Carol A. Hand
I truly wish the account I am about to share were a fictional creation. I also wish the ending provided an example of enlightenment, how faculty could use their power to open doors for students who have overcome overwhelming odds to reach academia. Alas, the events point to a misuse of power and the tendency of those in positions of power to protect themselves at all costs, including at the cost of their own humanity.
Photo Credit: Google “Gatekeeper Images”
Mrs. A, obviously a fictive name to protect identity, had always dreamed of obtaining a social work degree. It was not until she had lost everything because of her husband’s serious and progressive mental illness that she was finally able to enter a university through the help of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, when she herself was suffering from chronically challenging physical health conditions. As a mature student in her 40s, she was a conscientious and engaged student. I had an opportunity to observe her hard work and dedication in a class I taught. Despite health challenges and family responsibilities, she was in class, on time, with work completed. She was respectful toward her instructors, and kind and supportive of her younger peers. And, through her first three years as a social work major, she earned a grade point average of “A.” She was also a McNair scholar whose work won awards and statewide acclaim.
It important to understand the significance of socioeconomic class in academia, particularly in the field of social work. First generation college students like Mrs. A have often learned crucial skills. They often come from families that needed to forge relationships with other families in similar situations in order to survive with limited incomes. These mutual support networks exchanged resources and services in times of need. Children learned to quickly discern who was in a similar situation and how to form supportive networks. They also learned to endure the shame of paying for food with food stamps, or wearing outdated, unfashionable secondhand clothing that drew the ridicule of more affluent peers. These lessons often make it easy for students from families with fewer economic resources to form trusting relationships with agency clients. Yet like all strengths, context matters. The purpose of education is to help students be able to decide when to use these relation-forming abilities and when to maintain professional distance.
Mrs. A described some of the experiences that were humiliating for her when she was a child, and the deep shame she still feels when she remembers these experiences. Because she is kind-hearted and empathetic, her natural inclination is to reach out to others who share this history to ease their humiliation and pain. It is this predilection to ease the suffering of others that placed her at odds with middle class notions in social work. For most faculty I have encountered, the need to maintain “professional boundaries” with clients is simplistically operationalized as a distant power-over relationship. There is little room to understand the nuances culture, class, context, and purpose of interventions, etc., have on the most effective approaches for working with people.
There are also profound differences in how faculty teach social work. Unfortunately for Mrs. A, the majority of faculty in the institution Mrs. A attended saw their role as gatekeepers, enforcers of the “right way” to practice social work in old problem-focused ways that rob clients (and students) of choice and dignity. The place in the social work curriculum where socioeconomic-class clashes become most apparent are in social work’s “signature pedagogy,” the practicum experience. Students are placed in an agency under the joint supervision of a faculty member and an agency social worker to “be trained” as a social worker in a field setting.
The university is supposed to put safeguards in place to make sure that both clients and students are protected. First, the university has contracts that specify the expectations of each partner: the agency, the agency intern supervisor, the university faculty, and the student. Second, students are assessed and placed in an agency that best meets both their educational needs and builds on their particular strengths. Third, the agency intern supervisors are required to go through an orientation to make sure that they have the necessary skills to create a professional learning environment (as opposed to a clerical position) and appropriate supervisory skills. Fourth, students are required to submit weekly journals where they discuss what they are doing and learning in field. They are also required to write about any challenges or ethical dilemmas they encounter. It is the responsibility of supervising faculty to read the student journals and address any issues. Fifth, students meet in a weekly seminar to discuss their placements, ideally receiving feedback from their peers and faculty supervisor on how to negotiate any difficulties or resolve ethical conflicts. Finally, faculty are required to visit the agency at the beginning of the placement to make sure the placement is appropriate and at the semester midterm to assess student progress.
Unfortunately for Mrs. A, few of these safeguards were in place. Given the inexperience of the university’s new field coordinator, the agency where Mrs. A was placed was a poor fit with her interests, skills, and realistic learning goals. The agency intern supervisor had not been to orientation, adding to the challenges. Nonetheless, Mrs. A tried valiantly to make this placement work. Because she was helping me with a project, I had an opportunity to hear about her experiences with her agency intern supervisor. As I listened to the ethical dilemmas and inconsistent directions Mrs. A was given, I was concerned and advised her to include these in her written logs, raise any questions during seminar, and speak to her faculty supervisor privately about her concerns. Mrs. A did all of these things, only to be told by an inexperienced faculty supervisor who was teaching seminar for the first time, “just wait. Things might work out.” Unfortunately, the way things worked out changed Mrs. A’s life profoundly.
The midterm evaluation never happened. In the eleventh week of a fourteen week semester, the agency intern supervisor called the new field coordinator to report a serious breach of professional boundaries. From an objective standpoint, it was really a relatively minor misunderstanding that resulted from poor agency supervision and poor university oversight, compounded by socioeconomic class differences between Mrs. A, the agency intern supervisor, and university faculty. Rather than approach the situation as a learning opportunity for all involved, faculty quickly reacted from their gatekeeper mentality. They met with the agency intern supervisor to hear her concerns without ever speaking to Mrs. A. Again, without ever speaking to Mrs. A, faculty decided to give Mrs. A a failing grade in practicum and remove her from the agency immediately. Administrators in the social work department supported this decision, again without ever giving Mrs. A a chance to share her perspective and experiences.
Mrs. A was repeatedly shamed by the field coordinator, other faculty, and the chair of the social work program. Ultimately, Mrs. A was told she would not be allowed to finish her degree because of the failing grade in practicum and the characterological deficiencies that would always make her unfit to function as a social worker in a professional setting. She heard these damning pronouncements without ever being allowed to voice her perspectives and without ever being allowed to have her two informal faculty advocates present during meetings. After one of these encounters with the field coordinator and key faculty, another student found Mrs. A wondering on the campus grounds in a daze and brought her to my office.
What happened to Mrs. A and the new colleague who wanted to serve as Mrs. A’s lead advocate forever changed my view of the institution where I worked and people in positions of power there. My colleague and I helped Mrs. A successfully appeal the department’s ruling, although it cost her another year and thousands of dollars to finish her degree. I was able to offset some of these costs by hiring her as an assistant with small grants I had. Yet, despite my best efforts, I could not help my new colleague survive the backlash of people in power who needed to cover their own long legacy of mean-spirited incompetence. Yes, I was even told by the chair as a parting comment when I announced my early retirement, “You have a terrible reputation! [as he was screaming and waving his arms] You’re seen as a STUDENT ADVOCATE!”
Ah well, there are worse things to be. I count my blessings every day, and despite geographic distances, my colleague and I still have opportunities to help other students make it through the repressive gatekeepers with some of their dignity, integrity, and creativity intact.
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