In The Middle of Things: Reflections on Becoming a Social Worker

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Today, I am pleased to share a guest blog from Michael Hackbusch, and two of the BSW students we have on placement at the Food Hamper Program, the Sunnydale Community Centre and the Courtland Shelley community Centre.

House of Friendship believes strongly in housing as a right

My name is Michael Hackbusch, and at House of Friendship (HOF) I have the task (privilege, really), of providing practicum supervision to burgeoning social work students. These students are in the Bachelor and Master of Social Work programs and come mostly from Renison University College at the University of Waterloo but also Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Windsor and, this year, Carleton University.

We appreciate the partnership with the students on placement at HOF for causing us to reflect on our own practices, and to make explicit those things we assume are known. Further, by this act of mindfulness, we individually pay attention to our own reasons for serving through House of Friendship, how our service is needed, and why. They also give us cause to reflect on conversations we might have with our neighbours about systemic problems, which are often the reason for House of Friendship programs.

To that end, I posed a number of questions to two of our current practicum students, Lindsay and Dannika. Their answers reflect the students’ understanding of social work before and during their placement; how they have been challenged by both the program but also the people served; how they find a balance between classroom and practicum; and what advice they would offer to anyone considering a career in social work. Finally, I asked them what they know now, that they wish they had known months ago?

First, my conversation with Lindsay:

How has your understanding of social work changed?

My understanding of social work has changed quite a bit since my first day of practicum. Going into this program, I believed that social work was all very neat and conducted out of offices with the occasional home visit. I have now realized that social work is present in several unassuming places, such as running a children’s program at a community centre, or assisting people in need at a food hamper warehouse. Social work is the act of caring for another human being, no matter what the agency’s name or physical setting is.

How has your resolve to work in the community or with people been challenged?

My existing ideas about working with communities and people were that it would always be satisfying and enjoyable. I have realized that working with people can be fun, also sometimes downright unpleasant. There are days when I question whether or not I am even suited for a career with people, because of some uncomfortable encounter with a person or group of people. At these times, I spend time reflecting on my own feelings and values and try to empathize with everyone I interact with. I also remember that there is a reason that I am drawn to social work, and it will never be an easy career path to follow.

What is it like to balance working at your program and going to school full time?

At times, my classes can feel like a fun, social time to have on Thursdays and Fridays to end the practicum week and other times it feels too busy to handle. I’m also working part time on top of the practicum and course load, so there is another dimension of stress and balance added to my life. I quickly learned that assignments need to be started as early as possible (no more “due tomorrow, do tomorrow” mentality!) and every single due date, engagement and project is best marked down on a calendar in an accessible area. Sleep is also the most important aspect of my life, because without sleep, you cannot function properly at school or practicum. Explaining to my friends and family that this program is quite intense allowed me some slack in my social life.

What advice do you have for people considering the course you have set yourself on.  

“You can do it!” But this program requires a lot of mentally strenuous work. In addition to simply passing your classes and doing well in practicum, it’s important to work on self-awareness. Continually check yourself for compassion fatigue, triggering experiences, and even your overall mental health. It’s so easy to burn out in this field of work, and so hard to find ample time for self-care that you can build up a lot of fatigue without realizing it. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. I struggled with this the most. You will need the occasional extension for a paper deadline, and you will forget things. You will also get sick and miss work. Explain your situation to people close to you, accept any help offered, and know that everyone is human :).

What key thing have you learned that you wish you knew several months ago?

I wish I had thought more about the actual journey of the BSW.  I had been too focused on the end goal of a degree that I didn’t consider what a challenging and rewarding experience that this would be, and to take time and enjoy every step of the program. I may never have the opportunity for such a rich and diverse learning experience again.

And now, Danikka:

How has your understanding of social work changed?

I am now able to see that there are many avenues for social work. I have always focused on group and individual social work. I can see that there are greater needs not being met. I see the challenge in wanting to help but needing to do more than we are currently doing since it does not change the systemic issues. It is a more frustrating process than I originally believed.

How has your resolve to work in the community or with people been challenged?

It is interesting because working with the community has made me doubt my ability to work with individuals. The majority of individuals I see have been burned by the system and do not want my help, other than the obvious food supply. It makes me wonder how I will be able to assist individuals in the future. Although it is not my number one passion, I am actively seeking ways to address the larger systemic barriers to avoid reliance on programs meant to offer emergency services.

What is it like to balance working at your program and going to school full time?

It is very exhausting. I am grateful for my support system, which helped prepare me for this time. I made clear to all of my friends that I would be unavailable during the school semester and they have respected that. My fiancé and I discussed the situation and made clear boundaries which have also been respected. We know that this is a means to an end and not the way it will be forever. It is important to have clear boundaries with the agency you have your placement as well. It is important to not wear yourself down by committing too much, too quickly.

What advice do you have for people considering the course you have set yourself on.

Be prepared. Do not go into this program thinking it will be like your undergraduate degree. It will not. Be prepared to not have a life during the semester. Set clear boundaries with your friends, family and placement.

What key thing have you learned that you wish you knew several months ago?

You will doubt yourself and that is okay. It does not mean that you are not cut out for being a social worker.

 

 

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