By Peter Craig
University of Nebraska Omaha: At the Heart of Service Learning
If you’re a student attending the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) to reap the benefits of service learning, whether in social work or another discipline, you’ve come to the right place.
Service learning has deep roots in social services (think John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps). And when it really began to gain traction on college and university campuses in the 1980s, UNO was a pioneer, with its Grace Abbott School of Social Work leading the charge, says social work professor Jeanette Harder. In UNO’s service learning, she adds, “students have defined course objectives and assignments they need to learn in the course, but they carry out those objectives by doing service in the community.” The university even has a large Service Learning Academy to support its various schools in the effort.
Part of the Course Structure
Service learning is built into many courses and is independent of fieldwork requirements, says faculty member and MSW Program Coordinator Ciara Warden, LISW. For example, she says, the service-learning component for “General Practice I” is through a partnership with the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility. Its inmates range from young adolescents to 21-year-olds, many of whom have committed serious crimes, Warden says. They’re kept there until they complete their terms or else age out and are transferred to adult prison. One traditional service-learning project has involved working with inmates to create a resource guide for basic needs, such as shelter, transportation and income, following their release. But this year, because of COVID-19 restrictions “students weren’t able to visit the facility,” says Warden, “so they created videos for the inmates talking about the Myers-Briggs assessment and how [the inmates] could apply it to their own strengths and create goals based off of their scores.”
Taking STEPs Forward
In another corner of Grace Abbott’s MSW program is STEPs (Support and Training for the Evaluation of Programs), also service learning-focused and founded by Harder, now its project director. STEPs has its origins in 2004 out of Harder’s quest to get research-reluctant students to see value in the process through use of service learning in the research courses. “We would partner with organizations in the community who needed evaluation services and maybe didn’t have the expertise or personnel to do it,” she says. But the agencies would still need the help after the semester ended, so STEPs was formed.
STEPs ultimately found a home in the university’s Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, along with some 35 community nonprofits (and potential STEPs clients). Says Harder, “We started with nonprofits in Omaha, and in the last three years we have grown to doing a lot more state programs, including the DHHS [department of health and human services].”
Behind the organization are three part-time employees, two of whom are MSW students; three full-time employees, two of them MSW students; various faculty; and seven part-time evaluators, who are social work practitioners. Often, dual-degree social work/public administration students provide key support in the evaluation.
One regular client is the nonprofit Hope Center for Kids, which, among other things, operates a basketball league for disadvantaged youth. Another is Inclusive Communities, which offers diversity training to organizations. STEPs also holds professional development workshops on how to do evaluations — “capacity building for small organizations so they can be doing their own evaluations,” says Harder.
Benefiting Undergrads, Too
But Grace Abbott’s service learning is not just for MSWs. In fact, to even be admitted to its BSSW program, says instructor and BSSW Program Coordinator Jeff Knapp, MSW, LCSW, undergraduates have to take not only an introduction-to-social-work class but also “Social Work and Civic Engagement,” which includes service-learning projects. (The latter is also open to interdisciplinary studies students and others.) “We will have three or four community partners that we work with for this class,” says Knapp. Students spend some three hours a week assisting and learning from a community partner, such as antipoverty agency Together Omaha, which each year needs help putting together a community cookbook. “Then the homework,” he says, “is mostly thinking about their experience and reflecting on the values of the profession, their own personal values, our ethics, what skills they are using.”
The course gives undergraduates hands-on experience, says Knapp. “It orients them to the field, to the ethics, to the expectations of the profession. And it helps them solidify that yes, this is what I want, or no, this is not what I want.”
University of Alabama: Building Diverse Social Work Leadership
Associate professor and DSW Program Director Nicole Ruggiano, talks about the university’s two-year-old online doctor of social work program—a partnership between the College of Continuing Studies, which provides technical assistance for distance learning, and the School of Social Work.
What does the DSW’s curriculum focus on?
The first-semester students get a course on oppression, diversity and disparity. We emphasize right at the beginning that social justice, racial justice, health disparities are the things we’re going to stress throughout the program. A lot of people apply to our program because we have an organizational leadership track, with courses on management, such as of finances, of personnel and social health service program development. There’s also the advanced-practice clinical track, with courses on neuroscience in social work and on complementary and alternative therapies.
What’s the program’s learning structure?
Our courses are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes. The synchronous classes are Zoomed and typically recorded so a student can make up a class, if necessary. And the Zooms are normally offered in the evenings or on Saturday mornings since almost all of our students work full-time. We use Blackboard Learn as our course management system, but other than that, faculty can be very creative in how they present material.
What kinds of students has it drawn?
We get a lot of diversity in our applicant pool. It’s almost half African American, and we also get a few Hispanics, American Indians, Native Alaskans and Asians. And it trends older compared to most PhD programs, with the average age in the low 40s. They come from all over the country and even outside. We have school social workers, MSW-level faculty at universities, those in private practice, social workers at the VA and other types of medical social workers—it’s really expansive.
Grant Writing 101: Development Pro Finds Ways to Help Programs Grow
The graduate social work program at Touro College and University System, based in New York City, has a powerhouse grant-writing operation.
Fundraising expert Eric Levine, DSW, MSW, LMSW, came to Touro 11 years ago to help “create a full-blown development operation [for the university] which would conduct special events, fundraising, donor engagement, solicitations, and marketing and promotion.” Five years later he moved to Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work to teach, engage the alumni, and, as director of financial resource development, do grant writing and other fundraising.
One early grant-writing success was landing a four-year, $2.52 million Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant called “Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students,” recently succeeded by a second, even larger HRSA grant. Another coup was acquiring, in 2019, a three-year, $1.34 million grant from HRSA for its Opioid Workforce Expansion Program. Done in collaboration with the Touro School of Health Sciences’ clinical mental health counseling program, it involves a $10,000 stipend, instead of a scholarship, for graduate student interns to train with agencies in combating opioid and other addictions.