Those who choose to become social workers often have unique, compelling experiences that led them to pursue their careers. We talked with Valerie Luevano, the field education program coordinator for the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno, to find that she began her post-high school education as a biology major, only pursuing social work after earning her bachelor’s degree. Luevano said while her undergraduate degree may not seem related to social work, the education she received while studying biology has been useful in the medical social work she’s been involved in. This correlation illustrates how social workers are helpful and necessary in many fields, from corrections to human services and the medical field, which Luevano says opens up myriad career opportunities.
In this interview, Luevano discusses in depth how she was able to access her biology education in her professional roles as a social worker and describes the importance of the fieldwork experience social work students gain during their time in the master’s program at the University of Nevada, Reno. She also offers advice to students considering a career in this important profession.
What made you want to be a social worker? Is it something you’ve known you wanted to do for a long time?
No, actually I was a biology major as an undergraduate and got my biology degree from UC San Diego with a minor in literature. I started in the Master of Biology program when I got to the University of Nevada, Reno, and about a year into the program, I realized that there’s a part of me that really loves it, but there was a part of me that wasn’t content just being in a lab and doing research. So I decided to withdraw from that program, and I was working as a computer instructor, teaching people how to use the Microsoft Office products and Windows.
I did some soul searching and went back to my roots to figure out what it was that was really interesting to me, and I landed on social work. I think the reason was because I did so much volunteering when I was in high school, before I went to college, and that was what really kind of “filled my cup.” So this seemed like it would be the closest to that. It’s interesting how things happen, because when I was in high school, the majority of my volunteer work was done at a hospital. So I wasn’t thinking about medical social work when I went back to get my master’s, but clearly there must have been a piece of me that hearkened back to that because that was the path I moved down: Once I went back, I became trained as a medical social worker.
I got my master’s in social work. I was in a two-year program because I didn’t have a bachelor’s in social work. I did two field placements, and one was at United Way, which was kind of interesting because, back 20 years ago when I got my master’s, we didn’t have social workers in what are now called “macro placements,” so kind of community-wide placements. Most social workers did direct service with clients. My peers in the social work program kind of made fun of me because they just couldn’t understand why somebody wouldn’t want to work with clients. They wondered why I didn’t want to do therapy, and I was just interested in program development. That was my first internship.
My second internship was with the medical school here at the University of Nevada, Reno. They had an outpatient neurology clinic that focused on diagnosing the causes of dementia. I was their intern, and, eventually, after I graduated, I was hired as their social worker. Then I became their clinic coordinator. So I actually started as an intern but ended up working there for about six years. That started me down the path of medical social work. I diverted a little bit, because after that I went into nonprofit management for quite a while. I was executive director at a couple of local agencies, but then I went back to my roots as a medical social worker. I was the manager of social services for one of our hospitals here.
What was it about the subfield of medical social work that pulled you back?
I actually didn’t think about going in that direction, but the person who was the field coordinator for that program and my position at the time, she said that with my background I needed to go this way. Nowadays students have much more say, but back then the program coordinators often suggested a place and you went. My field coordinator told me she thought that with my background I’d really like medical social work, and I said, “Oh, gosh, I’m sure I wouldn’t. In fact, I’m kind of scared of people with Alzheimer’s disease. I have no exposure to that. I don’t think I want to do that.” And she told me to give it a shot anyway. So I did, and I absolutely loved it. I loved the multidisciplinary work.
I worked with a nurse, a physician, psychologists, and a bunch of students. I didn’t know any different; I thought all social work was multidisciplinary because that’s how I learned. So much of what I did was not just traditional social work — sending people to resources and counseling families through crises. I also did a lot of education, and my biology background really came into play. I helped people understand what caused Alzheimer’s disease and the effects it has on caregiving and on people, physically and emotionally. It was just a perfect match. It’s always a lesson to me that I was a stubborn student at the time, trying to kind of fight against the field coordinator putting me in that position, but she knew what she was doing and I didn’t. It was a lesson for me.
I always tell students now, “You don’t know what you don’t know, so this is your opportunity to experiment and try on a lot of different things before you choose a practice area. Because you just don’t know what’s out there, and you probably haven’t been exposed to all of it.” I use my story as an example. It took someone else to guide me, and my reluctant willingness to try something new. But I did it and I absolutely loved it. And although I left for a while, I did come back to medical social work, even though it was in more of an administrative position. When social workers were sick or out, I filled in for them, so I was able to also do direct practice, which was really nice.
Did you go from that position at the hospital to Casa de Vida where you’re now executive director?
Once I graduated, I went to work for the medical school for six years in that clinic, and then right after that is when I went to Casa de Vida. Very shortly after I graduated with my MSW, I started teaching as an adjunct faculty for the school of social work. I was teaching the field seminar, and part of what you do as a field liaison is go out to the agencies where your students are interning and do a check-in. You see how everything is going, make sure students are getting all of their learning opportunities, troubleshoot anything that’s happened.
So I was out doing an agency site visit when the social worker there who was supervising the students said, “You know, we have an opening for an executive director.” I said, “Well, I’ve got two jobs, so I’m good.” But she kept at it, and the student kept at it, and finally I threw my hat in the ring and was offered the position. So that was a really great opportunity for me, because I put to use the skills I had developed at my first internship with United Way. We opened five new programs while I was there, including a new transitional living program, a therapy program, an outpatient program. So it was a really good opportunity for me to use the skills I learned in school and then in my internship in a professional setting.
Casa de Vida is a home for pregnant women, right?
It’s a home for pregnant and parenting teens. The residents are young, up through the age of 24, so it’s residential, but they also participate in classes while they’re there. So it’s meant to be a safe space for them while they’re pregnant, but also for them to learn skills so that when they have their babies they’re able to successfully parent.
Can you describe the connection between your position at Casa de Vida and your experience in a medical setting?
There are a lot of similarities, though I don’t think I saw that at the time. I think I saw myself as a social worker, and then after having been in a clinic, and then doing Casa de Vida, I don’t think I saw myself as a medical social worker. It was only at the end of my career when I ended up working at a hospital that I realized I’d been a medical social worker the whole time. It just took me 20 years to figure that out.
Have you had any kind of philosophy or mantra as a social worker that’s helped guide you over the course of your career?
I’m not sure there’s any one thing that I could point to. I think, really, just a willingness to stretch myself and see social work as the broad professional experience that it truly is. There is so much that you can do as a social worker in this profession. Really, just embracing that and not boxing yourself into a narrow definition of what social work is. What’s been nice for me is that I’ve been able to take social work to places it didn’t traditionally exist before, or, if it existed, I kind of pushed the envelope by having it expand into new areas.
So we had, for example, social workers in hospitals to help with discharge planning and crisis intervention, but I was able to push the envelope even further and show the value of social workers being hospital-based but helping in the community, or being in pediatric primary care. So if I had a real narrow view of what social work was and what social workers could do, I’m not sure if I would have seen the opportunity in these nontraditional places that didn’t already have practicing social workers.
Over the 20 years that you’ve been a social worker, do you think you’ve seen the field change or evolve?
Oh, yes. Nowadays I see a lot more social workers who want to do what we call “macro-level practice,” so really engaging in areas that are related to social justice. Social justice has always been an integral part to social work — the desire to create equity and really work on social problems — but I would say, 20 years ago, most people got into social work to really do direct practice with clients. And a lot of those people wanted to do child welfare, specifically. Now I see people really want to get in and work on a political level, or a programmatic level, or a community level, and do social work that way. The skills needed are actually the same.
The skills that you develop to work with clients you can also use to do work in communities and work in organizations. For whatever reason, there used to be such a narrow view of social work as being micro focused, and now I’ve seen that switch to a much more macro level. I joke sometimes and say, “I feel vindicated,” because I was picked on for doing a macro-practice internship, and now everybody wants to do a macro practice. But it’s needed. The voice of social workers and the values that social workers have are really needed as part of the global conversation these days. So that has been a nice shift.
Is that a shift that had to happen on an institutional level rather than an individual preference level?
I’m not sure what’s the driving force behind the shift. I do think that, at an institutional level, there have been schools and organizations embracing the value of social workers. It used to be that people would look at social workers and think they were going to automatically come and try to snatch their kids away. That was the perception of what social workers do. There are still those lingering ideas, but now it’s not so narrowly defined. But I think it took a shift in people’s understanding and perception of social workers’ capability before that stereotype could change and organizations and communities could really embrace the function of macro-level social work.
What are some of the most common challenges social workers face today?
What’s really challenging are some of the systemic barriers to being able to connect clients with the services they need. When you first start out as a social worker, you usually begin doing some sort of direct-service work. You’re helping clients, and after you’ve helped a good number of clients, you start to realize that every single one of them hit this roadblock in their treatment plan or in the services they need — there’s some kind of barrier to getting from point A to point B. And after a while, that starts getting so frustrating, because everyone is hitting that barrier. So often social workers will progress in their careers where they start addressing those specific barriers. And oftentimes those barriers are systemic policies, or they’re related to service delivery, and they really have a direct impact on clients. So we start addressing those on a more systemic, macro level. That, I would say, for most social workers, the barriers to service delivery for our clients, is a big challenge.
Another big challenge is that a lot of times the positions don’t exist in areas where they’re really, really needed, for lots of reasons: budget, or organizations not appreciating the value that social workers bring, not understanding exactly what social workers do. That makes it harder, too, because when social workers don’t exist, it’s hard for our clients to have access to the services that might be provided. We are often the bridge between a service and the clients who need those services.
When it comes to the role of field education in these programs, can you share some of the details about how field education fits into the University of Nevada, Reno, social work program?
Fieldwork has been declared as the signature pedagogy for social work instruction. From a practical standpoint, that means it’s equally important and maybe more important in some ways than the work that students are doing in the classroom. And this is so different from what students in many other programs do, because it’s practice based. It isn’t just about what you learn in the classroom. It’s about how you can take that knowledge and apply it in a practical situation.
So how I see field in terms of its role in helping build future social workers is, it’s integral. It’s everything. I don’t think we could produce good social workers without a strong field program because so much of what they learn in the classroom is really just theoretical until they have a situation to apply it to. That’s when the lightbulb goes off, and all of a sudden it just makes sense. To me, you can’t have good social work education without a good field program; it just wouldn’t work. So we place a lot of value on having a strong field program. And to make that happen, we have to be really integrated within our community and have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on, so we know not only where all the social workers are in all the agencies in the community, but also where social workers need to be in a community that they currently aren’t. And we try to be really creative in getting students into those settings for lots of reasons — for our clients, our students, our profession, the future of our community. So we just have to be really in tune and not just focus on our campus. We have to be in our communities, as well, in order to build a strong field program.
So in order to operationalize that, my colleague and I have been social workers for 20 years, so we’re really entrenched in the practice. Then, our faculty liaisons that we contract with to run the field seminars, which are the classroom portion of the field experience, all of those folks are high-level social work practitioners who have been working in the field. And we do that because not only do they have the academic knowledge that they need, but they also have the practice experience. That’s really important for the seminar course, because that really is the bridge where the students integrate what they’ve done in their field internships with what they’re learning in the classroom. They take that opportunity to process, so that they’re getting the field experience and the classroom knowledge together in one setting. We integrate the fieldwork and the classroom work by making sure that the people we put in those teaching positions have both the practice and the academic knowledge.
How much time do students spend in the field?
At any accredited program, students are required to spend 225 hours per semester in the field, which equates to about two days per week, each semester. That’s 450 hours for someone who’s in a one-year master’s program. Then double that for someone who’s in a two-year program. It’s a lot. It’s roughly equal to the time they would be in a classroom in a traditional setting. Our profession really values, as a whole, the field experience for students. We just know that you can’t learn to be a social worker in the classroom only.
What does the process look like for students who want to voice preferences for a fieldwork setting or type of fieldwork assignment?
For our students who are online, they are able to identify a field placement of their choice. If they’re local to our community, we try to assist them in that process, since our local community has so many students both in the classroom setting and online who are looking for placements, so we try to work our local students into our existing processes. But our ultimate goal is to get students a placement, so preference is definitely taken into consideration, and we want students to be placed where they want to be placed, and we try to facilitate that to the largest degree possible.
But we also hope that students will be open to hearing other ideas and suggestions, because, like I said, sometimes you don’t even really know what’s out there. You only know what you’ve been exposed to, and social work is much broader than what students initially envision it as. So we want to take their preferences into consideration, but we also want to be able to say, “Hey, did you think about this?” And use our professional experience to help them identify something that might be a really good fit for what they want to do. We try to understand a student’s ultimate goal and then try to help them formulate a plan for their field experience that will ensure they’re able to move down that career path as smoothly as possible.
Are you able to assist online students with that process even if they’re located in a different part of the country?
Yes, we are. It’s harder because we’re not as familiar with the local resources in their community. But the nice thing is that we’re part of a collaborative national social work distance education group, so we have contacts in other communities that can help us help students identify what their placement opportunities might be. We try to use our networks and our connections to benefit the students. My coworker is usually in charge of that piece, and she’s developed a whole streamlined process. I handle mostly classroom-based students.
Fieldwork placements can be nerve-wracking for students. It’s a big part of their education, and they have to find an internship when they don’t know even where to start looking. My coworker helps them know where to look and understand how to reach out to agencies and how to work through an interview. She’s really a good resource for our online students.
Can you share some of the specific examples of where University of Nevada, Reno students, both classroom-based and online, have done their fieldwork?
Oh, wow. As many students as we have, there are equally as many placement opportunities. There’s such a wide variety. People have worked for various city, state and county governments. They’ve worked in child welfare and child protective services. They’ve worked in emergency rooms. We’re broadening the field placement experience for students by partnering with our local ambulance providers, so we will now be having students partner with paramedics. We have students in nonprofit legal service agencies that are helping with social needs in addition to the agency itself helping with all the legal needs.
We honestly have students just about everywhere you can think of in terms of human service organizations. One of the things we have students do if they’re just really struggling to find a place to start is, we ask them to go online and go to a place called VolunteerMatch.org and enter in their city to see what organizations are looking for volunteers. A lot of those agencies would oftentimes love to have a student who would consistently work with them for two days a week. Because social work is so broad, we are able to think outside of the box and really conceive of a placement experience in just about any setting. We’re even looking at for-profit businesses as settings for students through their employee assistance programs or human resources.
So it’s not so much the type of agency, it’s the type of learning opportunities that we can create within those agencies. It’s limitless, really. I tell students that if they have interest in working in a particular area or agency or business, tell me. If there’s not a structured internship there, I’m sure there’s a way that we can figure out how to make one happen. If there’s already an internship program, it’s easier for a student, but it’s not impossible in other settings. Most often, it’s doable.
What are some of the most common ways you see students benefit from their fieldwork placement experiences?
Socialization into the profession. A lot of times students have no idea what social workers do, so seeing how that plays out in real life is very important for their professional development and their own identity as a social worker. I see that, for once, students feel like they’ve found their “home” and where they fit. A lot of times, students don’t come to this profession right out of high school saying, “This is what I want to do.” They come at it after they’ve been searching for a while or are a little later in life, so it feels like a homecoming. There’s all of a sudden people around who think like they do, so it feels very welcoming for students.
I also see it as very empowering. Students feel like they can really make a difference, and they see the impact of their work on their clients right then and there. They can really see that this isn’t a desk job. This is something where they’re touching lives, and even if they don’t ever see that client again, they can get that immediate sense of the impact their work has during each moment spent with that client, which isn’t an experience they would get in a classroom.
Do you have any additional advice you’d give to a social work student to help them be successful in this program and beyond?
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of empathy and kindness in our profession. I think sometimes people think social workers are naturally kind and empathetic. But social workers are people, and I think people still have to practice kindness and empathy. And I feel like, if that’s part of the work that you do, you truly are going to be successful in your practice with clients. I would also tell students just to be genuine and be who they are. Clients don’t expect perfection, but they want to know that what they see is what they get. So being genuine, kind and empathetic is, I hope, what students would try to make the hallmark of the social work profession.
The Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno, prepares graduates for work in myriad situations and settings. Whether degree earners choose to work for a private practice, nonprofit or community organization, they’ll leave the University of Nevada, Reno prepared to make a difference across multiple disciplines. Learn how the University of Nevada, Reno, online Master of Social Work program can help you expand your professional knowledge and learn the skills necessary for professional growth and leadership in social work.