by Chris Hilburn-Trenkle
Practicum education has existed within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work since its founding in 1920, and it’s experienced significant growth over the last century, particularly in the last few decades.
In 1989, School of Social Work practicum programs were represented in 11 North Carolina counties. Thirty-four years later, that number has grown to encompass nearly all 100 counties in the state through more than 250 agencies and organizations, providing an estimated $1.2 million in service each year to the state.
As the School has created a bigger footprint and seen its influence and ability to help others around the state grow, the School’s practicum education has evolved with it. This expansion was driven by students and faculty members such as former practicum director Margaret Spearmon, who served as practicum director from 2000–2003 and oversaw more research-focused placements for students.
Practicum education provides all MSW students a learning opportunity to work with social services, schools, hospitals, community nonprofits, substance abuse treatment programs, child welfare agencies, local and state government agencies and other client systems while helping individuals, groups, and communities.
These services include both direct practice care (micro) and community, management, and policy practice (macro) to supply needed help and protection, especially for vulnerable groups. Students are first placed in generalized practicum programs in their first year with the MSW program before filtering into a specialized program, either in micro or macro care, in their second year.
“For the University when I think about the goal and one of the strategic pillars being to reach the people in North Carolina, I think the importance of practicum education is it allows this vehicle for the School of Social Work to reach communities, to reach people, to impact policy changes that might make the welfare and the lives of people within the community better,” Practicum Director Andrea Murray-Lichtman said. “We have some counties, or cities and areas that thrive, but we also have some areas that are underserved, are under-resourced and what practicum education allows is for us as a school of social work to really fulfill our mission and to serve those folk.”
Thanks to the program’s growth, the University reaches more communities than ever before. In the fall of 2023, the program had 147 active placements spanning 26 cities, and it has existing relationships with more than 600 agencies in 101 cities and towns around the world, from Pittsboro, N.C. to Honolulu, Hawaii, and New Delhi, India.
In just the last decade there have also been adaptations in how students’ learning was measured through practicums, prompted by a decision made by the Council on Social Work Education to focus on nine core competencies, and they “range from demonstrating professional and ethical behavior at the practicum site to learning how to evaluate whatever the intervention is,” Murray-Lichtman said.
Murray-Lichtman, who took over the practicum education department in June 2023, has seen the funded placements for students in practicums grow by 230% in the last year alone, and now 30% of all placements are funded. Murray-Lichtman says these funded placements can make the difference for a student who wants to work in underserved communities but might otherwise not have the financial means to do so.
“I had a student who was very, very interested and wanted to go to a placement, but they knew they wouldn’t be able to afford the time to take on the extra work to afford the gas to go there,” Murray-Lichtman said. “This placement was able to get funding and they said, ‘Hey, we would like for this student to be placed. We’re going to fund this student. We’re going to give them a small stipend to come that can offset the expenses that they’re accruing by coming.’ I visited that placement and it’s such a win-win all around. They were raving about the groups the student was able to lead with children who otherwise wouldn’t have had that service because the social worker that’s there is stretched thin.”
Murray-Lichtman, along with Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, would like to eventually see all placements funded. In the short term, Denby-Brinson’s goal is for practicum education within the School to continue to grow.
“Practicum is social work’s signature pedagogy. Our practicum students walk the walk,” Denby-Brinson said. “Their practicum placements allow them an opportunity to bring our mission of advancing equity, transforming systems, and improving lives to life as Carolina social work students. Working with our advancement team and with Andrea and her team, I am committed to continuing to grow opportunities for funded placements for our students.”
Clinical Assistant Professor Amy Levine, who has worked with practicum students at the School since 2015, stated the importance of the rise in funded placements for students, but she also pointed out the diversity of agencies that the School is working with.
“I’ve seen us expand into more nontraditional types of settings, which has required a lot of creativity and flexibility on our end to establish the structure we need for placement,” Levine said. “We’ve expanded into a number of law school and legal clinic settings that we hadn’t before in the last few years. Places where social work presence necessarily hasn’t been before and we’ve been able to provide a placement in that, which has been great. We’ve expanded into public defenders’ offices, which is an area we hadn’t been involved in as much before. We’re trying to expand our placements in more community-based grassroots nonprofits that may not have an on-site social worker.”
With the expansion of the program, from touching more counties to funding more placements and working with more agencies, there are more opportunities than ever for students and researchers to work together in impacting change in communities, not just in the state but around the world.
“I am so excited about the potential that UNC School of Social Work practicum education can bring to the state of North Carolina and the footprint that we’ll create across the country and the other places that we stretch to,” Murray-Lichtman said. “I’m super excited and I see us continuing to grow and continuing to make that impact.”
If you are interested in providing financial support for student practicums, you can speak with Associate Director of Development Joe Petrizzi.