By: Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., ACSW
It is the final term of your field practicum, and you’ve settled into the routine–the personnel, the clients, your tasks, how you fit into the overall purpose. Generally, things are going smoothly. At last, you feel you can coast to the end. No more fears about what you are supposed to be doing. No more of those ”I don’t know if I can do this,” or ”Am I really helping the client?” Everything has become so familiar. The comfort zone has arrived! And—none too soon—graduation is approaching. The end is near, and everything is perfect!
But then...Oh no...KABOOM! Out of nowhere it comes so subtly. You are blindsided when your field instructor says, “An opportunity just came up, and you are the perfect person for it!” You are shell-shocked! What? NOT NOW! Why me? Somehow the term opportunity doesn’t quite feel appropriate. Just moments before, things seemed so perfect, going so smoothly, only for this to happen.
The “opportunity” may involve representing the agency on a community steering committee, helping to organize an upcoming conference, helping to develop and run a new group, participating in a community board, or some other “wonderful” opportunity. So you ask yourself, if it is so wonderful, “Why are they asking a practicum student to be the key player?” Or maybe you ask yourself, “Why don’t I feel happy about this opportunity? I should be flattered that the agency has confidence in me, that my field practicum instructor would consider me for this opportunity. So, why aren’t I?”
The “Definite-Yes” side of the opportunity does have some good points. You do know the agency. You are established in the agency, and it will be a good challenge for you. You should scoop it up and excel at the opportunity. Maybe it will lead to meeting new people, or people will see what an awesome job you do, and all this will lead to a full-time position or help connect you with others who might be good to know when you graduate. It is an “opportunity.” Yes, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
But then the nagging questions pop up: “Why don’t I feel excited about this opportunity?” It might be the fear of taking on a new challenge when you are so comfortable and close to graduation. Why rock the boat? It is not just that everything seems to be going “perfectly” in your field practicum; you thought you could really concentrate on the things you have not been able to this term. You planned to really delve into the client systems and services of the agency. The opportunity would mean you would have less time for this priority.
Maybe the opportunity simply doesn’t interest you. How many committees does a field practicum student have to participate in to say, “No thanks. That is not for me.” Perhaps you don’t think you would ever use that particular experience in the future. The conference would be taking place long after you leave, so why invest the time and effort when you wouldn’t even see the outcome? Occasionally, students feel like the token “someone needs to do it, assign it to the social work practicum student.” Will all the extra time and effort in effect detract you from studying for licensure exams, getting the résumé out, or looking for a job?
Consider the middle ground—maybe. The opportunity does sort of sound interesting. It could provide other opportunities through meeting other people and being out in the community. You could learn something very new and different. It would definitely be a growth experience. It would be a challenge...BUT...what comes to mind? All the meetings are scheduled for when you are not at the agency. You are the only person who is not a full-time employee, so you have to rearrange your practicum schedule and your work schedule, or you may have to come in at additional times just for the opportunity.
As a field practicum student, it feels as though it’s always you who is expected to be flexible. Each school term, you have to readjust your schedule to fit classes, study groups, and practicum. Sometimes the objective appears to be to determine just how adaptable a person you can be. The “opportunity” is scheduled in such a way that you need to change your schedule to fit it in. Toward the end of the practicum, and as graduation nears, your flexibility has been tested a few times too many. You need some stability and consistency in your life. The “opportunity” appears more costly than beneficial.
So, how do you approach declining the prospect? Is the word no even an option for a field practicum student? Many students feel they cannot say “No”—that they have to accept every request, but being this accepting can have fatal consequences.
The culmination of field practicum is the capstone experience of social work education. By this time, many students are working, engaging in family commitments, attending classes, studying, and participating in their practicum obligations. Which activity is supposed to be most important? Finishing well is vital to a social work field practicum student. There is no way to remedy a bad outcome at the end of practicum. How you complete your field practicum leaves a lasting impression on agency personnel and field instructors. Social work communities are small—if you do a poor job on this opportunity, it will leave a lasting impression with others in the social work community. The informal network, word on the street, may have more to say about you than you will ever know. This outcome could influence your future references for social work positions.
Reluctance to take on challenges at such a time during field practicum is common. The settling in and feeling like you are finally comfortable with your responsibilities is a good experience. Unfortunately, it tends to be short-lived in the world of educational experiences. Education is about reaching, stretching, and risking. Otherwise, few of us would grow. The “uncomfortable” slowly becomes the comfortable. It is important to evaluate your reluctance, to be sure it is not fear or not wanting to stretch outside your comfort zone that is pushing you away from the experience.
It is important to assess the opportunity, to be clear about what it is, to understand exactly what would be expected of you and how it would fit into your learning goals for your field practicum. Accepting the opportunity would need to be within the established field practicum hours and not during your personal time. Would you still have time to perform the duties of the field practicum by taking on this additional opportunity? Or would the agency and field instructor be modifying your other responsibilities if you agreed to take on another responsibility? Can you articulate what would be gained by this opportunity? How is the goodness of fit with the opportunity with your career goals and professional development?
It is essential to express your concerns and questions about such a decision in clear and honest dialogue with your practicum field instructor. Why is this viewed as such an important opportunity for you? What will you gain in your professional development as a social worker by participating in this additional activity? You have the responsibility up front to discuss your concerns in regard to time commitments and meeting schedules. It is not an unrealistic expectation that the time requirements of the opportunity be counted as your practicum hours.
Sometimes social work students don’t think they have the right to say “no.” It is important to consider what would be the outcome of doing something halfheartedly, with resentment, and doing it poorly? Haven’t you already invested more into your education than to crash on the road out? Sometimes NO may be the best answer. It may be a challenge for you to speak candidly with the field instructor, and it may be difficult for you to say NO, but the cost just may be very high not to do so!
Should I? Shouldn’t I? Only you can truly answer that question!
Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., ACSW, CSW-G, is an associate professor of social work at Boise State University. Dr. Liley has more than 25 years of social work practice experience, primarily with older adults and end-of-life care.