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In Praise of MSW Students Who Combine Work and Study
By Ericka Deglau, PhD, LSW

Working students represent a growing segment of the students enrolled in MSW programs across the country. That trend is evident in the increase in part-time students (from 18% in 2006 to more than 34% in 2019) and by the expansion of educational options to accommodate changing student needs. Indeed, as the number of institutions offering an MSW degree have themselves grown, so too have hybrid and online forms of instruction. By 2019, over one-half of Schools of Social Work offered online and/or hybrid programs, compared with 19% just three years earlier, according to the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States.

The reasons for the increase in students who combine work with school are not hard to find. As education costs have soared, more students at both undergraduate and graduate levels simply cannot afford the expense and future debt of higher education without working—or getting a job as soon as they can after undergrad. While settling on a career in social work has frequently occurred after time spent in the workforce, fully returning to school and interrupting that career, let alone the accompanying paycheck, has become much more difficult for many students.

As the director of an MSW program designed specifically for human services employees for the past 15 years, I have become acutely aware of the difficult balance that work and school entails, of the distinct needs of working students—and of the rich experience they often bring to their studies. Their presence invigorates social work education by strengthening its ties to the community and to the organizations providing services; it offers valuable insights into the needs and realities of professional practice. This is perhaps nowhere as evident as during the present pandemic.

What Working Students Bring
Human services employees are the essential workers of the profession. Through students’ work on the frontlines, we can sense how they and their agencies are adapting to the rapid and often disconcerting changes that have become the new normal in the past year and a half. The risk of exposure that comes with the job, periods of quarantine, isolation, and sometimes falling ill, all have exacted their toll, but have not chipped away at the fortitude and creativity of these students or of the agencies that employ them. As they have continued to bring services to those who need them, these working students’ resilience and commitment are nothing short of amazing.

Diversity, in age, ethnicity, cultural, and experiential background, is part of their strength. Many are first-generation students, with a burning desire to give back to their families and communities, to the populations they have come to serve. Their educational motivations are centered in aspirations to improve their effectiveness and impact. They bring into the classroom the dilemmas they face at work, questions about policies that often seem to hinder and oppress more than they actually help, and something of their own efforts to mitigate the problems they are confronted with each day.

These students’ work experience provides a direct link to what is going on out there, to the good, the bad—and what could be better. If we listen to their stories and make good use of the relationships available with the entities that employ them, we can learn what newly minted social workers need to excel in their jobs: the kinds of skills and knowledge that can help them move beyond what is now to what can be—and, as importantly, how to keep their agencies afloat in challenging financial times and able to provide the best services possible.

What Working Students Need
Working students need answers to tough questions. But going back to school can be tough, too. In addition to finding ways to balance work, school, and often their own caregiving responsibilities, reintegrating academic life after an absence of some years almost always means learning a new way to organize and carve out time for study. Many students need to reacclimate to academic expectations—or acclimate to changes that have occurred in higher education since they were last in school. Supports to help students make the transition from workplace to academia are critical, whether a refresher about basic research and writing skills, steps to guide them through the technology that is now an integral part of higher education, or help with financial planning. Better still, these supports should build on the life experience that students bring to their educational journey.

The greatest support often comes from opportunities for students to connect with other working students, build relationships, share resources, and exchange professional knowledge to build a community of learning. Social work education for working students that builds on and adds value to what they have already learned challenges and nearly always transforms what they have thought or done in the past. That transformation can also happen at the heart of our social work educational institutions.

— Ericka Deglau, PhD, LSW, has directed Rutgers School of Social Work’s Intensive Weekend program since 2006. During the pandemic, the hybrid MSW program designed for human services employees transferred its monthly in-person weekend classes to Zoom, and is now gradually moving back to in-person instruction.