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Immersion gives social work majors up-close look at future profession

| Judy Berthiaume

Thanks to a summer immersion program, Emma McIlquham is more certain than ever that she wants to be a social worker so she can help children.

“This immersion gave me hope,” says McIlquham, a senior social work major at UW-Eau Claire. “The training we did showed me that social workers have the power to protect and save lives.”

McIlquham was among the eight UW-Eau Claire students considering careers in child welfare who got an up-close look earlier this summer at what it is like to work with high-risk children and their families.

The Blugolds, along with Jamie Tester, field director and clinical instructor in UW-Eau Claire’s social work department, spent nearly two weeks in Chicago and Springfield, Illinois, as part of a Child Advocacy Immersion program.

“Working in child welfare is one of the most challenging types of work an individual can go into,” Tester says. “This immersion provides students with the opportunity to practice skills in an environment outside of their comfort zone and gain exposure to the facts of a real life case.”

With a passion for helping people and working with children, McIlquham came to UW-Eau Claire knowing she wants to be a social worker.

“I saw the immersion program as a way for me to explore more of my options as a future social worker, and also a way to gain some hands on experience,” says McIlquham, a native of Chippewa Falls.

Through the immersion program, students gain practical, everyday skills used when working with high-risk children and their families by observing and interacting with experienced professionals, Tester says, noting UW-Eau Claire’s program collaborated with the University of Illinois Springfield’s Child Advocacy Studies Program.

“The students observe and interact in real time with professionals who are conducting interviews,” Tester says. “They gain an understanding of the emotions that professionals working high-profile and high-stakes cases may experience.”

Working with the CAST training team, the students also had opportunities to complete drills and activities in the mock house the university has on its grounds.

For example, they practiced entering a home where alleged child abuse had occurred and reported observations in the home, Tester said.

 “They practiced their own interviewing skills and visited local agencies that provide services to children and families,” Tester says.

While in Chicago, students visited Hull House, the settlement house started by Jane Addams, often called the mother of social work, and the Child Advocacy Center of Chicago.

The simulation lab in Springfield and the Child Advocacy Center in Chicago both were powerful experiences, McIlquham says.

“We talk about and learn about what a social worker’s job involves, but through this experience, I was able to see and also participate, which helped me gain a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities that social workers play,” McIlquham says.

The immersion program is an important opportunity for students who are interested in working in child welfare to gain skills that can develop only through experiential learning, Tester said.

“It also gives them a broader and more realistic understanding regarding the challenges that professionals working in child welfare face,” Tester said says of the immersion. “It is a safe environment to practice skills, ask questions, and gain understanding that will help them make decisions about their career path following graduation.”

The experience left McIlquham more certain than ever that she wants a career in the social work field, but it also has her rethinking the role she could possibly play within the field.

After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, she planned to gain social work field experience by working with Child Protective Services or a juvenile detention center, then earn a master’s degree so she could pursue a career as a school social worker.

However, after the mock child abuse case in Springfield, one of the instructors noted that McIlquham might make a good attorney, a comment that has her thinking about different avenues she could pursue.

“I walked away questioning some of my plans,” McIlquham says, adding that she could earn a law degree in place of or in addition to a master’s degree. “Although my mom and uncle are both lawyers, becoming a lawyer is not something that I really thought about until this immersion. Now, becoming a lawyer is still something that I need to think about and really look into.“

All the students participating in this year’s immersion were social work majors, but Tester says she hopes students who are pursuing other career paths that will bring them in contact with youth also will participate. For example, nursing, criminal justice or education majors would gain much from the experience, she says.

Photo caption: Eight social work majors spent time at two locations in Illinois this summer as part of an immersion program, giving them an up-close look at what it’s like to work in the child welfare field.