Interview with Suzanne Shatila, MSW - Program Director for the Online Master of Social Work Program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

About Suzanne Shatila, MSSW, LGSW: Suzanne Shatila is the Program Director for Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s online Master of Social Work program. As Program Director, Ms. Shatila oversees the MSW’s curriculum design, student advising and support, student recruitment and admissions, field practicum placements and support, and faculty hiring. As a social worker specializing in macro social work, Ms. Shatila lent her program development skills to the design and delivery of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s online MSW program. Prior to her current position, she served as an Assistant Professor for the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work, where she taught campus-based and online classes.

In her professional social work experience, Ms. Shatila has over 20 years of experience developing and improving antipoverty and household stability programs and policies. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Antioch College, and her Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Tennessee. She is currently earning her Doctor of Social Work (DSW) from the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background?

[Ms. Shatila] I received my bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I then received my masters of science in social work from the University of Tennessee College of Social Work. I’m currently enrolled in the Doctorate of Social Work program at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, and I have been working as a social work practitioner now for over 20 years.

When I went to school for my MSW, I received my Master of Science in Social Work with a concentration in macro practice. Since then I’ve really focused on macro-level social work, and that has included developing programs, developing policy, and revising programs. I’ve also been involved in research. All of these skills have really prepared me for this program working in a leadership capacity, because launching new programs has always been my passion: making sure that the associated policies are developed and that each process is in place for different aspects of the program–that really is what I have been focused on, and so that experience lends itself very well to this position right now.

With respect to my experience in social work education/pedagogy, I started as a field supervisor and then became a field liaison with the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee. From there, I eventually started teaching for both their in-person program and their online program. When I moved to Minneapolis in 2010, I switched over completely to working through their online program and was an adjunct professor for the first few years. I eventually became an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in 2012. I taught multiple classes for them until 2018, when I started working for Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

As an advocate for social justice and measures to prevent poverty and inequality, I felt it was particularly important to ensure our program’s curriculum reflected the central mission of social work as a discipline. I believe that social work, in many ways, has gotten away from its roots. Originally, we were very committed to social justice and equal access and making sure that people had the resources that they need, and somewhere along the way we lost our focus.

My hope is that our students really understand the importance of advocacy and the importance of being involved in social justice, and understand what social justice looks like at the macro level, as well as when they are working directly with individuals. Having experience serving lower-resourced families, working with people who encountered barriers when they’ve tried to access services, who have just been dealt a really lousy hand throughout life, I think that experience has made it possible for me to approach teaching social work in a different way. I’m able to help students become more sensitive to the needs of lower-resourced families, and to understand their role in fighting those systems of oppression and discrimination. Social workers are ethically obligated to challenge those systems in the first place, but sometimes we don’t always do a great job.

I also want to note that when we had our site visit for CSWE candidacy, we were told by our site visitor that he was really impressed that all of our classes–including some of the clinical classes–had a focus on social justice and really exploring the macro elements that impact the individual. In social work we use something called the systems approach and the ecological perspective, and he felt that we were doing a really good job of making sure that students had a good understanding, through our curriculum, of those macro forces. And that is due to my experience as a macro practitioner, as well as my colleague, Shelly Statz, who is our Field Education Director, and has been involved in all the curriculum development. Between the two of us, we’ve really tried to make sure that those macro elements are infused in all aspects of the program.

[] When was Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Online Master of Social Work established? What went into the creation of this program, and how did Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s strong Lasallian values help shape the curriculum?

[Ms. Shatila] Our online Master of Social Work program was launched in fall of 2019, with an initial cohort of 60 students. There was a team of faculty and staff that was brought together before I joined Saint Mary’s, and they pulled in professional social workers who were in the area to help develop the Master of Social Work program. They also worked closely with our partners at Wiley Education Services, and tried to understand the potential for the program, as well as labor statistics to see if this was even a desirable program to launch, if there was a need for it for students and for the local community. Once it was established that the need existed, they pulled in different people who looked at what needed to be included as part of that curriculum. That planning went on for a while.

I started with Saint Mary’s in May 2018, and at that point a good deal of work in terms of the classes and core sequences had all been established. I worked really closely with two people in our university–an instructional designer and the Director of the Writing Center at our graduate campus. We tried to make sure that it was a writing-infused and informed curriculum. To achieve this, we brought in numerous subject matter experts–a lot of social work practitioners and a lot of social work academics. We conducted surveys and focus groups to see what sort of communication skills professional social workers needed, and based on that we started to develop some of the assignments. We subsequently plugged assignments into different courses depending on the theme of the class, what the desired learning outcomes were for said class, and how we saw these assignments working within the course’s content and the overall program curriculum’s progression.

We wanted to make sure that the skills that students needed by graduation were being gradually built throughout the program, and so we were very intentional about the types of assignments that we put into all of the different courses. We wanted to make sure that there was a natural progression, which would lead eventually to the capstone class–which is the final class–as part of the program. We wanted to make sure people had strong writing skills, that they had a chance to present, that they had the knowledge that they needed throughout the entire curriculum prior to reaching the capstone, at which point they would demonstrate all of those skills at one time.

The mission of our MSW program is based on not only what is important to social workers in terms of social justice and really making sure that people had access to social work and focusing on empowering individuals, but also reflecting the Lasallian principles inherent to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, which include inclusive community, fighting oppression, and being in solidarity with the poor. Those are principles that complement the core values of the social work code of ethics, and so that helped to inform who we are as a program. Saint Mary’s, additionally, has made a commitment to ensuring that people are able to access education, which goes back to John Baptist de La Salle, who was the founder of this Lasallian pedagogy. That has very much informed who we are as a program and what we try to do every day. We try to break down barriers. We try to be inclusive. We try to make sure that all have access to a higher education, and we have very much tried to live by those values as social workers, instructors, and mentors employed within the program.

We are currently in our first year of candidacy through the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). That is about a 3 to 3- and 1/2-year process, and it starts with your application for eligibility, after which the program goes through what is called Benchmark I, where you have to submit a great deal of documentation.

You have to submit your entire curriculum and syllabi that have been developed, and you also have to complete a site review– which is essentially a site visit– with the Commission on Accreditation through the CSWE. We passed the first benchmark, were accepted into pre-candidacy, and then we officially entered full candidacy in February of 2020. Currently we’re in phase 1, and have moved through Benchmark 1 of candidacy, and we expect to achieve full accreditation by February of 2022.

That was a really intensive process, where we pulled insights and feedback from a lot of different people in to make sure that we were including everything that we needed to as part of our curriculum to prepare individuals to be clinical social workers. We looked at best practices from different programs around the country, and also built on the experience that we brought.

My teammates in the development and honing of this program have extensive social work and pedagogical backgrounds. While I previously worked for the University of Tennessee, Shelly Statz, who is our Field Education Director, previously worked for the University of Wisconsin in various locations, and also the University of Minnesota. Sylvester Lamin, who was our first core faculty member, came to us from Saint Cloud State University, and graduated from The Ohio State University’s social work program with his MSW and his PhD. We tried to bring all of this rich experience that we already had to Saint Mary’s MSW program, and use it to inform our teaching of social work best practices. We used the information that was provided to us from social work educators around the country, as well as social work practitioners, to develop a curriculum that would meet the needs of students who were entering the social work field.

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

[Ms. Shatila] We have been very intentional about figuring out what we are going to require for students. For students who are entering who do not have a background in social work, we consider them to be traditional students as part of this program, and they are required to complete 60 credits (which comes out to 20 classes total). And part of the 60 credits are two field experiences that run for a total of four semesters, as well as three electives that students take.

For our advanced standing students who are entering with having graduated with a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) from an accredited program, they complete 30 credits, and as part of that there are two electives and one clinical field experience. So, we have made sure that all of the foundations of social work practice have been infused into the program.

The first year–or rather I should say the first part of the curriculum, for traditional students–focuses on helping them to develop an affiliation to the profession of social work, to understand how social workers approach different areas of practice in ways that are different from those of our colleagues who are coming from other disciplines. The foundational first year also covers the social work code of ethics and what it means to be a competent and ethical social work practitioner, to really help students identify as a social worker and to connect with the history of the profession and the specific ways in which our approaches to social justice, client support and advocacy, and program development are unique to social work.

We also were very intentional about including certain classes that are required for everyone, regardless of our students’ background. We have a course specifically on ethics. We also have a course on leadership and supervision, which you don’t always see as part of clinical programs.

A lot of times there’s very much a division between macro and direct practice/micro social work in social work programs. Macro social work students learn all about leadership and agency management, and micro– or direct practice– students learn all about those one-on-one interactions. In developing our program, it was very important to us that we make sure we were preparing our students to be leaders regardless of what area or what level of social work they engaged in after graduation.

As part of our leadership course, we also make sure that students have exposure to grant writing– which most social workers will end up being involved with in some capacity in their professional lives, even if it’s just meeting with the grant writer or the person who is in charge of putting the grant together. Sometimes we as social workers end up writing the whole grant, and are in charge of the entire grant application process, depending on our roles within agencies, as well as how big the agency is and how many resources we have access to. Since we felt that this was an integral part of the social work profession, we made sure that it was included in our curriculum.

We also made sure that our students have exposure to the importance of advocacy through our curriculum, and that they understand how to get involved in advocacy regardless of the area of practice in which they are engaged. We want our students to understand that advocacy in social work is really this continuous process. Macro practitioners are talking with direct service and clinical social workers so that they know what to include in policy, and then that policy is developed, and it informs practice, and then the practitioners have to inform policymakers of the impact. It is really this continuous process, and we try to make sure that our students understand that and have a really good understanding of why they need to be involved in that as social work practitioners.

We do try to stress the importance of cultural humility and working with all communities within our program. Within our focus on clinical practice in the program, we make sure that students understand that, as social workers, they are ethically obligated to serve everyone. Individuals who are looking to just come in and do private practice and not live out our code of ethics–that is not compatible with social work, and we try to stress that point to students so that they understand that they need to be involved. They need to be involved in advocacy. They need to be involved with serving marginalized populations. They need to be involved with breaking down barriers to make sure everyone has access to services–that is all part of our approach, all part of our social work code of ethics.

In terms of customizing courses to meet individual career goals–we do offer several social work electives. Before students enroll in those electives, all social work students meet with their academic advisor– who is a core faculty member within the program–and we talk to them about what their career goals are.

If someone comes in and they say, “I want to be a medical social worker,” or “I want to be a school social worker,” we look with them at electives and help guide them through their choices so that they can craft the best curriculum to lead them to their goals. These kinds of consulting sessions are extremely important. We tell them, “Based on the fact that you want to work with this population, we recommend that you take this course, or these courses. And that way they can design their own curriculum, but with advice from faculty experts who know what these elective courses entail, and how they will help students build the skills and the knowledge that they need in order to reach their career goals.

We also have students work very closely with our field education director in order to identify field practicum experiences, which will help them develop the skills that they need in order to reach their career goals. So if a student says, “I want to work in mental health,” we try to find them a mental health clinical placement so that they have the most relevant practicum experience for their goals. Connecting students with practicum sites in their area that are relevant to their career goals also allows them to potentially build on those connections when they are looking for work post-graduation.

We really try to be very thoughtful about the courses that we have students enroll in. We want to make sure that they have a really broad exposure to all of social work, but that they also have those pieces that will also help them to reach their career goals once they are out of the program.

[] What online learning technologies does this program use to facilitate interactions between students and faculty, as well as between course peers during class discussions? What learning management system does this program use, and what online support systems are in place to support students?

[Ms. Shatila] The learning management system (LMS) we are currently using is Engage, which is based on the Moodle platform. And we use that to house all of the materials that students will need–videos, recorded lectures, all of the activities in which they need to engage. Engage houses all of these different aspects of the course. In addition to that, we also have asynchronous and synchronous options as part of all of the classes. All of the asynchronous lectures are recorded, and we have asynchronous activities built into the LMS, like discussion board forums and VoiceThread and Flipgrid. And then we also hold different synchronous sessions. Some of those are optional, and some of those we ask that students participate in–though we do try to make it as flexible as possible.

For our field practicum classes, we especially want to make sure that students are participating in those synchronous sessions for field practicum seminars, because that’s where students have a chance to connect with each other to talk about any issues they are experiencing in field, and to bounce ideas off of each other. It’s very important that they participate in these discussions whenever they are available. We do require that students watch the video recordings of the synchronous sessions if they cannot make them, and we strongly encourage that students participate in those synchronous sessions for their own benefit.

We use Zoom a lot with students to record lectures. We also use Screencast-O-Matic to record lectures, and then we’ll use Zoom for live sessions as well. All of our classes are required to have a Zoom session at the beginning of the term, as well as at the midterm to allow students to ask questions and for everyone to get to know each other and have a real-time discussion about course concepts and questions. If students cannot make these sessions due to work or a time zone conflict, we record them for viewing afterward.

We are very committed to making sure that we are fostering social presence within the online learning environment, and so we’re trying to do things to make students feel a part of an online community, and that they have the chance to connect with their professors, as well as with their peers.

Within the classrooms we use discussion boards, utilizing technologies such as VoiceThread and FlipGrid. These are all ways for students to respond to questions that professors might post, and also connect with each other. We also use a learning technology called InScribe, which is an online platform where students can access resources, post questions, and connect with each other.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve tried to provide some additional resources, and also some forums in which students can participate and talk about how they’re taking care of themselves, what they’re doing for self-care, or just connect with each other for mutual emotional support.

[] Students of the Traditional Track for Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Online Master of Social Work program must complete a Generalist and a Clinical Field Experience practicum, while advanced standing students complete the Clinical Field Education practicum. What do the Generalist and Clinical Field Experience 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?

[Ms. Shatila] Students in the traditional track need to complete 400 hours of generalist field and 600 hours of clinical field. The generalist field practicum is completed over two consecutive semesters, or 32 weeks, and the clinical field is also completed over two consecutive semesters. When students are enrolled just in the advanced standing portion of the program, then they only have to complete the clinical field, because they’ve already completed their generalist field as part of their BSW program.

We also have a summer block option for both the generalist and clinical practicums, which some of our students who are working in educational settings–such as K-12 education–tend to select. If students have their summers off or if they have a more flexible schedule in the summer, we do allow students to complete all of their generalist field or clinical field within 16 weeks–if they’re able to do that. This option does come with some special requirements.

As field experience is the signature pedagogy of the discipline, we make sure students are thinking about and planning for their practicums from the beginning of the program. Once students are accepted into the program, the admissions team schedules a field call with our field education director Shelly Statz. Shelly built the entire field education component of our program, and oversees all student placements. She reaches out to each student and talks with them about what their interests and goals are. If students are not in an area in which we have previously established relationships or connections, she also talks to them about what agencies they might be interested in working at. She then takes that information and sets up contacts in the students’ area of residence to help students secure a field placement.

Students are not responsible for finding their own placement. They work very closely with Shelly to make sure that they are identifying options, and then we support them through that process by establishing contacts and ensuring that placements meet the educational requirements. We also have memorandums of understanding with all of our placements. Until we have that, students cannot enter into those field assignments.

The semester before field, students are enrolled in pre-field activities, and our field education director goes through an orientation with them. She tells them the key steps of the field practicum process, such as the documentation they have to secure, and really tries to walk them through that process so that by the time they do get to the semester where they’re entering field, they know exactly what to do and they have everything in place. They’ve already gone through background checks. They already have their resume. They already have a placement secured. They already have malpractice insurance secured. We make sure to walk students through that process and provide support in order to put them in the best position possible to secure a placement that is going to meet their needs.

There is a lot that goes into establishing field practicum sites for each student, and luckily the field component of the program is in very capable hands; the field education director works very closely with students to make sure that they’re able to secure something that meets their needs, and that also meets the educational requirements and standards–national standards–for field education. In addition to the direct support that students receive from the field education director, we also have a field specialist who works with students.

Once students are enrolled in field, they start participating in field experience seminars. These seminars are a formal course, and as part of the semester, there may be eight synchronous sessions, and in between these synchronous discussions students are engaging in asynchronous activities. As mentioned previously, these seminars are important because they give students the chance to think critically about their experiences in field, and to discuss any challenges they have encountered or rewarding experiences they have had with their instructor and peers.

[] How do the faculty members of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Online Master of Social Work program mentor and support students during their enrollment? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities? Outside of faculty advising, what other support structures are in place for students?

[Ms. Shatila] All students are assigned a faculty advisor upon entering the program. And the Council on Social Work Education is very clear that programs need to provide academic mentoring and coaching to students. One of the things we try to do is we try to make sure that every class starts with a discussion on ethics, so that we are reinforcing the ethics of the profession and preparing our students to be ethical and competent practitioners.

All of the faculty advisors meet with students at the beginning of and throughout their enrollment to talk about licensing requirements in their state, to talk about career goals, to talk about electives, and to really provide that academic mentoring and coaching. I know that when I have students who are my advisees, we spend anywhere from a half hour to an hour during our initial meeting, and then we meet periodically throughout the rest of their time in the program to make sure that we are preparing them to be competent social work practitioners after they graduate.

So in terms of accessing faculty in the online environment, what we do is we set up Zoom appointments, and that way we’re able to interact with students one-on-one. If students are local, they’re welcome to stop in. And sometimes we have local students who decide that they want to come to campus, but there’s no requirement to do that.

We have also tried to build a lot of resources into the InScribe platform for students to access for field education support and understanding what it takes to be a competent and ethical practitioner. We try to expose them to a lot of different social work voices throughout all our courses. To accomplish this, we have a lot of guest lecturers who have recorded lectures, and we have tried to build on what resources are available to make sure that students have access to different voices and different perspectives for social good. And we’ve also tried to be very intentional about making sure that there’s diversity in the materials that we are presenting so that we’re not just presenting one viewpoint or presenting social work through one lens. Instead, we’ve made great efforts to be inclusive when designing our courses, so that our students have exposure to a lot of different voices.

[] For students interested in Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Online Master of Social Work program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Ms. Shatila] All applicants have to submit a personal essay, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. We also have minimum GPA requirements: for the advanced standing track, applicants must have a minimum overall GPA of 3.0, while for the traditional track, applicants need to have at least a 2.75 cumulative GPA and to have graduated from a regionally or nationally accredited college. Advanced standing students must have also graduated from a CSWE-accredited program within the last 10 years at the time of application. If students do not meet these aforementioned requirements, we work with them to make sure they have the necessary courses through our program to prepare them for practice.

I think one of the most important parts of an application is the personal statement, and with the personal statement, the more specific, the better. A lot of times when I read personal statements people aren’t telling me why they want to be a social worker. They might talk about social work in a very vague way. It is very important to help us as the admissions committee to understand what you want to do with your social work degree–aside from helping people. We all want to help people, right? That’s why you get into social work: you want to help people. But are there any specific populations that you want to serve? What role do you see yourself in in a few years?

Talk about your career goals as specifically as possible. Talk about experiences that have led you to want a career in social work. Also, if for some reason you don’t have a very strong record of undergraduate academic performance, you should address that in the personal statement, and also let us know what you are going to do to make sure that you’re set up to be successful in the program. Do you have different supports right now? Do you do a better job of managing stress? Do you have someone at home who can watch your kids while you are focused on school? Let us know what supports exist within your own life to help you be successful in the program.

In terms of qualities that we’re looking for, one of the qualities we look for is if you already have experience in social work. That doesn’t necessarily mean formal employment. You may have a background in business, but for the last few years you have been volunteering at your kid’s school in the social work office, or maybe you’re volunteering at your local food bank and that’s how you discovered that you like helping people.

Talk to us about not only your professional experience, but also your volunteer experiences. Also, have you taken any previous classes in social work or related to social work? Did you take a counseling class, or an intro to social work class, or something like that that made you start thinking that you wanted to be a social worker? Those are all really helpful details to include.

Also, make sure that your volunteer experience is listed on your resume so that we can get a good idea of what it entailed. Include volunteer work even if it is not strictly related to social work, but is in the area of directly helping people or advocating for the social good. If you are a member of a place of worship, maybe it is volunteering on the Mission Committee or the Social Justice Committee, or maybe you show up at the PTA meetings and you are helping to organize fundraisers. Those are all things we want to see. We want to see that you are making a commitment to a community in some way.

In terms of the differences between admissions requirements for the traditional program and the advanced standing program–you can only get into the advanced standing program if you have a bachelor of social work degree from a program that has been accredited through the Council on Social Work Education. I’ve had people who try to argue with me. That is beyond my control. That is a national standard. You cannot be admitted to the advanced standing track unless you have a BSW from an accredited program.

Quite honestly, even if it wasn’t a national standard, that would still be something I would enforce, because you need to have that generalist curriculum in order to really understand the specialized curriculum in clinical social work. Also, if had a low overall GPA during your BSW program, or a low GPA in certain classes, we may ask you to repeat a class. If you failed generalist practice or intro to social work, we may ask you to repeat that. And that is because we want to make sure that we are doing everything to prepare you for practice, as well as for licensing.

For all social workers, once you go through the licensing process, you have to take a national exam. And that is in every state. You have to graduate from a Council on Social Work Education accredited program, and you have to pass exams that are developed by the Association of Social Work Boards. So if I see on your transcripts that you failed a class that has content you need to know for your licensing exams, I’m going to ask you to take that class again. And it’s not me trying to make your life difficult, or trying to get more money for the program or anything like that. It’s to make sure that you have the knowledge needed in order to pass that really intense licensure exam. And usually if I see that, I reach out to the student and we have a conversation about it, or admissions has the conversation, so it’s not a surprise.

We require that you submit two letters of recommendation. It is best to get those letters of recommendation from someone who can actually speak to your ability to be a professional social worker and a graduate student. So while it’s great that your childhood friend can vouch for what a wonderful person you are, what I’m really looking for is someone who can say, “Yes, this person will be successful in this program,” and “Yes, this person will be an excellent addition to the social work community.”

Our goal as part of this program is to nurture the future generation of social workers, so we want to make sure that we’re not wasting your time or your resources by admitting you to a program that isn’t a good fit. And so you want to make sure, in your application, that you are demonstrating that you have the potential and the drive and the passion to be a professional social worker.

[] What makes Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Online 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?

[Ms. Shatila] First let me say that the MSW degree is inherently an excellent degree to earn as it opens up a lot of doors and work settings. In fact, there are a lot of systems that only recognize the MSW in order to practice within those systems. For example, if you want to work as a mental health practitioner within the school system, some school districts require that you have an MSW and that you have social work licensure. Some veterans’ groups and organizations require that you have an MSW, and so they don’t accept people who have master’s degrees in other disciplines. So the MSW is a really beneficial and versatile degree, depending on what system(s) you hope to practice within.

The MSW is also recognized by insurance panels across the country, whereas sometimes other disciplines are not recognized. If you do end up going into mental health services and billing and seeing clients, an MSW is a really useful degree. You also have to get clinical social work licensure to be recognized by insurance panels, but in order to secure that licensure, you need the master’s degree in social work.

I’ve personally experienced the benefits that the MSW degree’s versatility provides. As a social worker, I have worked in direct practice. I have had leadership positions. I’ve been involved in policy development. I have developed anti-poverty programs. I’ve been involved in research. This degree doesn’t limit you to one line of work, whereas if you were to get a master’s degree in another discipline, you may be locked into doing one specific thing.

For example, you might go into a counseling program, and when you graduate you are prepared to be a counselor and to only provide counseling services. If you go through a master’s of social work program, you have that generalist experience–which provides the foundation you need to work in different systems. If you decide to go into anti-poverty programs or school social work–or any anything where you have to develop relationships beyond one-on-one counseling and support–that generalist curriculum is really important. Moreover, once you get into your MSW specialization, that’s where you’re really developing all of those skills to help provide advanced social work services as a practitioner. The MSW is so highly applicable to so many different situations. If you decide you don’t want to be a school social worker after you’ve graduated, or you don’t want to be a medical social worker, with your MSW you have a few more options. You’re not just locked into one specific area of practice.

I feel the MSW degree is uniquely valuable in that aspect. I would also say that whereas other disciplines that are focused on providing direct services may not be as focused on social justice and advocacy, these elements are very much a part of who we are–our history, our legacy, and our current mission. We are very dedicated to serving individuals who might not otherwise have access to services, and so that makes our profession unique from other disciplines as well.

I have been a social worker for 20 years now, and I have not regretted it. I think social work is the best profession, and for so many different reasons. I am excited to talk more with students who are interested in entering this field. However, it is not a field for the faint of heart. There are days when you will feel like giving up. But overall, at the end of the day, you can say that you’ve tried to make a difference. I don’t know of other professions that approach systemic issues and societal issues in the way that we do, where we try to bring in different approaches and we try to take a client-centered approach that respects the inherent dignity of the populations we serve, and the individuals we serve, to develop really long-term solutions.

I think social work is an incredible profession, and I’m excited that I get to be a part of working with students who are entering this field. All of our faculty are educated in social work. At a minimum they have a master’s of social work degree, and they have some sort of advanced social work licensure. Many of our faculty also have doctorates in social work or PhDs in social work, and some of them may have an EdD, but they also have the MSW. So, they still have that social work education and approach.

Many of us have been involved in research and have been published and have presented our research at conferences. At the same time, we all have experience as practitioners as well–either clinical practitioners, direct service practitioners, or practitioners at that mezzo or macro level of social work. We are able to bring all of that experience and help pass that knowledge and that experience on to our students so that they can learn from ways we’ve been successful, as well as the mistakes we’ve made.

The collective experience of our faculty really provides a window into all of the things you can do with a social work degree. We are very much committed to ensuring that our students are in a good place, upon leaving this program, to enter into the profession of social work as competent practitioners.

We will have our first few graduates in October of 2020, and those are students who enrolled in our advanced standing program who already had their BSWs. We hope to be able to stay connected with them. We want to still be there for them as mentors, and to also give them the opportunity to mentor our current students and work with them as professional social workers in field practicums. We are coming up with some different ways to ensure that students stay connected to our program.

Social work is a profession and a degree that is recognized nationwide as well as around the world. We have been around for over 100 years now and once you enter the program we can start talking to you about the history of social work, which is really quite incredible, to find out about our earliest, hell-raising matriarchs who fought against injustice and tried to live and work amongst different populations and serve them. We’re a recognized profession, and we have title protection and licensure standards and pretty strict requirements around what can go into a bachelor’s and a master’s of social work program, and so that’s what sets us apart. We have this history, and we have these national professional organizations that set high standards for us to uphold.

Thank you, Suzanne Shatila, for your excellent insight into Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Master of Social Work program!