Program Director Spotlight: Jennifer O’Neil, MSW, LCSW – Social Work Program

Jenn O'Neil, Program Manager, Master of Social Work Program at UNE OnlineJennifer O’Neil, MSW, LCSW, is the Program Director for the Master of Social Work program at UNE Online. We spoke to her about the program, how she came to the field of social work, and her thoughts on preparing students for life after graduation.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to UNE Online?

My background is in social work. I earned my undergraduate degree in my late 30’s as an adult learner, and then was accepted and went directly into a Master’s of Social Work program. After I graduated with my MSW, I practiced at an agency that worked with substance users and people who are HIV positive.

While I was practicing in the field, I was asked by a former professor of mine to teach. I accepted a position as a part-time faculty and eventually transitioned into a full-time classroom instruction role, teaching online classes whenever possible. When I enrolled in my Ph.D. program, I found that I needed to pull back on the number of hours I was working, so I temporarily stopped teaching. As I began the dissertation phase of my Ph.D., I found this role of Program Manager at UNE Online. I moved to Maine, accepted the position, and I continue to work on my dissertation – on track to complete it in early 2019.

Can you talk a little bit about the MSW program at UNE Online?

We are 100% online, of course, and all of our classes are asynchronous, meaning there’s never a time when everyone has to be online all at the same time or on a certain date, ever. We also accept students from all 50 states, which is not common, and we were one of the first online social work programs in the whole country.

One great thing about the UNE Online program is that we offer different pathways to graduation. We have the Advanced Standing model, so if you have a BSW, you can finish the program in 16 months; or students can go through the Traditional track and complete the program in 3 to 4 years.

Additionally, and I think you will find this across all of the programs within the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, I think one of our biggest strengths is our student support model. I hear it from students, and I hear it from faculty. It’s a wonderful model because each student has one steady person with whom they can always get in touch, regardless of where they are in the program or who is teaching their current class.  Students tell us that the support staff is not only terrific – but they always pick up their phones!

What kind of background does your faculty have?

We offer the scholar-practitioner model, so all of our faculty members are also out there working in the field. Since our faculty are active both professionally and academically, they are able to bring their industry knowledge back to the classroom and share it with students. This gives students the ability to listen to situations that are happening in real time and not just read about it in a textbook. This model allows them to combine theoretical discussions with current outcomes presented by an experienced practitioner.

Our faculty are able to talk about current diagnoses, specific interventions, and important topics that relate to practicing social workers of all types. Faculty members who currently teach for us run agencies, practice individual therapy, and work with specific populations such as substance users or the homeless population. We have a very diverse faculty who bring a depth of experience that sometimes can be absent in a program of people who don’t necessarily practice.

What was your favorite aspect of the program?

I love the student support model as I mentioned above, and I love the interactions I have with my faculty. We have such a strong connection to our students, I think we are able to create a learning environment that isn’t often present in online learning. Students are welcome to talk to any of the faculty about their particular fields or work experiences, and faculty are very willing to have these conversations on an informal basis. It’s my hope to put a more formal mentoring program into action in the very near future.

How do you feel that the social work program helps foster a sense of community among your online students?

Fostering a sense of community among our online students as a program is something that we are continually working on. At the end of each 8-week term, we read each course assessment and use those responses to continually refine our sense of what will serve our online students in the best possible way.

Within each class, we do a great deal to foster the community feeling of everyone being in the same room.  As an asynchronous program, the discussion board is the mechanism used to replicate the in-classroom experience. Students submit videos for certain assignments so that faces are seen and voices are heard. We find this creates community in a more powerful way than just reading a classmate’s words. Videos are used throughout the program to continually work on building community, and the discussions within the classes are far deeper than first degree.

There’s a great deal of faculty facilitated discussion around many difficult topics that require deeper thought and more thorough consideration. Difficult hot-button discussions such as those about race and religion are not uncommon in our classes, and students really get to know each other as they delve into these highly-charged issues. Faculty are right in the thick of things, facilitating the conversation and creating a safe environment for people to disagree, while also learning both how to interact with those with different points of view and hopefully learning something during those conversations.

What do UNE Online MSW graduates go on to do after completing the program?

Our students go right into multiple kinds of social work after graduation – some become clinical social workers and either go into case management, working directly with clients or into 1:1 therapy work or group work. Some become macro- or community social workers, either working in policy areas or for the non-clinical side of a human service agency. Other students may go on to work for the government in many different capacities including research or think tank type organizations. We also have students who may work on both the clinical and community side of things.

How do you feel that you prepare your students for life after graduation?

Our goal is the give our students the skills to be the kind of social worker that they want to be. Throughout the program, we offer our students opportunities to give them a look at both sides of social work, and through their field placements they can work in two different types of environments in order to decide for themselves what is the best fit for them. For instance, someone who might think they wanted to work with kids, once they get into that environment, it may turn out to not be a great fit; or maybe a prison placement was a comfort stretch, but they come out of that placement with a desire to work with a prison population.

Can you talk about the value of placements?

Placements are not just a UNE Online requirement, they are required for the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation.  Placements ensure that students have the best education possible. The placement experience is a chance for us to interact with students and help them truly understand what clinical work is.

If a student were to discover that they don’t care for the clinical side of social work, that’s fine. But at least they now know what it is in a real-world sense.  Placements expose the students to experiences and situations that they can then take out into the world.

What do you like best about working with UNE Online students?

I love the breadth of experience that they bring to their education. We have some students who are 22, right out of undergrad and their eyes are full of stars, they’re full of energy and dreaming of changing the world.  And then we have our students who are career changers who want a change and want their life to be better – and this program is a part of that. Our program helps our students realize their goals.

I love the thought of UNE Online creating the best possible social workers out there.

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