The director of Ashland University’s Social Work program is doing her best to change the traditional perception of the field of social work as well as society’s stereotype of those working in that field.
“People think of social work in a very narrow box,” said Professor Nancy Udolph, chair and associate professor of social work. “When people think of social workers – they think there is a limited range of things that social workers can do.”
Udolph said the public tends to think of social work in terms of children services and removing children from homes because that is what is shown in movies or they think that social workers hand out welfare checks, which they do not.
“There are some social workers who work in the children services area, but the field is far more reaching than that,” she said. “Actually 70 percent of all mental health services in this country are handled by social workers, including everything from case management to mental health counseling.”
Udolph said very few people relate to the fact that social workers work in community hospitals or work with children in the schools.
“And what we are seeing today is that many social workers are working as community organizers and also working as policy analysts,” she said. “The bottom line is that the social workers role in preventing abuse and neglect is an important role, but by no means is it the only role. There is a lot more to what we do.”
It is Ashland University’s desire to change the perception of the field of social work and the people it helps that drives both the current students and graduates of Ashland’s program to excel in their careers.
“Ashland University has a strong program that is consistently above both the national and state average pass rate for the examination required to become a licensed social worker,” Udolph said. “For 2009, 92 percent of Ashland University students passed the test to become a licensed social worker, while the national pass rate is 69 percent and the Ohio pass rate is 76.6 percent.”
Additionally, Udolph said, the program has maintained a 100 percent graduate placement rate for the past five years, meaning all graduates have either been accepted to the graduate school of their choice or have received a job offer within one year of graduation.
Students in Ashland’s program are exposed to a rigorous curriculum consisting of a number of core social work topics including crisis intervention, practice skills, community organization and social policy and research. But the learning in the classroom is just the beginning.
“Our students in every class are active when it comes to hands-on activities," says Udolph, whose background is in mental health social work and who continues a small Ashland-based counseling practice today. “This is what makes this program so valuable.”
As early as their sophomore year, students are given the opportunity to participate in service learning activities, events and internships. They also are required to become members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) during their senior year. This, combined with the more than 35 internship sites affiliated with the program, allows for full immersion into the field of social work.
Social Work Club members volunteer regularly at various organizations and events in the community. The club also hosts philanthropic events every year to raise money for selected organizations. Perhaps their most successful event is Skip-a-Meal Today for United Way, which invites students to use their meal card to donate the cost of one meal to the organization. The event has been a part of the University’s history for more than 20 years, and this semester raised over $800 for the United Way’s efforts to end hunger in the community.
“It isn’t just book work and papers,” says senior Kendal Johnson, “we actually get to apply what we learn to real-life situations.”
Johnson became active in the social work program during her freshman year by joining the Social Work Club, a student-run organization that strives to enhance awareness of social issues on campus and connect students with opportunities to get involved in the community. Now, in her fourth year, she serves as the club’s president.
“The field placement opportunities gave me knowledge of area resources and helped me fine-tune my skills as an effective social worker,” says Bethel Schiefer, a 2006 graduate who currently works as a social worker at MedCentral Hospital in Mansfield, Ohio, while completing a master’s degree in the field.
Chelsea Bigler, who graduated this past year and is currently in the Master of Social Work program at New York University, was an active member of the Social Work Club and says the hands-on experiences she had in the social work program prepared her for graduate school in ways she didn’t expect.
“I came to graduate school as a member of NASW, whereas many of my current classmates had never heard of the group,” Bigler explains. “I was even told by my current field placement [at The Brooklyn Kindergarten Society] that I did not need to be interviewed for my position because of my previous internships through Ashland University.”
Schiefer’s experience in graduate school has been very similar to this. “It’s evident to me that the students who graduated from Ashland University are better prepared and equipped than other students to handle the coursework of graduate-level social work,” she explains.
Judging by the recent numbers, which reflect the success graduates of the program have in entering the field, it’s safe to say Schiefer and Bigler aren’t the only students who have graduated with an exceptional understanding of the area of social work.
“It’s not just the lower class that is struggling right now,” says Johnson, whose future career goal is to be a social worker for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “I want to be an advocate for people who don’t have a voice and connect them to people and places they don’t know of that can offer help.”
“In our society we are often quick to judge and forget what it would be like if we were in another person’s shoes,” says Bigler, who hopes to pursue a doctorate degree in social work and eventually teach social work students of her own at the college level.
“If we, as social workers, do not advocate for our clients, our communities or even ourselves, how can change occur?” Bigler adds. “It often takes only one person to speak up for many voices to be heard and change to begin.”
Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students.