The field of social work is broad and varied.
“Often, people in the community think about ‘child welfare’ social work practice,” said Ed Saunders, associate professor and director at the University of Iowa School of Social Work. “However, as they have different life experiences, they come into contact with social workers.
“It may be that they find themselves in the hospital and a social worker makes contact with them there. Or they may need help for an elderly parent and find themselves talking to a social worker in a community-health agency or a nursing home. Even at the end of life, people experience caring social workers in hospice organizations.”
Saunders said social workers can be found in hospitals, hospice programs, schools, child welfare agencies, mental health clinics, residential and community programs for persons with disabilities, youth service agencies, family service agencies, correctional programs and a host of other health and human service agencies.
“Certainly, if people experience problems with substance abuse or mental illness, they are likely to meet with a social worker,” he added.
Because there are so many ways to plug into social work professionally, social workers often don’t settle into one path.
“Sometimes social workers change paths when they are ready for a change,” Saunders said. “With their basic knowledge and skills, a social worker can change practice settings from health care to school social work.
“We also see people coming into the program at mid-life. Many women have raised their children and have helped many others in need. They come to appreciate the potential of being a ‘professional social worker.’”
While Patricia Gilbaugh has been in the field of social work for about 20 years, it wasn’t until 2009 that she shifted her focus.
Together with her husband, Scott, Gilbaugh started the Grace C. Mae Advocate Center — named after their daughter, now nine years old, who lives with a rare genetic disorder — to help others struggling to get access to social work services in rural communities.
“Part of our struggle was getting the services we needed,” Gilbaugh said. “We would have to drive a great distance and my kids would miss a whole day of school for a one hour appointment.”
With administrative offices in Cedar Rapids, Gilbaugh’s team of 10 social workers and therapists treat some 1,000 clients, ages 2 to 89, across the state, from Marshalltown, Washington, and Van Horne to Marengo and Chariton.
“You have to be prepared to deal with anything,” she said of the wide range of patients they work with. “It’s a huge variety of situations we work with and a huge amount of need.”
Part of that preparation means placing great value on education and certification within the field of social work. The University of Iowa has a variety of programs geared to those interested in the field of social work, said Saunders, now in his ninth year as director of the School of Social Work.
Saunders said that until 15 years ago, the University of Iowa was the only program in the state of Iowa to offer the master of social work (MSW) degrees. St. Ambrose and the University of Northern Iowa have since added programs.
“Because we wanted to serve the entire state with qualified social workers, we began offering the MSW degree at ‘off-campus’ sites in Des Moines, Sioux City and Davenport as far back as the 1960s,” Saunders said. “We are the longest-serving and largest distance-education program in the College of Liberal Arts and Science at the University of Iowa.”
The MSW program consists of 60 credit hours, which can be taken full time (in two years) or part time.
“Some students who are busy with careers and families go part-time and complete the MSW degree in four years,” said Saunders. Each year, the school graduates about 45 BA students, along with 100 MSW students from Iowa City and distance-learning sites.
UI also offers the only PhD program in social work in the state. The four-year program, which started in 2000, admits three to four PhD students each year.
Saunders said social workers, through practical learning experiences and through working out in the field, are very in touch with the current state of the world.
“Social workers are very sensitive to the political and economic circumstances of our country,” he said. “As we saw with the economic crisis in the country, many people faced unemployment and many families lost their homes to foreclosure. These economic problems often have individual and family-related consequences.”
Trauma care is a big current service need.
“Your experiences make up a huge portion of how you function in society,” Gilbaugh said. “Kids are being exposed to all kinds of trauma just through the media.”
Gilbaugh admits she is familiar with society’s often jaded view of social workers.
"There is a stigma that we are out to take people’s kids away,” she said. “In the 70s, social workers were making arbitrary assumptions and it happened a lot with minority families. Social workers today are systems thinkers and we are trained to keep families together.”
Gilbaugh and Saunders say trends in society will continue to influence the profession.
“The U.S. Department of Labor says that the greatest growth in social work jobs over the next 10 to 15 years will be in gerontology social work practice (health care, nursing home care, community services for older persons, and hospice care),” said Saunders, noting the aging of baby boomers.
Like so many social workers, Gilbaugh said she and her team do everything they can to prepare.
“Social workers are professional problem solvers,” she said. “We don’t have the emotional attachment you have to the issues.”
Despite the challenges social work professionals see, they insist it is very rewarding work.
“Social work is an incredible profession,” Saunders said. “It is very personally rewarding to help people when they are struggling with a problem, and help them to make the changes that are possible to solve their problem.“It also is very rewarding to be part of efforts to change our society to make it more socially-just for persons who are struggling because of racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism. It’s a challenging profession, but can be immensely gratifying,” he said.