I may not have time to fix dinner 7 days a week – do you mind pitching in 2 days a week to allow me to study or to go to my field site” or carpooling or parental responsibilities or community responsibilities. Having a conversation about the things that we’re all engaged in with those that support us helps you to develop a plan of how you’re going to add this huge chunk of responsibility into your schedule.
One other thing I advise students to remember is that when you’re in graduate school, you can’t be all things to everybody. Many times I hear a parent talk about it being their turn to bring a snack, or soccer activities, or their turn to carpool, and striking a balance so that it does not interfere with your field or your course learning experiences. For example, I recommend trying to pick the dates that you carpool or instead of baking cupcakes, you might have to pick up cupcakes from the grocery store. This takes that pressure off of ourselves to have to do it the way that we’ve always done it.
When you’re in graduate school, you may have to reorganize things and even step back from some of those responsibilities. Take the time to be flexible with yourself to say what works. Some people like to write to-do lists. Some people like to use their iPhone or tablets to keep track of activities and try to do things the way that you’ve always done them. With that said, if it’s not working, then you’re going to need to reorganize things and try some other ways, and that’s where your supports come in.
I also encourage students to talk to someone else that has completed graduate school. Ideally, if they can talk to someone that has completed graduate school in Social Work, that would be great. But going through graduate work regardless of which discipline is a huge responsibility and it requires a lot of time. Many students who are currently in graduate school or graduates of graduate programs develop some tricks of the trade to get them through the program and also maintain some of that work-life balance with their other responsibilities.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How are field placements determined for both students who live in Ohio and students who live in other states? If students are interested in working with a specific demographic, does CWRU attempt to match a student based on interests when possible?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] For the virtual program, determining field placement is actually part of the enrollment process. As students are completing the enrollment process, they also are confirming their field site. The enrollment process is actually a 3-stage process. In phase 1, students submit all the documents that are required to meet the academic requirements of being in the program; these include documents such as previous degrees, transcripts and other reference letters. Once students successfully move through Phase 1, then they move on to Phase 2, which is the field education component of the application process.
I encourage all students to come in with an area of interest for the program. If they’re interested in a particular population or if they’re interested in a particular area of service, I encourage them to identify that at this time, to seek out agencies that provide that service. Sometimes students may say: “well, I don’t know any agencies that do that,” so I try to help them identify potential agencies through asking them questions. For example, if a student says, “I’m interested in working with the homeless population but I don’t know any agencies,” I’ll ask them, well, if you are with someone who was homeless and they needed to reach out for service, what agency would they go to? And they’ll say, oh, Agency A or Agency B. Thinking about it from the perspective of the individuals that may need the service sometimes helps students to identify field services or field placement sites.
I also recommend contacting agencies, the social workers at agencies had to go through the same experience of completing field experience to earn their degree. So, they’re very familiar with the process, and they can offer advice and direction of that agency to determine if the agency would it be a good fit for the student. Sometimes the agency may be a good fit, but they may not have any available slots. In these situations, many times those social workers can recommend other agencies for the student to contact.
Part of the application process is setting up the field education placement in advance. That way, the field education is solidified and in place, because as I mentioned before, field experience begins when students are first enrolled in classes, so solidifying things ahead of time helps to have the most beneficial experience when they’re in the classroom. Also, the enrollment team is a great support for students. They can speak with them as many times as they need to and they can offer guidance in solidifying a field placement.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] To summarize, students find their own placements with the help of Case Western and must have the placement setup before they are accepted into the program, is that correct?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Right. And, the enrollment team does have resources and support for students, but because students are coming from different communities, the process does require a partnership between the enrollment team and the student for the student to contact the agency. In addition, the enrollment team will support students through the process and provide them with any documentation that they need. They are also available to answer any questions if an agency has questions about the field placement. So, the students do it with the support of the enrollment team.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] One more follow-up question just so it is clear for potential applicants, has the student already been “accepted” into the program after they pass step 1, before they start looking for an agency for their field placement, but cannot actually enroll until their field placement is finalized? Does that make sense?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Yeah, it does. A student after phase 1 has a conditional admit, so they are accepted to the university contingent upon finding the field placement. That is why as soon as students can start the process, I encourage them to do so. Phase 2 is the completion of the field experience [determining the health services agency] and then they move on to phase 3, which is discussion of financial aid plans and paying for the program. Those are the three phases: academic requirements, field experience, and establishing financial aid.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who already work at a health services agency, are they allowed to complete their field education requirements at their current place of employment? If so, how does this process work and are there any restrictions?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Yes, students can complete field at their current place of employment and for students that are employed, I strongly encourage that they do look at their current employment site as a possible field site. But if for some reason students are not able to do their field experience at their current employment site, that is fine as well, they can identify a separate field site. One thing, if a student is doing their field placement at their place of employment, their field experience has to be completely separate from their employment experience. So it shouldn’t be the same client, shouldn’t be the same program, it shouldn’t be the same activities, and that also includes the supervision that they’re receiving.
The field instructor is required to provide at least one-hour supervision each week and cannot be their employment supervisor. So even though a student is completing field at their place of employment, their work needs to be separate and different from their employment experience.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Once a student finds a potential agency, do they typically have to interview for a position and if so, what kind of recommendations do you have for them for this step in the process?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Each agency is different, so I would not say that an interview is a requirement. However, most agencies do have some type of interview process and I tell students that they should welcome this opportunity. It shouldn’t be scary for them because as much as the agency is interviewing them, this is also the time for them to interview the agency. It has to be a good fit for both sides for the field experience to be a positive experience. I encourage students to treat it similar to an employment interview: come dressed professionally for the meeting, bring a copy of your resume if you have one, and be ready to discuss what your strengths are and what skills you bring to the table. Also, talk about what area of interest you want to learn about and what skills you plan to development in your field placement.
Also, do some research on the agency before you go to the interview. With the internet, most agencies have websites, go to their website and read about the services they provide. Do those services align with what you’re interested in doing? Then come to the interview prepared to ask questions about the services you reviewed and the ones you’re not particularly clear on so that you get a better understanding of the array of services that are provided and how those services are provided. It’s always a great thing to come to an interview with questions, because that shows that you’re interested and that you’re gathering information to make an informed decision. So if an interview is offered, while they can be scary, it is also an opportunity to see if the agency is the best fit for everyone involved.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] What happens if a student finds a new agency and that agency has not had a student from CWRU in the past?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] It’s part of the application process. Before securing the field site the student also has to submit a copy of the resume of the person that will serve as the field instructor and information about the agency. So along with the interview process and the proposal that the student submits for the field placement, CWRU is also reviewing the agency. This is to ensure that a student will have a meaningful experience and not have glitches down the road. And that’s not to say that glitches don’t happen, but ensuring from the very beginning that the agency is up and running and functional is one less thing for the student to have to deal with later on.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] What are some of the main questions and concerns students have while completing their field education requirements? Can you briefly summarize some of the advice you give these students?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] I would say that most of the concerns that new students have is some anxiety about starting field or going to the field site and also wanting to do it just right. Field is an experience and it’s a learning opportunity, so I encourage students to go and observe and be really honest with themselves in identifying what they know as well as what they don’t know and discussing those things in the appropriate setting. This is a great topic to discuss with their field instructor and/or with their field advisor at Case. Then they can work together to put a plan in place and to put the supports in place for them to be successful. I remind students all the time we want them to be successful. We want them to get to the finish line and having open communication is a key factor in allowing everyone that supports the student to support them in the most effective way.
I can’t stress enough that students should ask questions and just reach out for the supports that are in place. There are great supports for writing, there are great supports through the library and other resources for students to complete their assignments and their field experience. And the professors and staff at Case have a great wealth of knowledge and can assist students in brainstorming or problem solving any situation that they may come up against.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Finally, can you summarize the importance of field education in online MSW programs and why students should consider pursuing their online MSW/MSSA at CWRU?
[Associate Director LaShon Sawyer] Field experience is invaluable. I think it’s a great way to actually get hands-on experience to learn about social work. Social work can mean so many different things to different people. It can be micro social work or working with individuals or small groups. It can be impacting the community or doing advocacy work for introducing new policies and social work on a macro level. All of that is social work and all of those services are needed, so there’s never a shortage of issues or concerns or social concerns that need new, fresh ideas from incoming students to tackle these issues in the community.
I believe in the virtual program, as I mentioned, I’m pursuing my Ph.D. and I did my Ph.D. online because of many of the work-life balance issues that I discussed before. My life just didn’t allow me to have the opportunity to come to a campus to take classes, so the online format and being available 24-7 best fit into my life that I could maintain my work-life responsibilities but also pursue a graduate degree. So I believe in the virtual program, I’ve been a virtual online student, and understand the experience from both sides. I’m also an alum of Case, so as an alum of Case I can say that many of the doors that were open for me throughout my career have been based on the reputation that Case Western has.
I can recall many times just passing out a business card and individuals would see MSSA and immediately know that I was a graduate of Case. I think that’s a powerful statement when you are looking for a job or looking to network within your current job and make meaningful career advancement moves or meaningful connections to solidify your career experience. And Case is ranked in the top 10 social work schools, so it doesn’t get better than attending a top-rated school.
Thank you Associate Director LaShon Sawyer for your time and insight!