Online Master of Social Work Opens Doors to Career Changers, Working Professionals

The School of Social Work will welcome its first cohort of online master students in May, and Professor Ken Marfilius is excited.

“We are already seeing strong applications for our first cohort of 50 students. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated acceptance of online learning,” Marfilius says. “The flexibility that this program offers is appealing to working professionals, including active duty military and veterans. It will serve anyone who wants to work for social and economic justice in the digital age and beyond.”

Carrie Smith, professor and interim director of the School of Social Work in Falk College, agrees and notes that ubiquitous technology is only part of the equation.

“What has happened with COVID is that it has created this giant pause for the country and the world,” Smith says. “People have fewer distractions, they have been stilled and are seeking information. A lot of that information has been unsettling, frustrating and has impacted lives in unanticipated ways.

“Historically, when there have been times of crisis, depression, despair or economic change, people decide they are going to change careers and do something to give back,” Smith adds. “Social work is one of the original giving back professions.”

The online M.S.W. incorporates the same social and economic justice approach as Syracuse’s existing social work programs. Developed in partnership with 2U, the 60-credit degree can be completed in 36 months, including 1,000 hours of field placements, and students with a bachelor’s in social work can pursue an accelerated track consisting of 36 credits that can be completed in 24 months with 500 hours of field placement.

Students can choose from two tracks: The advanced clinical practice concentration prepares mental health clinicians for practice as a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.), and the advanced integrated practice concentration prepares students for direct practice and leadership in a wide range of human services organizations. All of these options are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and prepare students to sit for the Association of Social Work Boards licensing examination.

“Having earned my master of social Work at Syracuse University, I am proud that we will be offering this fully integrated online M.S.W.,” says Diane Lyden Murphy, dean of the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. “The program maximizes access to the social work profession and flexibility for many of our interested students. The online M.S.W. offers entrance to a lifelong socially responsible career where professionals engage and guide people through mental health, behavioral health and social challenges.

“The School of Social Work is a legacy program, recognized for its excellent graduates, high licensing pass rates and alumni practicing across the nation,” Murphy adds. “We are pleased to continue our strong tradition of professional education for online students.”

Marfilius says that the University’s social work faculty are excited about the opportunity to reimagine how courses are delivered and the opportunities that students will have to do their fieldwork close to home. There are live class sessions and asynchronous learning elements that faculty have designed to work together seamlessly.

“People are doing more online, it’s less intimidating,” says Smith, “but our faculty are also very focused on ensuring that we maintain the human connection in the context of the technology.”

Students will also experience the human connection through field placements in their own geographic area. Marfilius, who has experience with online education while in the military, says, “Social work needs leaders. We know that prospective students—as I saw when I was in the Air Force—want to give back to and support their communities while gaining additional leadership skills.”

Tracy Walker, director of field relations, agrees.

“Ideally, we want students to complete their field work within 60 miles of where they reside. Each student will be working with placement specialists to determine their interests and goals,” Walker says. “We are building partnerships with a wide range of organizations including government, not-for-profit, health care and the Veterans Administration.”

Walker says that students get support at all phases of the program, and adds, “The field team will interact with the students and their field sites just like they are in our community. It is a priority for us to be available and responsive.”

Student internships provide progressive learning, with a virtual field experience in the first semester building to a generalist approach, then moving into each student’s professional focus. This virtual anchor course helps students engage in risk management, intervention strategies and ethical decision-making in a setting that simulates what students may encounter in practice.

“Research shows that the use of simulation can be really important to developing direct practice skills,” Walker says. “Students engage with standardized patients – actors who are trained to simulate clinical situations and typical client interactions – and receive feedback on their approach before they work directly in an organization.”

There are also field seminars, where students and faculty have broad and open discussions integrating what students learn in the classroom with what they experience in their internships. This structure was piloted in Fall 2020 for current residential program students with positive feedback.

“It’s become abundantly clear that the future holds more need for social workers. The quality of education we provide prepares these students to make a connection person-to-person, build trust and problem-solve with clients,” Smith says. “With the expanded use of technology to connect people with resources and extend the reach of human services professionals, we’re expanding the tool set that MSW graduates will have to respond to people in need of resources.”

~ A Syracuse University News story by Ellen de Graffenreid originally published on March 8, 2021.