my takeaways from my social work internship experiences

This year’s internship is my sixth one thus far, and will most likely be my final internship. Considering that, I have come think a bit about what I think are key takeaways from my internship experiences.

1. The most important relationship I came to have in any given internship was the kind of relationship I had with my supervisor.

This semester I feel incredibly motivated and ambitious and inspired in my internship. Part of this is because for the first time ever I have my own assigned desk and computer and secured filing cabinets, and my own personal network ID, but again, it always comes back to the relationship I have with my supervisor. If I feel trusted, if I feel like I can give honest feedback and be respected, if I feel supported at times when I feel overwhelmed, then it’s that much easier to be successful in my internship. Some of my supervisors were sometimes micro-managers, condescending, expecting more and more, instead of knowing when to be supportive. To some supervisors I did a poor job of communicating my needs and my strengths/weaknesses. Either way, whether I was at fault or my supervisor didn’t respond most appropriately, if the relationship between my supervisor and myself were somehow compromised, the internship overall felt like a drag and my performance was negatively affected. Everything else could be going greatly (though not likely if this relationship is problematic) but if just this one aspect was an issue, I would inevitably dread going to my internship.

2. Interacting with other staff members has been more challenging and draining than interacting with clients, especially staff members of other disciplines.

This is a very personalized takeaway, meaning this might be true for me, but not necessarily so for other social work interns. I generally have a great passion for and joy in interacting with clients. These interactions for the most part can be planned for, scheduled for, and prepared for.  Even in the many instances when a client abruptly enters the room looking for me or calls my office, even when I feel most challenged by working with clients, clients are the #1 reason I decided to pursue social work and so I’m typically able to welcome them and learn from my engagements with them.

However the reality of this work is that I’ll spend more time with other staff members than with clients. I’m not particularly good at small talk and many of my interests and hobbies do not align with those of my colleagues and coworkers. So that can be awkward. Bringing up issues could cause some unwanted tension. We all work like staff hierarchy doesn’t matter too much, but the reality at the end of the day is that it does, and finding the right balance between working together while respecting the official title and authority of a fellow staff member can be really tricky sometimes.

Then there are the non-social work staff to interact with. When I was an intern at a case management agency, I had to meet doctors, nurses, psychologists, HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration) case workers, and interior designers. Being an intern at a high school meant I had to collaborate with the principal, the assistant principal, the office administrator, teachers and even cafeteria workers. At my current internship I sometimes find myself in a meeting with lawyers, politicians, sociologists, accountants, and database technicians. These are undoubtedly great opportunities and I strongly believe that collaborating well with other professionals is the mark of a great social worker. However, my personal opinion is that social workers and non-social workers think very, very differently. If these differences in ways of thinking and approaching issues is not addressed or if too much time is spent on ironing out these differences, well then… (1) ugh, the work is dreadful and annoying, and (2) the qualify of services we provide to our clients is negatively affected.

3. Too many of us too often overlook socioeconomic factors.

I learned in class the importance of talking about racial privileges and oppression. Out in the field, often times I’d realize too late I didn’t do a good job of addressing this. One time a supervisor wondered why I spent so much time asking a client about his living situation, getting into specific details about how quickly his building’s super would respond if there was a plumbing issue, how small was his bedroom space, how well the heater worked in his apartment building, etc. My supervisor thought time would have been better spent delving deeper into his emotional and social support status. I would agree with my supervisor that increasing emotional and social support of a client is important, but I think my supervisor made a grave mistake of overlooking the fact that this client was living in dire poverty, in public housing that was marked by horrid conditions, and as a tall Hispanic man, he was all too subject to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk practices of the local law enforcement agencies. There are many important factors of privilege/oppression to consider, but at the very least, as social workers who are trained to be more aware of these things, we can’t overlook just how seriously race/ethnicity matters and just how seriously poverty/economic class matters.

4. How an organization is funded determines so many invisible things about how the organization operates itself.

My first internship was at a community organizing group funded and overseen by a larger parent non-profit organization (it was a settlement house). The funding was managed by the parent organization so I’m not sure what exactly the funding source was, but I hypothesize that it was a community grant. In any case, once the parent organization determined in its fiscal year analysis that the community organizing group was not a priority to continue funding, it decided to abruptly defund and thereby shut down the organization. My supervisor was a community organizer who had worked there for over ten years. She was given a severance and a 1-week notice before the community organizing group ceased to exist. So that’s one example.

Last year I was at an internship that was half funded by state government funding and the other half funded by donations, mainly from large corporate sponsors like Bank of America, Google, General Electric and grants from private foundations. Because so much of the funding is from corporate sponsorship, this non-profit had to have programs that sounded innovative. It dedicates some of the operational activities toward giving tours and such to guests from the corporate sponsors. The non-profits evaluates data with these corporate sponsors in mind as the target audience. The funding from the state government is not sufficient to keep the organization going (at least not at its increasingly large capacity) but the difference is that it is a rather stable source of revenue. Corporate and foundation funders are less likely to provide ongoing, sustainable funding unless the organization continues to appeal to them and continues to attract their interests.

A supportive housing organization I interned for when I was an undergraduate was funded entirely by contracting with a local city government. I imagine this funding was very, very difficult to obtain in the beginning, but the thing about government funding is that once secured, it can act as a very long-term stable revenue source, as long as the non-profit organization abides well to the regulations and guidelines set by the government. With government funding, what an organization worries about is not necessarily demonstrating that they’re innovative and that they’re great at fundraising other streams of revenue, but most simply that they spend their money the way they said they would. Government cares mostly about accountability, because the people who elect government officials care mostly about accountability. Government funding has to be made viewable to the public, and so there is a forced public transparency. If government is seen by the public as using its money in a very inappropriate way, the public has the power to elect them out of office. As I write more about this, you can probably already notice my bias in this matter. Yes, I wholeheartedly would rather prefer a private non-profits to rely more on government funding than on corporate or foundation funding, especially in places like New York, NY and Boston, MA where the local government agencies have more socially progressive policies.

Another organization I interned for had a very interesting way of funding itself. It utilized all kinds of funding methods, but two things greatly help this organization run itself: legislation that supports this organization’s mission and thus this organization is able to attain a great deal of government funding on all (federal/state/city) levels; and secondly, it operates its own for-profit businesses, and funnels profits made from those stores to fund the non-profit organization. The second source of revenue is extremely important because this gives the organization a lot of independence. In some ways it doesn’t even have to worry about government guidelines as much as other non-profit organizations because even if government were to stop provide funding to this organization, it still can generate revenue from its stores. This is why the atmosphere of this internship was so very different from everywhere else I have interned. If the organization wanted to reform itself, and it sometimes did, it simply did. Independent funding source for an organization means freedom. That of course greatly affects how the organization will function and provide its services.

5. I hate process recordings.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot from them, but now that I’m in an internship where I don’t do process recordings (since I have no clients, I do reflection logs instead), I find myself much more invested in and much more energetic in my internship.

Here’s the thing about my distaste for process recordings. All my supervisors who reviewed my process recordings have commented that they were impressed with how I demonstrate my self-awareness in the reflection part of the recordings. At the same time, all my previous supervisors have been frustrated at some point during the internship about me turning them in either late or inconsistently.

The act of having to recalling verbatim what I said to the client, what the client said to me… it’s extremely draining for me. It not only took me a long time to get process recordings written but a long time preparing myself mentally and psychologically to start writing them. The worst thing for me was that sometimes I would interact with the client and at the back of my mind I would be thinking, “Okay, I’m going to have to try to remember what exactly that was said in this interaction as well as I could so I could do a process recording of this later.” This I think had the unintended consequence of my sessions with clients being not as good as they could have been. I also found myself feeling frustrated if the client talked too fast, cause then I would think, “Stop talking so fast! It’s going to be hard to do process recording of this conversation later!” Acting as a human recorder is a frustrating experience, and even more so when I realize just how much of my personal bias comes to light when I start writing. I am 100% certain that if the conversations were recorded and they were played in contrast to what I had written down, the recording would be very different, and what I wrote would portray more of my perceptions and biases than what actually occurred.

I personally think many social work schools requiring three process recordings or even two a week is quite ridiculous. I would propose one a week, and an option for interns to do reflection log or narrative process recording instead. Isn’t the ultimate goal of these process recordings for us to be better attuned to the way we practice and how we apply our learning to our practice? If that’s the ultimate goal, then I don’t think process recordings is the only way to achieve it, and certainly not by requiring an x amount of them to be done each week.

The ironic thing is that every supervisor I’ve had in my internship said they really enjoyed writing process recordings and reading process recordings. So those of you social work interns out there who like process recordings, I would say to you that you guys are supervisor material. Some of my supervisors showed me a few of the process recordings they had written when they were students, and they were extremely detailed and extremely well-written, and raised very important and thought-provoking questions. Because of that I have to concede that process recordings are valuable learning tools, but I still stand by my personal opinion that they’re not for everyone and for social work interns such as myself, there are alternative tools to help us grow as social work professionals.

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One thought on “my takeaways from my social work internship experiences

  1. Pingback: My takeaways from my social work internship experiences | Packaged For Success

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