By: Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., ACSW
You have just begun your field practicum, and everything is going great. Or, you begin your search for your social work field practicum, and you are supposed to contact your faculty field liaison. You question, what is a faculty field liaison, and why do you need to contact this person?
Students frequently question, “Why is yet another person involved in my field practicum? Can’t I just work with the practicum director?” Students commonly react, saying, “I just want to do my practicum…I don’t have time for any more meetings.” The role of a faculty field liaison can be that of a shadow with little presence, or an active influence in students’ social work field practicum experience. Either way, many students find the faculty field liaison’s role a mystery! Typically, university faculty are assigned to be “faculty field liaisons” to social work students during their field practicum experiences. This relationship can be a rather informal one in which faculty liaisons merely sign forms and are on back-up call should problems arise in the field setting. The unspoken hands-off approach dictates that faculty become involved only if a social work student or field instructor from the field agency contacts the faculty field liaison. Day-to-day supervision is performed within the participating agency, and a conference to discuss the field practicum might take place within the agency. A university faculty member might be assigned to oversee some or all parts of a social work student’s field practicum. Other arrangements are more formal. The faculty field liaison might visit the field agencies a few times each term, and they could assist in setting up the learning contract and then participate in the formal end-of-term evaluation. Some faculty field liaisons hold regular seminars for social work students who are completing their field practicums within varying agencies. These seminars promote student learning by normalizing their experiences with their peers when they discuss the activities of the individual social work field practica of the varying students in a group format. Regardless of how the field liaison process is structured, this faculty member has the potential to play a pivotal role in your education as a social work student. The field liaison can serve as a conduit between the university and the participating community agencies.
Faculty field liaison role with community agencies
Ideally, the faculty field liaison assists in ensuring that social work students receive the type of field experiences they need to augment their classroom learning—that is, the actual hands-on, actual function of performing social work. Common concerns center around the question, “Are community field agencies offering the experiences students need to increase their ‘practice’ of social work knowledge, values, and skills?” Equal to that is the concern of, “Is the university teaching what students need to know, from the perspective of the service delivery agencies?”
Community agencies may provide input in the sequencing of the curriculum, such as why a policy and advocacy course is offered during the fall term, when the state legislature is in session in the winter. Other questions might be how micro practice skills are introduced, or whether social work students have enough exposure to group skills before they are expected to conduct groups in their practicum settings. In this way, the field liaison does become a conduit between the university and community agencies, by helping to guarantee that students are receiving the classroom education that they need, as well as opportunities to practice and refine their skills during their social work field practica. Therefore, the faculty field liaison’s role might be viewed as that of a quality assurance relationship.
Faculty field liaison role with the social work student
The faculty field liaison can assist students in negotiating institutional challenges in the community agency by posing questions such as the following:
- Are students getting the field experiences they need?
- Are the students’ learning objectives being met?
- Is learning, in fact, taking place?
- Is the required and appropriate supervision happening?
- Are the cooperating agencies making sure that the social work students are not just an “extra set of hands,” or functioning as another worker with little supervision, direction, and oversight of their learning?
- Is the student sharing with the agency supervisor what is taking place in the field?
- How does the social work student feel about what is happening in the community agency?
- Are there any safety concerns for the social work student, and are there any liability issues for the university?
Social work students in practicum placements should never feel that they are totally on their own. They need to know they can contact their faculty field liaisons if problems arise.
Faculty field liaison role with the university setting
A unique aspect of many faculty field liaisons is that they themselves have, in fact, also been social work students in community agencies, and many have been agency supervisors of social students prior to becoming university professors. This unique “been there, done that” perspective can help faculty liaisons to better understand the diverse perspectives of agencies and students, as well as that of the university.
They can draw from their own field experiences. This information can assist in shaping policy for social work field practica for the university. It can be used in problem solving for solutions with students and agency instructors and for “normalizing” practicum experiences.
Social work students sometimes discount the faculty liaison as being “ancient” or “out of touch” with what is currently taking place within the profession. And sometimes students can simply have the attitude of “What do they know?” Many faculty liaisons have a wealth of experience from students who have gone before—that is, the experience of many students with whom the faculty field liaison worked over the years.
The faculty field liaison is well aware of what is called “Seasons of Students.” These are common feelings and experiences students have at certain points in their education, or the rhythms of a particular university’s social work program—such as the common uncertainty social work students experience as they begin their field practica. The beginning of field placement can be very stressful for some students who have doubts about their abilities, knowledge, or skills. Equally, the beginning of social work field practicum may bring to light a social work student’s interpersonal challenges, or even particular challenges within the field agency. During the early period of the practicum semester, many students worry that they are not doing anything yet in their social work field practicum, while many of their classmates are having client contacts and are busy doing “social work.” Mid-term may bring a panic about “all the work to do,” pressures about the academic side of a social work student’s education, and increasing expectations in the social work field practicum. Finally, there is the challenge of termination prior to graduation—the desire to just bail out and say “good bye,” rather than to create a plan to work through as one is leaving an agency (leaving a program—graduation)—that is, to develop and enact the skill of termination versus the individual student’s comfort level.
Additionally, some faculty liaisons have been involved in and developed a working relationship with particular community agencies over time. One of the benefits of having a history with community agencies is that it provides for grounding current students’ learning with what has occurred within their agencies in the past. The faculty field liaison can serve as a checks-and-balance tool to ensure whether there is a good match between the social work student and the agency. Faculty field liaisons can help students know about future learning opportunities in certain agencies. Faculty members can serve as sounding boards for students to express frustrations that may be particular to the agency or type of services that the agency delivers. The knowledge and experience a faculty field liaison has with the social work field agency can assist in linking learning objectives to what is actually being done in the agency that meets the objectives of the learning contract. This relationship between the faculty field liaison and agency staff can facilitate a negotiation of additional experiences when they are desired or when needed to strengthen an individual student’s learning experience.
The ethics role
Faculty field liaisons play an important role when there is a question of ethics. The faculty field liaison can serve as a person with whom students can discuss feelings and questions about “why” an agency does certain things, or if staff seems to be disrespectful of clients, or about more serious actions that a student views as unethical. From a student’s perspective, not all aspects of an agency may make sense, and some practices may even be viewed negatively. The relationship with the field agency supervisor may not be one in which a student is comfortable discussing all things. The faculty field liaison is the person who can be approached in such instances. A discussion can be held to examine ways to look at events or practices, not only in terms of the point in question, but also in terms of how concerns can be addressed with the agency field instructor. There are rare incidents in which students may have brought up concerns with an agency, only to be told, “This is the way we do it,” or, “Not really any of your concerns.” The faculty field liaison is an excellent resource for further discussion.
You’re not alone
The most unique aspect of the social work faculty as a faculty field liaison is that of reinforcing the knowledge that social work students are not alone in the course of their education. Those involved in the practice of social work take a lifelong journey: We continually gain more information about ourselves. This beginning relationship of completing the practicum can help to model the need for outside supervision, a sounding board, and processing of one’s own practice of social work. As social workers, it is vital to remember that we are not alone. We need to continue to advocate, broker, and analyze our own social work educational growth.
Fieldwork practicum is frequently hailed as the cornerstone of social work education. It is one of the most influential experiences in a student’s social work education. It is imperative for these to be quality experiences linking learning with the “doing of social work practice.” Faculty field liaisons are your advocates, ensuring that you glean the very best from this collaboration. Contact your faculty field liaison today to ensure that your practicum is a perfect fit for your education needs!
Denise Goodrich Liley, Ph.D, ACSW, is an associate professor of social work at Boise State University School of Social Work.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine, Spring 2006, Vol. 13, No. 2. All rights reserved.