Graduates at UNC’s School of Social Work continue to demonstrate success on North Carolina’s licensing exam in clinical social work. Students’ extremely high pass rates further illustrate the strength of the School’s MSW program, especially in clinical training, said Anna Scheyett, the School’s associate dean for academic affairs.
That training is led by faculty members with a deep background of practice experience and researchers who are developing new interventions and testing evidenced-based practices daily within school classrooms, social work agencies, and nonprofit groups.
“With our clinical teaching faculty, many still have strong ties to the clinical work,” Scheyett said. “They have a practice, or they’re consulting, or they’re doing clinical supervision, or they’re doing training. They’re out there with the clinicians, so the practice is still in their blood.”
Although she joined the School five years ago, Melissa Grady, a clinical assistant professor, still juggles teaching with clinical social work. Her experiences in private practice better inform her classroom instruction, said Grady, who focuses on mental health, trauma and violence issues.
“Because of my practice, I feel like I’m pretty tuned in, for example, to what’s going on in the state with the mental health system,” she said. “I try to bring the realities of clinical practice into the classroom in a way that paints a realistic picture for the students.”
Such life and work experiences only broaden students’ perspectives, agreed Anne Jones, a School clinical associate professor. Jones, who practiced clinical social work until 2002, often draws from her former cases to help educate students about how to work with couples and families. “Real examples are so much more interesting than anything you could find in a text book,” she said.
Over the years, the School has built a stronger foundation in research, but many researchers still spend time in the field, working directly with practitioners. “As much as possible, I try to implement what I’m learning in my community-based research into my classes,” said Rebecca Macy, an associate professor who focuses on domestic violence and prevention issues. “I think that this research-to-teaching approach means that students have the opportunity to learn about the current challenges … as well as the promising strategies that they can use to face these challenges.”
The School’s flexible curriculum only enhances the graduate experience. The program is designed to prepare students for: direct practice with individuals, couples, families and groups; management of nonprofit and public agencies; community practice; policy practice; and leadership positions in the social work profession. Students can tailor their coursework to meet their specific professional needs.
“The changes that we’ve made to our curriculum have made us much stronger because we’re able to give students the flexibility to design a curriculum that’s focused on what they want to learn,” Grady said. “The courses that we offer also provide students with more tools for their toolkit, and that only offers more options for them in the field.”
Joe DeLuca, a non-traditional, second-career student, chose UNC’s School of Social Work because of the freedom to direct his own educational journey. DeLuca retired as a post-production manager for UNC-TV about five years ago. Having earned his undergraduate degree in psychology, DeLuca spent several years teaching at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill. There, he realized his passion for counseling students and interest in school social work. This semester, his course load is built around that interest and his desire to one day work as a high school social worker.
“I think the School is preparing me very well,” he said. “The faculty members are wonderful. They are very approachable, and they’re some of the top social work faculty in the country. This program was so strong and was really a nice fit for me.”
The School’s field education program also sets the graduate student experience apart, said Michelle Turner, president of the School’s Alumni Council. Each semester, MSW students are placed in more than 250 government, nonprofit and other human services agencies throughout North Carolina. Students are exposed to numerous career possibilities and challenges and receive hands-on experience working directly or indirectly with older adults, children and families, or with individuals served within the mental health system.
“Having a placement that allowed me to learn and grow in my area of interest was huge in my development as a practitioner,” said Turner, a mental health therapist with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Raleigh.
Although students may bring new interests and needs each semester, the School has learned to quickly adapt, Scheyett noted. This year, for example, about 15 students are enrolled in independent studies.
“I think the fact that students can really tailor the program and build on their clinical passion makes us a stronger school,” she said. “And that means we graduate stronger practitioners because they can sink their teeth into what they most want to do.”