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NMSU's master of social work students provide service to Albuquerque agencies

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the country, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. New Mexico State University's Master's of Social work program is also growing. The university's Albuquerque MSW program has grown from 12 to 58 students since 2001. This is in addition to the 97 students seeking a master's in social work at NMSU's Las Cruces campus.

Two women looking at a laptop computer
NMSU's Master of Social Work student Karen Longenecker, left, reviews information about her practicum with field instructor Monica Armas Aragon. Longenecker is working at UNM Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for nine months. Longenecker is one of 45 students at the NMSU-Albuquerque Center providing non-paid services at various community agencies during their practicum. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Besides taking classes at the NMSU-Albuquerque Center these student contribute 21,375 hours of non-paid service annually to a variety of agencies that address people's needs.

"The School of social work is committed to serving people through teaching, outreach, leadership, research and service," said Gail Leedy, NMSU professor and MSW program coordinator in Albuquerque. "We want to ensure that our students have the knowledge, skills and values that they need in order to respond to the individuals, families, and communities. It is especially important that they have knowledge of the diverse culture of the Southwest."

During their graduate school work, these students must participate in two nine-month practica where they work for 15 to 20 hours a week at human service agencies in the communities across northern and north-central New Mexico.

"This is a rigorous advance generalist program," said Susan Burns, NMSU MSW field coordinator and assistant professor in Albuquerque. "Besides attending evening classes Monday through Thursday for four semesters, the student works two semesters at one agency and the final two semesters of their field work at another agency."

The practicum gives the student the opportunity to apply the concepts and theories they have learned in the classroom to real-life situations.

Students have participated in internships throughout the Albuquerque and Santa Fe area, as well in communities as far reaching as Gallup, Grants and Tucumcari.

The agencies involved in the program include, among many, the Veterans Administration, in- and out-patient psychiatric centers and clinics, public school special education programs, child welfare In Home Services through New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, correctional facilities, domestic violence agencies, private non-profit child welfare agencies, hospice and rehab centers, Native American charter schools and social services, health clinics, legal advocacy agencies and agencies that are committed to community program development.

"We couldn't prepare these students for their careers without the partnership of our community agencies," Burns said.

The School of social work's practicum program, like those of other professional schools in the College of Health and Social Services, fulfills the NMSU's land grant university mission by providing outreach through these collaborative relationships.

"The faculty is the research, teaching and service components of the university's mission, while the internship or practicum is the university's outreach, because our students are taking the knowledge they have gained in class, out to the people," said Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome, an assistant professor at NMSU-Albuquerque Center and former site coordinator/associate field coordinator for the program.

NMSU's MSW program in Albuquerque has collaborated with UNM Hospital's Department of Pediatrics for the past six years. Monica Armas Aragon, director for the department's developmental care program, says there are many benefits in being involved with the practicum program, one of which is helping develop qualified professionals, who will fill many roles as social workers.

The social work principles of empowerment and social and economic justice provide the foundation for this work. Social workers help people overcome some of life's most difficult challenges: poverty, discrimination, abuse, addiction, physical illness, divorce, loss, unemployment, educational problems, disability, and mental illness.

Helping people has been a part of Karen Longenecker's life.

"I have worked a variety of jobs helping people," said Longenecker, one of this year's 45 NMSU-Albuquerque Center students doing their practicum work this semester. "With my bachelor's degree in Spanish, I've taught English and Spanish to migrant families, been a bilingual case workers at a homeless shelter in Denver and worked with domestic violence survivors and students."

The Kansas native is currently working at UNM's Newborn Intensive Care Unit under the supervision of Aragon, who serves as a NMSU field instructor.

"Being in the newborn intensive care unit is a high stress situation for the baby's parents," Longenecker said. "My role as the Family Infant Toddler program's in-patient family services coordinator is to inform the patient's family of the services available to them and help them enroll their child into the program."

The FIT program provides services for children, age birth to 3 years old, with developmental delays or those who are at-risk of having a developmental delay, such as premature babies who are in the newborn intensive care unit. The program was established through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.

"I really like working in an interdisciplinary setting," she said. "In the unit there are physicians, nurses, developmental specialists and social workers, all focused on helping the premature infants survive, and helping their parents cope with the stress they are experiencing."

Besides attending classes four nights a week and doing her practicum, Longenecker works part-time with a public health Home Visiting Program in Santa Fe where she works with first-time mothers and their babies from prenatal to 3 years of age.

"I've discovered I like working with this particular population, that's why I wanted to continue my work with mothers and their babies during my practicum experience," Longenecker said.

Aragon also serves as a field liaison, where she advises eight other NMSU MSW students during their practicum in areas of social work other than her own. The students are interning at public schools, All Faiths Receiving Home, a rehab center, and a rape crisis center.

"By being a field liaison, I have benefited personally because I have to stay informed on what is being taught in their classes and on research that is being done in the various areas of social work," Aragon said. "I probably have read more professional books since I started with the NMSU program than I did in my own graduate program, because I have an obligation to be responsive to the students' questions with up-to-date information and to set up the practicum in such a way that it is a learning experience."

Another avenue of outreach performed by the MSW program is to provide continuing education for the field instructors and field liaisons.

"This is how we show our appreciation for the time they give our students," Burns said. "Professionally, to keep their certification, social workers have to earn 30 CEUs every two years, including six units in cultural related training."

The MSW-Albuquerque program provides a minimum of two training sessions each year, including a cultural awareness component during its spring session when agencies and students come together to plan for the next year's field placement.

Burns says this training helps the field instructors teach their intern how essential cultural awareness is when working with clients in such a diverse state as New Mexico.

Another way the MSW program provides outreach to the community is through its faculty serving on advisory boards of various social justice organizations and by providing pro-bono support to the agencies where NMSU students intern.

"We are available to do program evaluation for the agencies collaborating with our program," Whittlesey-Jerome said. "Often-times, we are consulted to provide ethics training, or other topics where they want an expert to speak."

To learn more about the MSW program visit the NMSU-Albuquerque Center website's video library, www.abq.nmsu.edu/videos, and view a series of interviews regarding the program.