Helping Social Workers See Different Solutions

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For Assistant Professor Jennifer McClendon, finding her way to social work offered clarity regarding the purpose of her psychology major. She got her start out of graduate school by working on a research project that explored new techniques for supporting family caregivers of individuals with chronic and severe mental illness. Then she spent seven years as a crisis intervention counselor on crisis hotline and a mobile outreach team. That experience taught her what crisis means to different people. It also strengthened her commitment to social work, as she saw firsthand the need for well-trained professionals who could provide support, connect people with resources, and work to build stronger and safer communities.

Eleven years into her career, these powerful experiences inspired her to teach. Now she works to elevate the training students receive through the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work. Find out how she translates her experience to help students become better social workers in the short question-and-answer session below.

If there’s one thing you want a potential student to know about the online MSW program, what would it be?
We understand that every community is different. Our program responds to the idea that social workers work within all sorts of contexts, and we have always worked creatively to prepare students for social work practice in a wide variety of communities and contexts — across Nevada, and now across the nation. Another strength is that despite being an advanced generalist program, we have a strong focus on clinical skills. Our students will be well prepared for clinical licensure.

Why is learning evidence-based practice important for online MSW students?
Our learning model is about using evidence and research, but also using your professional judgment and knowledge of the client’s context to make the best practice decisions. The research is just one piece of the whole picture, but I think it’s really important that students have strong research skills. They need to be able to assess whether findings and interventions will be relevant to the population they serve, whether in a major city or more rural setting. That requires critical thinking.

Why is it important for an online Master of Social Work program to have a focus on rural settings? How do rural (and urban) settings benefit from having advanced generalist practitioners?
I moved to Nevada from New York City, and as I learned more about the community and culture, I had to change the way I taught. I think it’s important to give people who live in rural areas the tools they need for rural practice, which looks different. If you live in a rural community the chances are high that you’ll see your clients at church, in the grocery store and when your kids will play together. We need to help students deal with that, rather than promote the general textbook rule that says you can’t have those kinds of relationships. Students anywhere should be aware of the resources and opportunities where they live. By throwing a focus on rural settings into the mix, we can talk about how social work practice can look different depending on where you work.

What trends do online MSW students need to prepare for in the next five years? How do you foresee the field changing?
Social work trends tend to be local. Changes in state government around child welfare, juvenile justice or the prison system are localized. More nationally, social work is affected primarily by the increased aging population. I also see a boost in the attention being paid to trauma. Policies that affect adults can often impact children’s lives, and the ability to be knowledgeable of trauma-informed care is a growing need.

What are employers (in rural and urban settings) looking for in social workers?
I think in general employers are looking for really strong interpersonal skills. Social workers should be able to have healthy professional relationships with colleagues and clients. The ability to think critically and outside the box is also key. We hope that in field placements, students learn to function within systems that involve competing demands — and can make ethical, common-sense decisions that balance client needs, community needs and organizational needs. If an employer gets a sense that an applicant has a grasp of that complexity, it’s a relief to them.

Do you have questions? Learn more about your role in social work’s future with the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program today. The School of Social Work at University of Nevada, Reno has a long history of educating Nevada’s social workers and professionals in the United States. Its focus is to educate, advocate, and empower.