Social workers are in ever-increasing demand, and the field needs intelligent, well-educated, committed professionals to represent the populations who are most in need. It requires people with a strong sense of social justice and a desire to make the world a better place. Annie Monnig-Reid, the associate field education coordinator for the Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno, says critical thinking skills and having empathy for others are two key traits social workers need.
To gain the skills necessary to be effective social workers, students also need a combination of classroom learning and hands-on fieldwork. In this interview, Monnig-Reid discusses the skills students gain from their fieldwork experience and describes how working in the field helped her choose a career path, learn to think “outside the box” and gain the tools to work with people from all walks of life with myriad issues to overcome.
How long have you wanted to be a social worker? What drew you to the field of social work?
I knew my junior year of high school that I wanted to be a social worker. After my mom and I took a trip to Chicago and I noticed all these housing projects and other things I hadn’t seen before, I decided I wanted to pursue that career to help those who are underserved. So when I applied to college, I actually applied to the social work program, and that’s what I stuck with for all four years while I was an undergraduate.
My program was a generalist program, so I was trained in all different areas, and that’s how my career has been. I’ve done a ton of different things, so I never really had a focus on any one thing. I tried all different types of social work, mainly direct practice social work, but I’ve kind of done it all.
I did a bachelor-level internship in a program called Communities in Schools, so I was working with junior high students at that time. Later I ended up working with that program afterward during the summer. Then I took some time off and went back to graduate school to get my master’s in social work. I did my internship at the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department in San Antonio, Texas. I got hired on with them as a juvenile probation officer when I finished my internship and graduated with my master’s. Then I decided that I wanted to move to Los Angeles, so I took a job with Los Angeles County as a juvenile probation officer.
I got married and we moved to Reno, where I started working with Washoe County Child Protective Services. I was there for four years but found that work to be quite stressful, sad and really busy. So then I went into working in hospitals, and that’s where I’ve been for about the last eight years, doing medical social work.
In all social work, we are client advocates and provide resources, but the hospital is different just because it’s more short term. You have clients who come and then they leave, so it’s doing a lot of discharge planning to make sure they’re safe and have all the resources they need when they leave. You do a lot of dealing with families, so it’s similar in that we’re advocating for the client. Medical social work has a whole different set of knowledge to understand. You have to know what’s going on with people and their illnesses, and deal with a whole interdisciplinary team, including doctors, nurses, physical therapists and law enforcement people.
Have you developed a guiding mantra or philosophy about social work as a profession over the course of your career?
My focus has always been on the strength of individuals, so I’ve always tried to look for the strengths people have instead of focusing on the problem. That’s where I’ve found the most success. And also just being accepting that we all have problems and struggles in life, and I try to understand that and put myself in the person’s shoes and do the best I can to help them. I also believe that clients need to help themselves as well, so I try to empower them to do as much as they can for themselves while I’m there as a support.
Have you seen the field of social work change during your career? Can you talk about any evolution you’ve noticed?
I feel like it’s a more popular career now. A lot more people are interested in going into social work because they see the real-world problems. I think it’s more well known than when I went to school.
I also think social work is broadening in the sense that we’re not just there for resources and to help clients. Our skills can be used in a variety of workplaces, including human resources, business, large corporations, all sorts of things like that. So I feel like what we can do as social workers has been expanding.
Why do you think social work is one of the nation’s fastest-growing professions?
I think more people are getting interested in the real-world problems that social workers deal with. Also, I think being a social worker allows you to go into many different fields. There’s lots of opportunity as a social worker, just like with my career. I’ve worked in schools, juvenile probation, child protective services and the hospital. So it allows you to be able to do a lot of different things.
It’s also a professional degree, so you have to be licensed. I think the fact that it’s a licensed position means there are always jobs available.
What are the most common challenges social workers face today, including those that have always existed and new ones that have emerged?
Often we’re dealing with fewer resources being available, so sometimes we have to be creative and figure out how to get those resources, which can be a challenge. Also, the things we’re seeing are tough. With all the shootings, society doesn’t seem very safe sometimes. Social workers see a lot more of that.
What does it take to be an effective social worker today?
You have to be a creative thinker and think outside the box. You have to be flexible and empathetic. You have to understand the issues that are facing people today. I think you need a broad base of skills, because there are so many different issues we’re dealing with.
Why is field education important to fit into social work programs, and how does it fit with the program at the University of Nevada, Reno?
The field is a requirement for any accredited university, so it’s a mandatory part of graduating with a degree in social work. I think it’s really important because it’s a time when the students can learn and put into place what they’ve learned in the classroom. It’s a very hands-on experience, where they can say, “OK, I learned all this stuff in the classroom, and now I get to try it out for real.”
It also gives students the option to explore different ways that social workers can be effective and find out what they want to do in the future. In addition, it keeps us, as a school, connected with our agencies and what’s going on in social work.
Where are some of the specific places University of Nevada, Reno students are placed for social work?
We have students placed all throughout the area. A lot of them are nonprofit agencies, government agencies, hospitals or county agencies. We have one student who’s at the Department of Homeland Security, which is a little bit different and out of the box. We have some people assigned to places where they do equine therapy.
How much say do students have in where they are placed?
They have a say. For our local students, we have them do a field application to give us an idea of their interests, and then we try to match them up with agencies that fit. Our online students who aren’t in this area seek out their own placement, so they’re able to go explore whatever they’re interested in, and we support them throughout the process. We’re always available to talk or help them look.
What are some specific ways you’ve seen students benefit from their fieldwork experience?
It’s a hands-on experience, so they get to try out what they’ve learned in the classroom. I think that’s a big benefit for a lot of students. I also see many students get hired into their fieldwork placements after they graduate, which is really exciting. It also allows students to figure out what they want to do with their careers and to network.
I see students do their fieldwork in one area and then figure out that’s not what they want to do at all, and when they go on to do their master’s, that causes them to seek out a different sort of fieldwork placement, which is a valuable lesson to learn.
Do you have any advice for people entering a master’s in social work program?
I would just encourage students to be open to all experiences, because I think wherever they’re placed for their fieldwork or to complete a practicum, they’re going to learn something. Even if it’s not their ideal placement or what they went into social work for, I encourage them to be open to working in any field placement, because there’s a lot to be learned anywhere, and they might surprise themselves and really like one thing when they thought they were going to like something else. I would also encourage students to learn as much as they can in their fieldwork placement. It’s an excellent opportunity to get that real-life experience.
Social workers like Monnig-Reid have a difficult but rewarding job that can have positive and long-lasting effects on their clients. Students interested in pursuing a degree in social work from the University of Nevada, Reno have several options tailored to fit their needs and lifestyles. Whether studying online remotely or on campus, students learn skills that prepare them for social work careers in many industries and across multiple disciplines. Learn more about how the University of Nevada, Reno online Master of Social Work program can provide you with the knowledge and skills for a new career or further your growth in an existing career.