Interview with Emily Ihara, Ph.D., MSW, FGSA - Chair of the Department of Social Work at George Mason University

About Emily Ihara, Ph.D., MSW, FGSA Emily Ihara is the Chair of the Department of Social Work at George Mason University. As Chair, Dr. Ihara oversees the continued development of undergraduate and graduate programs in social work and works closely with faculty to ensure that students are supported in their academic and professional journeys while enrolled. She also provides leadership for the department’s research, practice, and service missions, and manages the departmental budget. Dr. Ihara is responsible for building and mentoring her Department’s faculty team and promoting the department to various constituent groups, in keeping with the College and University’s strategic initiatives.

In addition to her administrative responsibilities as Chair, Dr. Ihara is a Founding Member and co-Director of the Social Work Integrative Research Lab at Mason. Prior to her position at Mason, she was a Congressional Health Policy Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her research focuses on how interventions at the organizational, political, and systemic levels can address health and health care inequities, especially amongst vulnerable populations. She earned her AB in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, her MSW in Social Welfare from the University of California at Los Angeles, and her MA in Social Policy and Ph.D. in Social Policy from Brandeis University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have more information about your responsibilities as the Chair of the Department of Social Work at George Mason University? What classes do you teach as an Associate Professor, and what are your research foci? In addition, what are your responsibilities as Director and Founding Faculty Member of the Social Work Integrative Research Lab at Mason?

[Dr. Ihara] I joined George Mason’s Department of Social Work faculty in 2006. My degrees are from UC Berkeley (A.B., Sociology), UCLA (M.S.W.), and Brandeis University (Ph.D., M.A., Social Policy). I teach courses on research, social policy and social justice, the social determinants of health, and gerontology. My research focuses on improving the lives of marginalized populations, especially older adults and people of color. Current research projects include the scaling up of a personalized music listening intervention for individuals living with dementia, examining the effects of TimeSlips, a creative storytelling method for individuals living with dementia, and using agent-based modeling to address the complexity of dementia caregiving among non-dominant populations.

In 2015, a group of faculty members joined together to create the Social Work integrative Research Lab (SWiRL), leveraging existing resources through the university and college to provide a nested mentoring experience for graduate and undergraduate students. Our lab focuses on exposing students to research in a supportive environment, developing research skills that can be applied to many different types of projects, and giving graduate students experience with mentoring undergraduate students.

In my role as the Chair of the Department of Social Work, I am working with our faculty to continue to build upon the strong foundation that currently exists and continue to strengthen our existing educational programs, foster innovative ways to provide learning opportunities for our students, deepen our roots within the community as practitioners and researchers, and continue our trajectory of excellent research of consequence.

[] Could you describe the history and mission statement of the Department of Social Work at George Mason University? When was the Department of Social Work instated, what has been its legacy thus far in spearheading social work education and best practices?

[Dr. Ihara] The Department of Social Work at George Mason University began with the BSW program in the early 1970s as part of the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2002, the MSW program was established, achieving full accreditation by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) in spring of 2006. Also in 2006, the Department of Social Work became part of the newly formed College of Health and Human Services, soon to become a College of Public Health.

The MSW program now offers full and part-time residential programs, Advanced Standing, a fully online part-time option, and specializations in Children, Youth, and Families (CYF), and Adults and Healthy Aging (AHA). The mission of the department has emerged over the years by aligning the values of the profession, the substantive expertise of the faculty, and the strategic goals of the college and university.

The Department of Social Work offers BSW and MSW degree programs with an educational and research mission focusing on micro-level practice and macro-level policy interventions that address social injustices and support the health and well-being of underserved individuals, families, and communities.

[] May we have an overview of George Mason University’s Online Master of Social Work program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students for a wide variety of social work roles?

[Dr. Ihara] The fully online option of our MSW program is modeled after our successful on-campus MSW program, and it prepares social workers for advanced professional practice by developing the skills to practice in the human service delivery system. The MSW program covers foundational knowledge, methodologies, and skills in both micro and macro social work, giving students valuable generalist social work preparation that they can use to empower clients and transform systems across different contexts. Through its emphasis on ethical professional practice and the needs of diverse individuals, groups, families, organizations, and communities, our curriculum also equips students to enhance human well-being and advocate for justice, equality, and human rights across all demographic lines, from ethnic and cultural to socioeconomic and gender.

Graduates of our online MSW program are prepared to work both individually and within larger interdisciplinary teams to conduct clinical practice, advocacy, and social and political action to address local, national, and global challenges. Students can select specialized practice curricula that focus on 1) children, youth, and families or 2) adults and healthy aging, with practice electives designed to build skills in clinical or macro practice, or both.

The Children, Youth, and Families specialization (CYF) will prepare students to work with children, adolescents, and families as they transition/navigate through the family life cycle. Specialized training will provide the skills and knowledge for effective practice with children, youth, and families at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. The CYF specialization prepares students for social work in a variety of settings, such as schools, family service agencies, foster care, child welfare, and juvenile justice.

The Adults and Healthy Aging Specialization (AHA) will prepare students to address the unique psychosocial, health, and mental health issues of adults across the lifespan. Specialized training will provide the skills and knowledge for effective practice with adults, older adults, and their families at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. The AHA specialization prepares students for social work in a variety of settings such as hospitals and other health care settings, mental health settings, substance abuse treatment facilities, long-term care facilities, and hospice agencies.

The MSW curriculum prepares students to apply for clinical licensure in the Commonwealth of Virginia (please check your state for specific requirements). Students within each specialization may focus their classroom studies and field practicum in clinical practice, macro practice, or both. Graduates focusing on clinical practice will have completed the required 600 hours of advanced clinical practicum to begin the clinical licensure process and apply for clinical licensure. Graduates focusing on macro practice who complete a macro field practicum will need to complete an additional 600 hours of supervised clinical work, post-MSW, prior to beginning the licensure process and applying for licensure in Virginia.

[] What online technologies does George Mason University’s Online Master of Social Work use to facilitate interactions between students and faculty, as well as between classmates in and outside of courses?

[Dr. Ihara] George Mason University uses the Blackboard learning management system. Various tools are used to facilitate interactions between students and faculty, including WebEx, Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, and other course-specific tools. Our Field Education program uses SONIA for practicum placement planning and management. Although our goal is to provide most of the content in an asynchronous format, some classes require synchronous meetings. Faculty provide office hours in multiple ways and typically offer regular synchronous meetings via video-conferencing or telephone.

[] All students of George Mason University’s regular Master of Social Work must complete one foundational and one advanced field practicum, while Advanced Standing students must complete the advanced field practicum. What does each of these practicums require, and how does the field placement process work for each? What kinds of faculty/peer support do students receive during their completion of their field education requirement?

[Dr. Ihara] Field placements are experiential and occur in human service agencies. Our Field Education staff work closely with students throughout the practicum placement process to identify and select sites and supervisors that align with each student’s individual strengths, interests, and career goals. Students are expected to complete 450 hours for the generalist field practicum and 600 hours for the specialized practice field practicum. All students take a field seminar course each semester that they are in their field practicum. The field seminar courses are taught by field liaisons who help students design their individualized learning agreements in consultation with their field instructor (agency staff who serve as their supervisor in the agency). This team approach ensures that the field practicum site and the student are on the same page about the requirements of the program.

Students in the online option are asked to identify local agencies or potential field sites, but are not to find their own field placements. Field education coordinators work with students’ identified agencies as a starting point to locate appropriate field practicum sites.

Potential field placements include:

  • Juvenile and adult probation/parole
  • Nursing homes/hospitals/assisted living/hospice
  • Substance abuse treatment facilities
  • Mental health agencies
  • Child protective services/foster care/adoption
  • Family service agencies
  • Programs for people with disabilities
  • Group homes
  • Outreach programs
  • Community organizations
  • Advocacy groups
  • Membership associations
  • Local/state/federal legislative offices
  • Local/state/federal executive agencies

Field placements require being available during regular business hours (16 hours/week for generalist field placements and 20 hours/week for specialized practice field placements). Field education is an essential component of the MSW education and, in order to meet the learning goals of field education, students must be available for the learning opportunities and appropriate supervision through the agencies. All students must arrange to be free of other obligations in order to fulfill the practicum requirements.

The field practicum placement process is typically finalized during the spring or early summer prior to students’ field practicum year, with Field Coordinators working well in advance to match students to appropriate agency sites. It is each student’s responsibility to be proactive in communicating with the coordinators about their potential field practicum site.

[] How do faculty members of George Mason University’s Online Master of Social Work mentor students throughout their enrollment? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities, and outside of faculty advising what other support structures are in place to help students?

[Dr. Ihara] The MSW online coordinator is the first person students should contact for academic advising or questions that the Student Success Coach cannot answer. If students have specific interests or wish to receive professional or career advising from a particular faculty member, the coordinator can facilitate an introduction. All faculty have profiles describing their research and/or practice interests available on the website. All MSW students receive information through the weekly student newsletter regarding opportunities that may be of interest. The university has several online resources including online writing center tutoring sessions, a dedicated distance learning librarian, online career resources, etc. These resources continue to evolve and grow over time.

[] For students who are interested in George Mason University’s Master of Social Work, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Ihara] Graduate school applications are your opportunity to clearly and concisely communicate your strengths, your goals, and your fit for the profession. First and foremost, please be sure to pay close attention to the essay prompt and be sure you give yourself enough time to draft and rewrite your essay. Be specific about your relevant skills and interest, demonstrate your passion, use examples to illustrate your interest, and explain any gaps. Follow the directions, pay close attention to the details (word limits), and be sure to proofread carefully. Typos and disregard for the application prompt show that the applicant is not serious about applying for the program.

[] What makes George Mason University’s Master of Social Work unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in social work practice, research, and leadership?

[Dr. Ihara] George Mason University’s MSW program provides a strong foundation for future social workers to ground their professional practice in social justice and equity. Our faculty have a wealth of experiences and knowledge, and even if you are not taking a class from a specific professor, we collaborate to ensure that the curriculum reflects this expertise. Our curriculum equips students with knowledge and skills that will continue to be relevant in social work practice, even if not immediately apparent.

As social workers, we are all lifelong learners and are ethically bound to continue to learn as we gain professional experience. To that end, a strong foundation helps to start this journey on solid footing. Becoming a Mason Patriot includes you in a family that is always growing. Our college and department are always looking for ways for alumni to network with each other and with current students and faculty. It is very exciting to see our Mason MSW alumni making positive contributions to society near and far.

Thank you, Dr. Ihara, for your excellent insight into George Mason University’s Online Master of Social Work program!