Rebecca Garofano, a Falk College graduate student in nutrition science, was honored with the Outstanding Dietetics Student Award at the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Annual Meeting and Expo April 8-9 in Syracuse. Garofano is actively engaged…
Virtual Field Experiences Boost Social Work Students’ Confidence
Spurred on by the global pandemic, the School of Social Work in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics has piloted virtual field experiences for master of social work (M.S.W.) students. Tracy Walker, director of field education, says, “The quantity of field experiences decreased significantly, so we had students who needed field placement and not enough sites that would even consider taking them.”
This posed a real challenge, as field placement is a critical part of the social work curriculum. “Social workers are engaging with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, like people who are experiencing trauma or health-related issues,” she added. “Our students can’t just cognitively understand the concepts learned in class; they need to know how to make professional judgments and apply these concepts that they’re learning in the classroom so they can be effective and ethical in their practice.”
Walker is a dynamic presence in the School of Social Work, maintaining relationships with field sites both close to the Syracuse University campus and in far-flung places. She says the school had to quickly devise a way for students to have these critical fieldwork opportunities during the pandemic, and leadership believed that technology could provide an answer.
Building on an existing relationship with 2U, the School of Social Work and the Falk College were invited by partners at 2U to pilot a Virtual Field Experience (VFX) program, which provides a platform for students to engage with standardized patients to gain clinical skills.
Medical schools have long used standardized patient exercises to build clinical skills. By encountering an individual trained to act as a real patient with symptoms and a diagnosis, students learn the nuances of eliciting information and building rapport with the people they will ultimately serve during their careers. Until recently, these experiences were hard to find outside of academic medical centers.
“The live actors simulate what that real-world client interaction is going to feel like, when you have butterflies in your stomach and are wondering, ‘How am I possibly going to help this person?” Walker says. “The skill of managing your own anxiety as a social worker is key to stepping up to the challenges that our profession poses.”
Students and faculty have found that the VFX is a safe space to make mistakes in the moment and hear real-time feedback from classmates and professors. Students can watch themselves on the video playback, gaining insights about their strengths and potential areas for improvement before they interact with an actual client in the real world. “It allows M.S.W. students to finesse their skills before going out and working with vulnerable clients,” says Walker. “It also helps students get to a place where we feel confident about students’ readiness to engage with clients, and they will be more effective at their jobs because of the experience.”
The platform also makes it possible for more social work students to train and serve in their hometowns by alleviating the cost or burden of traveling to a placement site.
The School of Social Work plans to continue offering VFX as a way of supporting high-quality outcomes for students on campus. In addition, the online M.S.W. program will begin using the VFX later this year.