This week, all seven graduating social work majors will log the 480th hour of their senior practicums. The unique skills they’ve learned during this challenging time may help them transition into a mid-pandemic workforce.

By Michael Lehman, Editor-in-Chief

As Huntington University enters the semester’s final week of regularly scheduled classes, most students are completing projects and studying for next week’s final exams. But for the seven graduating seniors in HU’s social work department, Friday, May 8 will mark the definitive end of the academic year. It is the day each of them will complete their required senior practicums.

It has not been easy.

About halfway through their 14-week journey, Indiana mandated stay-at-home orders in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, interrupting the flow of these full-time, onsite internships.

“All of them have had a very unique situation,” said Carla MacDonald, chair of the social work department. “It wasn’t like a ‘cookie cutter’ – that all of them were the same. They’ve all been very different in how they’ve had to approach this because of where they’re placed at.”

Each student was assigned to work at an agency in their specific area of interest. Because these workplaces varied by nature, so did their ability to accommodate strict social distancing guidelines.

For Caleb Harlow, five-day work weeks became one-day work weeks. He spent the first several weeks of the semester at Fort Wayne’s Positive Resource Connection, where he provided case management services to clients who are living with HIV or AIDS. Now he only visits the building on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to cover the front desk and pick up mail while meeting with clients virtually.

For students like Harlow, finding ways to log additional hours from home took creativity and flexibility.

“To complete my hours from home, I have been working on different projects for both my professor and the agency,” Harlow said. “For example, for the agency, I completed a spreadsheet of all HIV medications that are approved for pediatric use and the different requirements (age, weight, kidney function) that go along with it.”

Harlow has also designed a senior portfolio, a presentation on HIV treatment and a new healthy eating curriculum for PRC to use with clients. Like a few of his peers, Harlow has logged some of his hours by watching social work webinars and even a few movies relevant to the profession.  

Harlow and others had to overcome the struggle of filling these hours with valuable work rather than mere “time-fillers.”

“The biggest challenge,” said student Sidney Baker, “has been coming up with meaningful projects that will help the guidance counselor I was interning with in the future.”

Since social distancing began, she and fellow student Marissa Barber have not returned to their practicum placements in school settings.

“My experience has been a lot different than my peers because I have not been able to have any client contact since the week of March 16,” Baker said. “The school corporation I was in had never done e-learning before COVID-19.”

Flexibility, multiple students said, has been a key skill to learn during this time – but for many different reasons. Baker has developed and scrapped numerous weekly plans in search of viable tasks that will benefit her school’s mission. Many of Harlow’s clients lack access to computers or reliable internet connection, making remote contact difficult or impossible. Amber Klopfenstein has spent a significant amount of time observing therapists with the Children’s Autism Center as they meet with clients over Zoom.

“I found that what works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another,” MacDonald said. “You know, they’ve all had to be very creative knowing how to approach their practicum site and what they could and couldn’t do.”

Molly Mitchell, who is assigned to the Advance Care Planning (ACP) department at Parkview Health, has had to meet with clients from home while also taking care of her two young foster sisters. Mitchell’s parents are essential workers and gone for most of the day.

“I’d say that through this, one of my biggest lessons has been that we should all be giving one another (and ourselves) grace for taking breaks from work throughout the day,” Mitchell said. “It can be easy to assume that people have more free time now that we are no longer physically in class or at work, but everyone has responsibilities that come into play when we are at home that we don’t have in those other settings that can affect how our day looks.”

Only one student, Sheriece Wingo, has been able to continue her full-time work mostly uninterrupted. She has completed all her hours onsite with the Fort Wayne YWCA, where she provides case management for clients who are actively fleeing domestic violence. Due to the nature of its services, the YWCA was unable to slow its operations.

“Because of this awful virus, many things are on pause, which creates a lot of roadblocks [for our clients],” Wingo said.

Many of Wingo’s clients are unable to visit properties while searching for homes. Key locations like the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office are also closed, and the city buses have limited hours.

“COVID is creating many roadblocks for myself, but I feel that it is creating way more roadblocks for the clients I am serving,” Wingo said.

RISING TO THE OCCASION: The seven senior social work majors meet with two instructors over Zoom for their monthly seminar class. From top to bottom, left to right: Caleb Harlow, Sidney Baker, Marissa Barber, Brianna Fish, instructor Carla MacDonald, Molly Mitchell, Sheriece Wingo, Amber Klopfenstein and instructor Samantha Sutorius. (Photo provided by Sheriece Wingo)

Together, these six students – along with Brianna Fish, who has worked with Turnstone in Fort Wayne – have been forced to acquire niche skills that may help them as they graduate and land jobs in a society where social distancing is still the norm. MacDonald laments the semester’s many obstacles but said her students have done an “amazing job.”

She hopes that these atypical challenges will equip them for what could be a difficult year ahead.

“You know,” MacDonald said, “I can’t imagine for someone [who] just got a job and then COVID hit — how hard it would be to be on your own and trying to navigate this new way of providing services to clients. So if it had to happen, this probably was a good time for [the students] for it to happen.”