By S. Jolene Hui, MSW, LCSW, NASW-CA Membership Director
You did it! You applied for a coveted spot in a MSW program, you were accepted and now…here you are! You should be proud. You are entering the best profession and a profession that is constantly evolving, changing and in need of fresh social workers to do the difficult and, most of the time, rewarding work that we do.
But, what should you expect in your first-year placement? Is it normal to have anxiety? Sweitzer and King (1994, 1995) say that it is normal and is part of the first stage (Anticipation) of, The Stages of Internship. Common sense also tells us that when entering any new situation, some nerves are to be expected.
I was told when I entered my MSW program that in my first year I would be placed somewhere that was “opposite” of my career goals; that my placement might not be somewhere I desired. The point in doing this is to plop students right outside of their comfort zones to maximize learning. My first-year placement was with an agency in downtown Los Angeles on Skid Row. I immediately began as a therapist in two different supportive housing units, one right in the middle of Skid Row, and one just outside. How was I supposed to provide therapy? My undergraduate degree was not even in the social services realm. How could I be expected to provide therapy to the chronically homeless population who had co-occurring disorders? Well, I was pleasantly surprised at how well I did. Active listening goes a long way. I was more prepared than I thought. You are more prepared than you think. Tap into your “gut” feelings. Believe your intuition. While we are always fine-tuning our therapeutic skills and learning new therapeutic modalities, the most important thing is that you are listening with empathy.
As the weeks went on that first semester, I sought the support of my seasoned supervisor, who provided me with respect and support. She was often busy and sometimes I had to chase her down, but she acknowledged that and would do her best with rescheduling if necessary. Hold your supervisor accountable. Make sure they are providing you with the support that you need. Speak up if you need to and let them know what you are not happy with and if you need anything else. Let them know what is working and what is not in your experience. You aren’t a student for long so take advantage of your role as a learner.
Reach out to your support system. Yes, you have family and friends but also your co-interns and members of your MSW cohort. My co-interns that first year were key to my success. We all had placements in different housing units but all reconvened for supervision and it was really helpful to have them there for support. And, I made lifelong friends in my MSW cohort.
Remember that you went into this profession for a reason – meaning, you have compassion, empathy, and truly care for others, for your community, and for society as a whole. The NASW Code of Ethics reinforces this (https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics).
You will get to know them well in your first year and will hopefully continue to use them as a guide throughout your long social work career. The six core values should already be a part of your belief system and may already be a part of who you are as a person. Remember them as you work through those weeks of your first MSW placement. They’ll help keep you focused.
Dignity and worth of the individual.
Importance and centrality of human relationships.
Finally, take care of yourself. You will hear a lot about self-care throughout your program. And there is good reason – you have to be healthy yourself in order to care for others. Treat yourself well so that you’ll be able to do the work you were meant to do. In a short time, you’ll be interviewing for your next field placement and then…graduating. You’re doing great.
Jolene Hui, LCSW, is part-time adjunct faculty in the MSW program at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she is a foundation year field liaison. She is also NASW-CA’s membership director and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.