Social work student finds impactful practicum experiences during COVID-19

“No matter what is happening in the world, our job is still essential. We will always have people who need our help.”

Those are the words that Angela Johnson used last spring to remind and reassure herself of the important role of social workers — especially during a pandemic.

When the country started shutting down last March, Johnson, who is pursuing her social work degree through Nebraska Wesleyan’s adult undergraduate program, re-evaluated her plans leading to graduation. As part of the degree requirements, social work students are required to complete a 400-hour practicum experience.

But opportunities for practicum experiences dwindled and like many others, she pivoted her plans.

“It was kind of like, okay, you just need to find a place because people are not taking practicum students,” she recalled.

She credits the support of her social work professors as she pursued a new direction.

“They knew how to work on their feet and be creative to meet their students’ needs,” she said.

Johnson pushed her practicum to winter and found creative ways to gain meaningful experiences that would also have a significant impact on clients.

Over the winter term, Johnson started working with Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) where she contacted families in the school district to share with them information about free or discounted internet service for students who were attending class online. Johnson was determined to help LPS get the word out.

“We were really hoping that connection to them could be a bridge to essentially more resources that they potentially needed,” Johnson explained.

While she helped several families utilize the program, the district faced other communication challenges.

“Language barriers and reaching families that don’t use English as their first language were common difficulties,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have access to the school’s language liaisons, but we wanted to reach every family regardless of what language they spoke.”

Johnson played a critical role in developing materials that explained the internet access programs. The materials were made available to school counselors, translators and liaisons to reach additional families.

To complete her practicum requirement, Johnson then turned her attention to Mourning Hope Grief Center, which provides grief support groups to children, adults and families who have experienced loss. Johnson’s focus was to re-evaluate how Mourning Hope meets the needs of young adults during the pandemic and supports them in their grief journey.

“Part of being a social worker is being creative and thinking on your feet and just finding different ways to assist our clients that we’re working with,” she said.

To keep their clients safe, Mourning Hope’s grief groups are hosted via Zoom, which has helped the non-profit expand its reach across the country and world.

“I never would have guessed the sacred space of a zoom room,” Johnson said. “With the pandemic, people are grieving, not just death losses, but several things because pandemic grief isn’t linear to death.”

Johnson is grateful for her practicum experiences and credits the university’s social work program for allowing her the flexibility to balance her full-time job, her family and her academics.

“Wesleyan makes it possible to achieve those goals, dreams and that degree that you’ve always wanted,” she said.

In May, she’ll walk across the stage to accept her diploma. She’s eager for what’s ahead including the possibility of pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

“If I set my mind to something specific,” she said, “I would be limiting myself to all of what social work can bring.”