Practical Advice for Student Practicums


For many nonprofits, taking on a university practicum student is a regular occurrence. And while having an extra pair of hands can be, for a commonly understaffed and resource-strapped sector, a boon to an organization, the experience of supervising can come with its own set of stresses. Insufficient time to supervise, lack of structure and communication barriers can cause both staff and student to suffer. Based on the experiences of several current and former practicum students, as well as nonprofit staff versed in supervision, consider these ways that the student-supervisor dynamic can be maximized, and common challenges overcome.

Set expectations

Erin Anderson is volunteer coordinator at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCOM) of Manitoba, which typically takes on about 15 practicum students per year from university programs such as humanities, social work, conflict resolution and international development.

Because her job entails supporting unpaid employees — practicum students included — Anderson both supervises students directly and helps other staff with their supervision. Interviews, communication with the student's school and problems that cannot be resolved between a student and their supervisor go through her. She says issues can arise if practicum expectations are not laid out from the outset. "If it's not set from the beginning, then there are more problems. They need to know what to expect."

As field education manager for York University's School of Social WorkVina Sandher oversees the practicum program for bachelor's and graduate students. York facilitates discussions around expectations insofar as it requires students and their field instructors to collaboratively complete a learning contract, in which goals are set, early on in the placement. Midway through the placement, the contract is reexamined and new goals may be established. An end-of-placement evaluation is done according to said learning contract.

Tyler Morden is a Bachelor of Social Work student at the University of Victoria. He just completed a placement at AIDS Vancouver Island. One of his supervisors often referred back to the evaluation forms provided by his school. "I've gone to talk with her and she'll pull out the evaluation form and start checking things off. She'll say, 'You have clearly demonstrated that you have this knowledge, or gained this experience based on what you've just been telling me."

Even in the absence of a provided contract, supervisors can apply this model by initially sitting down with the student and documenting what both parties hope to gain from the experience, then using it as a tangible resource according to which follow-up happens.

Encourage — but don't presume — that students will find a niche

For a student to feel productive and valued, it is important they have a clear role and set of tasks. How they come to this role varies, depending on the student's character and the nature of the organization.

"Depending on someone's personality, their skills and past experiences, their role evolves...some people are ready to jump into it, and some will sit back and observe," noted Anderson.

Jane Dunnett is a housing worker at Toronto's Evergreen Centre and a former social work student at Dalhousie University. She did her first practicum at St. George's YouthNet, which offers drop-in programs to youth in Halifax's north end.

"It was a smaller, community-based, grassroots agency, so my role was a bit more up to me to define...I think my supervisor wanted me to find my own niche and develop my own programming based on my skills — I think it was the type of practicum that I could've made into whatever I wanted it to be."

Dunnett took advantage of the freedom afforded to her and started a cooking class for some of the boys who dropped in to expand their interests beyond "just playing on the computer or playing basketball." Her supervisor encouraged the program, "but was not very directive," leaving Dunnett to devise and implement it, something she was completely comfortable with.

At AIDS Vancouver Island, Morden similarly took initiative, and was nurtured in doing so. Early on, he was asked what he wanted to focus on, and conveyed a desire to combine interests in international human rights, refugee studies and queer issues. He was supported in mapping out a work plan according to his interests, goals and skills. In addition to other duties, Morden was given permission to research global LGBT rights and potential avenues for queer refugee sponsorship — a project he is continuing in spite of the practicum being finished.

"I was quite fortunate...what I did here is what I wanted to do...for the first bit I kind of dropped in on different programs to see what they were doing, but after that I kind of made my own schedule and made my work plan based on what I wanted to do."

Paul Tanner, a master's of social work student at a Toronto university, is doing his placement at a child and family service agency. Not receiving an established role by his supervisor, a senior manager at the agency, has been an obstacle. Starting out, he was happy to get a broad overview of the organization, but once ready to "dig his teeth in" and find more of a niche, his supervisor encouraged him to explore, but was not directive enough.

"No one person is responsible for me...I'm kind of attaching myself to other staff who are often happy to help, but I'm not their priority. I've sometimes felt like I've fallen between the cracks a little." Tanner says it would have been beneficial had his supervisor helped pave the way for him to connect with other staff.

A supervisor cannot assume a student will have a distinct idea of what they wish to focus on upfront; it is important to be aware that, without the right supports, they can easily get lost — particularly in a large, multi-dimensional agency. To prevent this, some organizations share supervision among staff, or, assuming they have the resources, hire a practicum and volunteer liaison, like the role Anderson plays at IRCOM.

Morden, for example, had two supervisors — a direct one and an overall one. The former, coordinator of the Men's Wellness Program, met with him and another student at least once a week to check in about professional and personal issues. The latter, the organization's program manager, met with Morden about once a month and conducted his formal evaluations.

Similarly, Dunnett says that at Evergreen, "supervision happens as a staff team," with the director overseeing student placements and other staff taking on various other components of supervision.

Establish comfort

Many universities require a supervisor to set aside time for feedback or evaluation. Sandher acknowledges that, though York expects students to receive at least one hour of protected supervision per week, in reality, "some field instructors might have intentions to give solid supervision, but everyone is overworked and resources are stretched...some students get way more and some students don't get this."

If finding structured time to meet is not always possible, a busy supervisor can try making themselves available in other ways, like establishing an open door policy, or reminding the student that they are free to voice concerns to them. Still, this should not replace formal meetings altogether.

Anderson says, in her case, students know they do not need an appointment to speak to her, but not all are comfortable initiating conversation. "It depends on the person...that's sort of the point of structured meetings...if someone is not going to speak up (on their own), if you ask them in a room once a week if there's a problem, that's usually when it comes out."

Be sensitive to their schedules

Though his experience was extremely positive, Morden says it was difficult to support himself while simultaneously doing a practicum, taking courses and working part-time. One of the most valuable lessons he learned from his direct supervisor was the importance of self-care. "If he's been working [excessively] for several weeks he recognizes his burnout triggers and will take a few days relax before he burns out...that's something I'd like to bring into my own practice."

Morden further appreciates how his supervisors accommodated his busy schedule and allowed him to make up hours at alternative times if he has a conflict or feels overworked. "That's probably made the experience the best for me, how flexible everything's been."

Anderson says many students fail to initiate programs because they are overwhelmed by commitments. "Often people would love to [initiate projects] but they don't have the time to actually come in for an extra four hours to plan something."

She also stresses the importance of applying staff protection policies to students. "It wouldn't be acceptable for a staff member to work after 9 p.m., and it wouldn't be acceptable for a student to do that. It wouldn't be acceptable for a staff member to have to go into someone's home by themselves if they didn't want to; the same thing would apply to a practicum student."

Don't forget: you were once a student

Sandher says encouraging the "buy-in from community partners" can be a challenge, as some agencies, and often, hospitals, are reluctant to take on students. Rather than viewing supervision as a burden, staff should consider what students can bring to an agency.

"Sometimes frontline social workers who have been away from academics for awhile, that theory piece is in the back of their mind. Having a student keeps you on your toes, refreshes you," Sandher maintains. "We were all once students...we all have a part to play in helping our profession keep going."

In addition to the sense of pride a supervisor can get from watching a student's development, she says one shouldn't forget that students could become future colleagues — people with whom one can "build collateral contacts." Anderson says students should be valued and considered "part of our community" even if one has a "slow learning curve."

"I didn't know what I was doing in the beginning — sometimes I still don't — and people have to bear with that. People make mistakes and then they develop their capacity and we're all stronger for that."

Certainly, a student-supervisor dynamic can be tricky to navigate. Depending on the capacity and resources available to an organization, as well as the personality and expertise of the student, providing the right time, support and direction as a supervisor can be extremely difficult, and falling short of the task is sometimes inevitable.

With communication, effort and the ability to see a student as one was oneself at an earlier stage, the experience has the potential to be incredibly fulfilling for all involved.

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment. The original article is located on the Charity Village website.