Almost universally, students enter the MSW program because of a desire to help others, but the ways in which they accomplish this desire mirror many of the changes and trends in the social work profession and at the School. At the same time that the School is addressing these changes, some new fields are attracting social workers. On the following pages, we profile nine fascinating alumni who are using their social work skills in unexpected careers.
According to Tim Colenback, assistant dean for student services, significant changes in the social work profession over the last thirty years include the following:
- A growing acceptance of the legitimacy of mental health services has led to an increase in the number of people accessing mental health services. Nationwide, social workers are the number one providers of these services.
- Working with children and families, particularly in the area of domestic violence, has become an important field for social workers.
- Social workers are working with populations beyond the profession’s historic roots of helping the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed. There is a growing recognition that life stresses (i.e., grief and loss, health issues, dealing with elderly parents) affect everyone.
Several changes also have occurred in the nature of the student body at the School. First, more students are entering the MSW program right after completing their undergraduate degrees. Many employers want to hire people with a postgraduate degree, so a master’s is becoming “the new bachelor’s degree.”
Second, the School has seen a significant increase in the percentage of students of color. In 1990, 17.2 percent of the student body were students of color, and this percentage has grown to 26.0 percent in 2005. A diverse student body enriches the educational environment at the School and mirrors the environments in which graduates will be working.
A third change has been a steady rise in students (now almost 40 percent) specializing in macro practice, including community organization, social welfare policy, and research and evaluation. Many of these students want to impact social policy and social change at the organizational level and in public service.
The School is addressing these changes through its curriculum, faculty, and field placements. The curriculum is aligned along four major methods (community organization, interpersonal practice, management of human services, and social policy and evaluation) and five fields of practice (adults and elderly, children and youth, community and social systems, health, and mental health). Thus, it is infused with interdisciplinary thinking and cross-cutting skills.
The faculty not only are experts in their fields, but they also are committed to mentoring students. The alumni profiled on pages 5–13 comment on the “extras” in their social work education that went beyond formal education: in particular, professors who set high standards and expectations for students, encouraged creative thinking, and emphasized problem-solving and advocacy skills. These alumni testify that the School gives students the tools to adapt—and thrive—in a variety of work and life environments.
Field placements contribute to the well-rounded education that prepares students for a range of career settings. Along with traditional placements in schools, social service agencies, hospitals, and community organizations, students can propose out-of-state or international placements. Last summer, one student created a field placement at the World Health Organization in Switzerland to develop programs on HIV/AIDS for Ghana, Africa.
With such changes, along with the School’s interdisciplinary curriculum, it is hardly surprising that graduates are successfully pursuing a wide range of careers.
The growing field of life coaching, which helps people navigate career and life transitions, is attracting social workers. They are finding employment in business settings as trainers and as managers of employee assistance programs and corporate human resources departments.
Social work skills are invaluable in the political arena: in support positions as staff members for politicians, and also as elected officials, such as the seven social workers in the U.S. Congress.
Alumni of the School also are exploring less traditional professions as authors, real estate agents, sales representatives, and small business owners. Whatever their field, U-M SSW graduates continue to help others and make The Michigan Difference around the state, the nation, and the world.
—Robin Adelson Little works at the U-M Exhibit Museum of Natural History. She is also a freelance writer and past editor of Ongoing.