Students With Questions
by Katherine Freeman
We sit down. “My name is Katherine Freeman, and I’m the social work intern at the clinic.” She can hear my voice shaking. Is her eyebrow raised in suspicion, or am I just imagining that? “What can I help you with today?” Just dive in. There’s no other way, I think to myself. I lean forward onto the desk, smile, and am sure that I sit with an open posture to the client, giving her my undivided attention as we were taught in our Social Work Practice Lab.
I’m not sure if my experience as a first-year social work graduate student exactly mirrors that of others. Actually, I believe it unfair to assume that there is one “standard” experience of a student in this field, as the beauty of this profession is that it attracts people with such a rich and diverse array of experience that it is impossible to identify a “typical” student.
The one thing that binds us all together is the opportunity we were offered to recreate ourselves as professional social workers—delicately, and at times clumsily, weaving together our experiences, worldview, compassion, and sense of self into the work we do. With the best of intentions, we learn to apply the principles of social work, while at the same time we are still diligently taking notes late at night on exactly what those principles are.
As I finish my first year of graduate school, I would like to reflect and share the experiences I have had with those entering the field. The challenges that I have faced have been internal as well as external, as at times I have found myself in the position of examining where I come from and how I view the world, to learning the seemingly endless implications of providing physical and emotional care to those in need. I would like to give a voice to first-year graduate students, and shed light and calm anxieties about what this experience might be like for incoming students, as well as serve as a validation for students in their first few months of field work that it’s okay to not have all the answers.
Anxieties of the Unknown
Prior to starting my field work in the fall, I had no idea what to expect. I knew my placement was at a community health center in West Harlem, New York City, and that I would be working with two social workers to provide case management and therapeutic support to the clinic’s patients. When classes started and I began to meet my fellow students, the second question out of everyone’s mouth after “What’s your name?” was “Where’s your field placement?” It felt reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one with anxieties. However, the constant assurances from faculty members to relax and learn to “sit with your discomfort” seemed to simply mock my sweaty palms and beating heart.
My first few weeks at the clinic, I was guided through the roles and responsibilities that the social workers carry out and what was expected of me. I spent a great deal of time sitting in on assessments that my supervisors would carry out, and observing the kinds of questions they would ask, and the way they would respond to patients’ differing attitudes, questions, and presenting problems. I was grateful that I was given this time to observe, process, and ask questions.
In this time, I learned that the clinic serves members of the surrounding community, which predominantly consists of first- or second-generation Latino immigrants. I began to learn just how pivotal the role of a social worker is in securing benefits for our patients, and also just how much the patients depend on our assistance in navigating the system to receive them.
The myriad of needs that our patients presented with was overwhelming to me at first. I feverishly took notes after observing every session, and I did my best to remember the exact dialogue that was carried out between my supervisors and the patients to report in my process recordings. My supervisors and I would discuss the details of the session afterwards, and I felt a rise in my confidence in how I would eventually carry out such a session on my own.
Working Through the Discomfort
When I began to carry out my first assessments independently, I experienced countless emotions. I felt excited and eager to delve into the work, but also nervous and questioning about how much I would really be able to do on my own. My supervisors were close by if I had a question, and I utilized their guidance often.
Reflecting upon my first few months at the clinic, I recognize that I felt very unsure of myself and conflicted over the way I felt I was perceived, and how I would be able to relate to patients. I felt it possible that there were judgments being passed on me in regard to my appearance and what that seemed to symbolize to the population I was working with. Given that I was a young, white American female seemingly in this position of power, I felt that many of the patients were wary of me and had guarded responses to my questions.
At times, I began to feel a sense of inadequacy to help, given that the presenting problems of many of our patients are ones that I personally have not experienced. Being in a position in which you are expected to be of help, but have absolutely no idea really how to do so, can be quite disconcerting.
Furthermore, I also realized that the position I held often allowed me to provide patients what they needed, despite the fact that I often felt unworthy of being privy to the very personal aspects of the patients’ lives that they discussed with me. Given that I personally did not view myself as being in a position of power, as I was a student who felt as though she was stumbling along the helping process herself, it was a very uncomfortable situation to be in.
On top of this, at times there seemed to be cultural and linguistic barriers. Although I can speak Spanish fluently and lived abroad for years, all the cultural competency and ability to connect through shared experiences that I thought I had prior to starting this work seemed inadequate. The concept that in certain situations I could be perceived as being part of the dominant majority group, instead of someone who can connect and understand based on shared cultural experiences, was unsettling to me.
It was through the process of working through this discomfort and acknowledging the systemic context of identity and culture that I was able to come to terms with my position. As stated by Mo (2003), especially when the clinician belongs to the dominant majority group and the client to a minority group, it is important for the clinicians to explicitly address and acknowledge the dynamics of power as an integral part of the therapeutic process. After all, it is of paramount significance for social workers to engage in mindful practice meaningfully with people of different and multiple identities, while also examining one’s own social location in the “web of these power relations” (Wong, 2004).
I began to understand that my anxiety about how I was perceived and in what ways I could help our patients was a necessary part of the learning process that propelled me toward understanding myself as an aspiring professional as well as the needs of those I was serving. As stated by Shulman (2005), students must experience “adaptive anxiety” as a necessary feature of their learning experience, as “uncertainty, visibility, and accountability inevitably raise the emotional stakes of the pedagogical encounters” (p. 57). Students must be emotionally invested in their work and experience some anxiety, as it serves as a motivating factor that stimulates students to work harder (Shulman, 2005).
I also found that if I ally myself with the patient, who in essence is the expert on his or her own life situation, and work toward finding a solution together by combing both our knowledge on the subject, we are able to make progress. As stated by Ann Hartman (2000), “knowledge and power are one, and when clients and subjects are collaborators in the discovery process, if their expertise is valued and affirmed, they are empowered” (p. 22).
The Year Draws to a Close
Since beginning my work at the health center, I have learned how to find the balance between empowering the patients we work with and making them active participants in the problem solving process. Simultaneously, I also learned that meeting agency demands, as well as the expectations of professional and practice etiquette as a social worker, is a difficult and ongoing process. It has taken hours of supervision with my mentors, as well as a great deal of self reflection, to understand that it is an ongoing process and one that is inherent in the professional life of a social worker.
Although there are still times when I find myself rolling my eyes when I hear my professors saying to sit with our discomfort, I begrudgingly have to admit that the concept holds weight. This experience is challenging, overwhelming, exciting, and fulfilling, all at once.
What I can assure students entering this field is that you will be uncomfortable, and you will be forced to examine where you came from and what that signifies for the population with whom you are working. Not only will your supervisors, professors, and classmates be an integral source of support and understanding throughout this process, but I also believe the clients you work with will be, as well.
I have learned that when I ally myself with clients, it is as if the environment in the room has changed. I have found that if I crack a smile, allow a chuckle, or feel comfortable in asking patients to elaborate on exactly what they mean, we are able to establish a working alliance that eventually will allow them to get what they need.
I am a student, and I continue to be inexperienced in comparison to the multitudes of amazing and inspiring social workers I have met so far in my budding career. However, I still have the capacity to help, and I believe that keeping that truth alive inside of me, despite all of the inner and external conflicts that one faces in this situation, is the key to a successful and ongoing learning process.
Hartman, A. (2000). In search of subjugated knowledge, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, (11) 4, 19-23.
Mo, Y. L. (2003). A solution-focused approach to cross-cultural clinical social work practice: Utilizing cultural strengths. Families in Society, 84 (3), 385-395.
Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134 (3), 52–59.
Wong, Y. R. (2004). Knowing through discomfort: A mindfulness based critical social work pedagogy. Critical Social Work, 5 (1).
Katherine Freeman is a second-year graduate student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, City University of New York. Katherine has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Spanish from the State University of New York, College at Geneseo and has experience working with at-risk youth in the United States and Chile. Katherine’s current field placement is at an agency that provides trauma-focused therapy to children in the Bronx. She wrote this piece at the end of her first-year field placement.