Schools of Social Work: February / March 2021

By Peter Craig

campus wall with Winthrop University carved into it

Winthrop University: Triumphing Over Tough Times

There’s nothing like good timing. Dr. Anthony J. Hill came on board as chair, graduate program director and associate professor of Winthrop University’s Department of Social Work in 2018 to help create, in partnership with Wiley Education Services, its first online MSW program.

“The department faculty developed all the content, and Wiley made it look pretty online,” Hill says. And the program debuted just over a year before COVID-19 began to rage. Fourteen faculty members are directly involved and a new position was added: online MSW program coordinator. It was filled by instructor Christopher J. Ward, MSW, who has drawn on previous experience at Virginia Commonwealth University developing online courses and selecting digital tools. “We have utilized our faculty expertise across our curriculum to develop our courses and then critically assess our strengths and opportunities for improvement,” he says. “And we’ll soon have an ‘embedded evaluation process’ for specific assignments within a course.

One side benefit: When the pandemic hit, Ward says, all social work faculty had been through one form of online training or another. “We were fortunate in that regard.”

Seeking Racial Justice

Then in May 2020 came the killing of George Floyd. Aside from the brutal impact department head Hill says it had on him personally as an African-American male, “I felt that as the chair of the Department of Social Work, I needed to reach out to our students, faculty, alumni and community partners.” He began by forwarding short statements of encouragement from faculty members addressing the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

By now, COVID-19 had also been taking a real toll on students and their families, and Hill wanted to address that as well. At about the same time, the NASW South Carolina Chapter was looking for opportunities to work with Winthrop, says then-chapter Executive Director Debra Donahue. “Dr. Hill reached out, and we talked about doing a pandemic-focused webinar series together to help social workers prepare themselves for the potential stresses that may come with working with clients, as well as show the need for self-care,” she says. “We could target our membership and also put it on Facebook so it would be available to other social workers as well as students.”

The first webinar, on June 24, was about grief and loss, conducted by Winthrop Department of Social Work Instructor Sarah Hopkins. Then a few days later, Donahue moderated an online town hall that generated many future webinar topics. For instance, one examined COVID-19’s outsized impact on minority communities “through the lens of Critical Race Theory,” says Hill, and another looked at ethics in telemental health. “I think it’s been an excellent partnership,” says Donahue.

Fieldwork Close to Home

As with other social work education programs, Winthrop’s field placements began to dry up in early 2020 because of COVID. Luckily, Winthrop had Field Director Jennifer McDaniel. “Jennifer and her team were just amazing,” says Hill, in finding new opportunities right on campus. Any university office set up to help students, potential students, alumni or even faculty could be considered a potential field site, figured McDaniel. After all, “the heart of social work is serving people,” she says. “So I pitched the idea to our dean and drafted up a proposal for administrators that basically said we need programs across this campus to support student interns with remote, virtual placements.”

This was followed by Zoom sessions to further explain and promote the idea, and by making sure such placements would satisfy Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requirements. On-campus internship sites have included the Office of Admissions, the Office of Accessibility — which helps students with special needs get around campus — and the Office of Diversity and Student Engagement.

Keeping a Hand In

Still, department head Hill’s first few years have involved a lot more than crisis management. Among other things, he has overseen the introduction of courses on grief and loss and on environmental justice. And he likes to spend time in the field as well, as a certified financial social worker, believing it important to bring practice experience to the classroom.

“I work with clients to change their thoughts about money, savings and spending,” Hill says. “And when they change their negative thoughts to positive thoughts, their behaviors change and their financial situation changes as a result.”

Clark Atlanta University: Celebrating a School and an Icon

Whitney M. Young Jr speaking at a podium, with broadcast microphones

Dr. Jenny L. Jones, dean and professor of the Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work at HBCU Clark Atlanta University, talks about her school’s 100th anniversary, recent racial justice initiatives and civil rights icon Whitney Young.

Congratulations on your school’s 100th anniversary. Please describe how you’re celebrating it.

In 2019 we had initial celebrations at CSWE’s annual conference and at the NASW-Georgia conference. But last February, COVID brought things to a standstill. Then on Oct. 2, we did what we called a ‘Virtual Kickoff’ — with an hourlong video where faculty and distinguished alumni offered congratulatory remarks — and got word out that the celebration would continue through the 2020-21 school year, culminating with a huge gala in October 2021.

We understand that you also initiated some racial justice activities following the killing of George Floyd.

Yes. After that happened and the peaceful protests began, many Clark Atlanta students were downtown and got terribly upset, especially after the Spellman and Morehouse students were arrested. So I did a town hall with our students to allow them a safe space to talk about what all this felt like for them as young Black men and women, how to respond, how to protest in a way that’s nonviolent but still gets their point across. And the conversation continued, with town halls every month, because COVID has been another racial justice issue, with African-Americans particularly affected.

What have been some other accomplishments during your five years as dean?

We’ve raised the visibility of the school nationally and got ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the top 100 graduate schools of social work for the first time. In 2018 our BSW program was ranked by as number one in Georgia and our MSW program as number two. We’ve also increased our faculty’s scholarly productivity by a good 30 to 40 percent and expanded faculty involvement in national professional organizations.

And how does the school honor and remember Whitney Young?

Mr. Young, pictured above, was the first sitting dean at the school, from 1954 to 1961. We have documents and pictures of him throughout the school. Also, we show a video about him — “The Powerbroker” — in policy classes. It’s accompanied by a study guide, with assignments so our students can further understand the influence he had in the development of policy, in exposing economic injustice, and the role he played in the civil rights legislation being passed and the War on Poverty work.

University of Montana: Racial Justice 2.0: Innovative Courses, Diversity Initiatives Coordinator

At the University of Montana, social work education is heavily focused on racial justice — an emphasis that George Floyd’s killing has only amplified, says Dr. James C. Caringi, professor and chair, School of Social Work, College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences.

In the past year, the School of Social Work has held town halls with both BSW and MSW students on subjects like COVID-19 and its particularly devastating effect on minority communities, says Caringi. Every year, he adds, “we do a student-faculty read for our incoming MSW program, and this year we chose ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi.” Also, Caringi recently created a new position — coordinator of diversity initiatives — to be part of the school’s leadership team. “So we’re really trying to infuse racial justice into everything we do instead of as a tack-on where you figure out how to fit something as important as Black Lives Matter in as a single course or seminar.”

In targeting more local racial justice issues — regarding Montana’s Native Americans — the school has a required MSW course on the Indian Child Welfare Act and a course on “Social Justice in Indian Country.” Plus, at the BSW level it has a new diversity course as well as a partnership with the state’s tribal colleges whereby students there can take University of Montana classes right on their own campus and earn a university social work degree.

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