By: Erlene Grise-Owens, Ed.D., LCSW, LMFT, MRE
Getting a social work degree is like a “road trip.” You explore new vistas and have life-changing adventures. You may also wander in the desert and get “car crazy.” As a travel-seasoned social work educator, I offer ten “trip-tips” for both reaching your degree-destination and enjoying the journey. These travel tips stem from sharing students’ road trips, seeing successes and struggles, and learning with students. I relate road-tested student stories to illustrate these tips. I use pseudonyms and alter personal details of stories or interweave several situations to preserve confidentiality. Use the following “trip-tips” to be a “Road-Scholar”!
Trip-Tip 1—You are the driver. You are—ultimately—in charge of your own success. So, set realistic standards and goals. Don’t try to follow someone else’s itinerary. Oftentimes, students set unrealistic expectations. For example, “I have to do this assignment perfectly.” Or, “I have to make all ‘A’s.”
“Camille” is a wonderful example of someone learning to drive her own course. Camille was a single mother, commuted three hours to attend our weekend MSW classes, and worked a demanding social service job. Camille struggled academically. School was never “easy” for her. But, she had internalized her parents’ message that “only ‘A’s were good enough”—and held herself to these standards. In advisement, I offered Camille my “bumper sticker”: If at first you don’t succeed...redefine success. Camille needed to define her own success, rather than trying to live up to others’ expectations. Through insights and changes, Camille redefined success and declared herself, “Camille, Queen of ‘B’s!”
Don’t misunderstand. Camille responsibly completed assignments, seriously engaged in learning, and did solid work. Did she do “B” work frequently? Yes. And, when she did “B” work, she accepted the consequences. She allowed “perfect imperfection.” Actually, giving up “perfection” opened up avenues for insight and joy in learning for Camille. She redefined success as learning—not grades. Camille succeeded.
In addition to setting your own standards of success, pursue your own learning. Here’s another road-story. Circumstances resulted in “Sholanda” having a field placement that was not what she wanted. However, instead of succumbing to discontent, Sholanda took responsibility for her learning. She negotiated with her field supervisor and faculty liaison to tailor her learning objectives to include some activities not typical in that placement setting. Sholanda dove into her placement, determined to learn. Follow Camille and Sholanda’s examples: “B” yourself. Set your own standards for success, and pursue your own path.
Trip-Tip 2—Do not travel alone. The journey can get arduous and lonely. The workload can be overwhelming. Share the load. Get to know people in your classes. Use study groups. Divide readings. Consult on projects. Edit each others’ papers. Collaborate! As a group, clarify assignments with professors, and even advocate changes.
For example, a class of my students asked that an individual assignment be changed to a group assignment. They all agreed and had a clear rationale for this request. Also, they requested different due dates, noting that another major project was due the same day in another class. They committed to maintaining high quality learning. I gladly negotiated because they demonstrated initiative, cohesion, and courtesy—and had excellent projects! So, although you are driving, don’t travel alone.
Trip-Tip 3—Don’t take on too many passengers or baggage. While Trip-Tip #2 emphasizes sharing your journey, it is equally important to avoid overloading your car. Most folks in the social work profession are very involved—because we want to contribute to society and invest in relationships. But, you cannot add a professional degree program onto a “full plate”—or “full car.” Thus, when I interview prospective students, I ask, “What will you change while working on this degree?” The more specific the plan, the more likely the student will manage the stress of this road trip. Here’s a helpful packing tip: Lay out everything you plan to pack. Then, take away half of those items—leave them. Likewise, look at all your activities and commitments and decide what you can leave, delay, or scale down while on this school-trip.
Similarly, the timing of your road trip is important. If you have started a new job with a rigid work schedule, have young children, and are dealing with a major illness, it may not be the best time to pursue a degree. Caution: No time is perfect, however. As you consider the timing for this important commitment, talk with your support system and workplace about adjustments.