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Social work placements help students put theory into practice

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – With increasing pressure for college programs to offer real-world experience, Bethel College’s social work department stays ahead of the curve by requiring students to complete two field placements.

Bethel’s social work program, unlike many other colleges’ programs, expects students to complete field placements in both their junior and senior years.

By requiring two placements – instead of only one in the final semester – Bethel’s social work program allows students to explore different aspects of the field, from school settings to community development, and helps students “connect what they are doing in the classroom with things going on in the real world,” explains Ada Schmidt-Tieszen, Bethel professor of social work.

Individualized placements allow social work students to explore the different reasons they were drawn to the profession.

For Yenikah Fon, senior from Hyattsville, Md., social work felt like a natural fit from the beginning. “My family has always been the helping type,” he says. “My mom was a children’s activist for 10 years and is still very active in it. Three of my siblings are nursing majors, and it’s only right that there should be a social worker amidst my family.”

Social work started out as a means to an end for Emily Piper, senior from North Newton who is majoring in both art and social work.

“Coming out of high school, I was very interested in art therapy,” explains Piper. “I met with Larry Friesen [professor of social work] on a visit day, and he told me social work would be a good background for an art therapy master’s degree. I [chose social work] based on that comment, but since being in the program, I have come to love the social work department.”

Unlike Piper, Albino Quinones, senior from San Antonio, Texas, became a social work major almost by accident. “I took Intro to Social Work with Larry Friesen and had a great time discussing issues and dilemmas I had seen and experienced in San Antonio,” says Quinones. “I liked it because here we spoke about acting upon situations and being active advocates and empowering people. Back home, it was more of just talking about the situations and not really having a sense of direction or knowledge of how to go about [dealing with] multiple issues.”

Schmidt-Tieszen describes the field education requirement as “our signature pedagogy, a central way we teach.” She goes on to explain that field placements give students the opportunity to connect classroom learning about theory with actual real-world practice.

“In a small school like Bethel,” she says, “faculty can give each student individualized attention as we together choose the best placement for the student. We carefully place students with experienced social workers who will become mentors for them.”

Quinones’s first placement at Rainbows United in Wichita gave him the chance to start putting into action what he was learning. “I want to do school social work,” says Quinones. Rainbows, an organization that helps children with special needs and their families, felt like a great way to get experience with children and social work.

“At Rainbows, I mainly focused on families that were needing resources,” Quinones says. “One thing I did was teach an every Tuesday lesson on impulse control to a class of 3- and 4-year olds, so one can imagine the difficulty in working with these students.”

In addition to teaching lessons, he helped the social worker with the families of these children, “calling them for social histories, translating, connecting the families with different resources.”

The placement required Quinones to put into practice what the social work classes taught. “When speaking with families,” he explains, “I had to go into a conversation knowing what I was talking about. This included looking at the disability, looking at a child's chart, knowing the different students and just having that everyday knowledge and relationship with a child to know enough to speak about them.”

Piper’s current placement is also with youth, at the Special Purpose School at Prairie View in Newton. “Most of the students are residential clients, meaning they live at Prairie View while completing their treatment,” she says. “I participate in social work therapy groups during the day, help students in the classroom, meet one-on-one with students and lead elective groups.

“I am also participating in an art therapy group, which is a fun experience. I really enjoy working with this group – each client is an amazing person with different challenges, abilities and interests. “

This placement does come with its challenges. “I think the hardest thing while working with this group is realizing the ongoing patterns of anger, abuse [and] trauma in people’s lives,” says Piper. “It’s a sad fact that each one of these kids [is] struggling for a reason.

“Another difficulty is learning to work with a classroom of students with a wide range in ability – or leaning how to adapt techniques for each client. For example, a certain way of communication may work for one client, but another client may have entirely different needs.”

Fon’s placement at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services in Newton was not his first choice, but “based on my experiences at SRS, I should have made it my first choice,” he says.

As an intern in the Child and Family Services (CFS) department, Fon’s “job requires making home visits, going to court and [possibly] testifying on cases, case planning and family preservation planning, and working with clients of different cultures.”

For his second placement, Quinones also chose to work at SRS because he was interested in seeing social work from a policy perspective. “I wanted to know how programs and child welfare worked internally so I could understand the relationship between family and child, between child and school, between school and family and how federal and state policies and procedures and mandates affected these systems,” he explains.

One of the biggest challenges Quinones says he faced was knowing how to problem solve on the spot, how to connect families with the services they needed.

However, “It was those experiences that helped me to understand what I learned in the classroom," he says. “I really learned the most [from] talking to the social workers after the initial intake and looking over what theories or approaches helped or would have helped in the intervention with a certain individual or family. And that was the best learning because you take more experience with you to the next intake and to the next intake, connecting what was learned in the classroom to experience.”

In many of the placements, students are given increasing amounts of responsibility. This is true for Fon, who expects to be assigned his own case in the near future. With this case, he explains, “I will have to use the skills learned both in class and at my internship to provide services or follow up on an investigation.”

“This experience [in the field placement] has been very helpful for preparing me for a social work career,” says Piper. “I am learning simple things like charting and planning, but also will benefit from the experience of working with other staff in a professional setting. It has been a great introduction to the mental health field. I am constantly learning more about myself, others and the social work profession.”

Schmidt-Tieszen acknowledges that part of strength of the field placement program comes from the students themselves: “Students from Bethel College are warmly welcomed by field instructors and agencies in the area.” She adds, “Our students have given our program a strong reputation.”

Quinones definitely sees the strength in requiring field placements. “[They have] heightened my awareness of the social issues that confront many people today and [allowed] me to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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