Social workers help individuals with their everyday lives, especially in points of crisis and transition. They also work to improve peoples' situations by affecting changes in governmental policy. It is a profession that values critical thinking as much as caring, requiring professionals who can thoroughly and compassionately assess the needs of both individual and community. The social work program provides a generalist education, accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and taught by professors who come from professional practice backgrounds. As students progress through their studies, the program provides support for them to follow their specific interests into specialized classes, internships, and careers.
Social work courses are practical and engaging. In classes such as Introduction to Social Work, students practice interviewing and do role playing exercises. In classes like Aging and American Society & Child and Family Welfare, students gather social histories, learning models that professional social workers use in the field. These and other exercises serve to prepare students for field experience and careers, when they work with real cases.
Social work students have two structured field experiences through which they work directly with agencies. One is during the program's first year and one senior year. These experiences constitute 600 hours of field work, 200 more than is required by the CSWE. Placements have included a variety of rural and urban locations, including Des Moines, the Twin Cities, and Sioux City.
The professors in the social work program come from practice backgrounds. Kathryn McKinley, assistant professor of social work, has 25 years of experience in community mental health, including work with sexual abuse victims, survivors, perpetrators, and families, and domestic violence, in addition to work in rural practice and with geriatrics and aging. Ellen Holmgren, assistant professor of social work, has 13 years of experience in the field, including work with persons with developmental disabilities, sexual assault survivors, battered women, children who witness violence, and gay and lesbian families.
The goal of research assignments in the social work program is to develop specific knowledge and create lasting positive change in some aspect of the community. As seniors, students do research projects based on the needs of the agencies at which they are interning. For example, in 2005, Jason Hill, a social work and art student interning at Faith Hope & Charity - which serves children with special needs - discovered the organization needed a standardized social history assessment form that could be understood by children. The picture-based forms he designed are still in use by the Storm Lake-based organization. Another recent project included an analysis of calls made to a domestic violence shelter to determine if the shelter's education campaign was working.
Since 2003, students in the social work program have administered an annual satisfaction survey to the residents of the Methodist Manor Retirement Community. Each year, students interview approximately 120 residents, do statistical analyses of the results and put together a report that they present to the Methodist Manor administration and staff.
Social Change and Advocacy
Focusing on social justice issues as well as service to individuals, the social work program shows students how to effectively petition different levels of government. Each February, social work faculty and students advocate for social work causes at the Iowa capitol each February at Legislative Day, which is sponsored by the National Association of Social Workers.
"Social workers are always doing assessments on clients and the environments they are in," says McKinley. "Every social worker has a responsibility to improve those environments. If you're going to bring about social change, however, you need to know specifics. You need to develop moral and ethical arguments that social workers are going to value, as well as economic arguments that will appeal to legislators. For example, if you're arguing for greater funding for early childhood education, you have to be able to quote statistics that show that the dollars you put into the programs will get more back in the long run."
Relationships with External Organizations
The social work program provides future social workers with a broad set of skills to recognize and address a variety of issues and areas. To help, the program maintains close relationships with social workers and advisory boards in local and regional communities. "The organizations bring a sense of reality of what social workers are actually facing in practice," says McKinley. "By interacting with the advisory board, we hear the concerns of the practice community and we get feedback for the skills that our social work students need to develop to practice in particular communities."
Organizations and programs with which the social work program maintains relationships include the Domestic Assault Intervention Project for Buena Vista County, the Centers Against Abuse & Sexual Assault, Methodist Manor, Faith Hope & Charity, Cherokee Mental Health, and Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The program has also received a grant from the Hartford Foundation to promote the integration of gerontology into its the curriculum.
The social work program takes a yearly trip to the Native American pow wow at Mankato, Minn., hosted by the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe, where students participate in the festivities as well as discussions on spirituality, culture and practices, policy and cultural diversity.