Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Master of Social Work (MSW) program was launched in May 2018, in response to demand from professionals looking to deepen their knowledge and upgrade their skills while continuing to work. The program has also met the needs of those living in rural and remote areas, and those who, for a variety of reasons, can’t travel to complete their education.
The online MSW program integrates foundational social work concepts and theory with practice through unique six-week- and 12-week-long courses. Students also gain hands-on experience through field placements, chosen in consultation with the university.
Since its inception, the program has attracted thousands of applicants from across the country. This November, the majority of the first full cohort of MSW online students will graduate, along with the majority of two advanced standing cohorts.
“It is with immense pride that we will ‘watch’ our students graduate in a special online graduation celebration we will be hosting on Nov. 3,” says Ginette Lafrenière, associate dean of MSW programs and associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work. “It’s heartwarming to see our exceptional students put their newfound knowledge and skills toward serving their communities. Many of these students sought out the MSW given the enormous flexibility that it affords working professionals.”
Reaching Remote Areas
April Thornton, one of the students graduating on Nov. 3, lives and works in a rural community east of Thunder Bay. She’s also a mother of three. Laurier’s online MSW program allowed her to further her education, something she wouldn’t have been able to do in person.
“I was really worried about taking the program with my commitments to my family and work,” she says. “I knew school couldn’t always be my top priority, but I was still able to succeed. Staff, faculty and students were supportive and flexible and helped push me to do my best.”
Thornton provides mental health and crisis support to First Nations communities along the northeast shore of Lake Superior. She decided to pursue her master’s degree to better meet the complex needs of the communities she serves. The program helped her build on her counselling skills and better understand her clients. For her placement, she took on a supervisor role in her workplace, a position she still holds.
A Focus on Anti-oppressive Practice
One of the main draws of the program for Jill Hodgson, another student graduating on Nov. 3, was the emphasis put on equity, social justice and inclusion. Over the course of the program, she learned about systemic inequalities, as well as to consider her own biases and privileges, a process she found uncomfortable at times but also eye-opening.
“You can’t go through the MSW program without unpacking your beliefs and biases, but we were supported throughout,” she says. “Sharing and reflection were encouraged in every course so we got to know each other really well, including our fears around practice, in an incredibly caring environment.
“We’ve all grown exponentially through the program. We are different people than we were at the beginning.”
Hodgson used her newfound understanding of systemic inequities in her field placement, where she examined policies and practices within the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) with the aim of putting clients and their families first. She also started an advisory committee, made up of clients, families and caregivers, which is involved in creating and reviewing institutional policies, including on health and safety and infection-control measures.
Hodgson plans to continue her work as a case worker with CMHA, but she is also opening her own individual, family and child therapy practice as well, in partnership with other allied health professionals in her community southeast of Ottawa.
Two committees were established to seek feedback on the program from students and faculty members – especially to deal with the additional stressors of the pandemic and its impact on program elements such as field placements. Program leaders listened and responded empathetically, searching for solutions to problems and providing accommodations where necessary.
“I loved every second of the experience, even the glitches,” says Hodgson. “I feel that this program, with its focus on anti-oppressive practices, is breaking new ground and paving the way for the direction that all social work programs should be heading.”