When Sherri McCann—a wife and mother of three teenagers—went back to school, she never imagined the struggles, triumphs, and great sense of community she would encounter. After finishing her bachelor's degree in social work at Saint Leo University last spring by taking on-ground classes through the Pasco Hernando Education Center, Sherri chose to pursue an online social work degree (MSW) at her alma mater.

"I am eager to learn and experience all aspects of social work," she says. Sherri credits the bachelor's degree program—particularly a research class taught by Dr. Jose Coll—in preparing her with a solid foundation for the master's degree program. "He really pushed us and challenged us."

Personal experiences drive professional goals.

Several personal life experiences contribute to Sherri's eagerness and desire to become a social worker. When she first went back to school, Sherri had a disability while recovering from a recent back surgery. Through the years, she also has witnessed her son struggle with hearing problems and developmental delays.

Sherri credits these experiences with giving her the ability to empathize with patients and be a compassionate social worker. Ultimately, Sherri wants to have her own private practice or work with another professional in private practice.

For now, Sherri is focusing on working with the elderly population during an internship at Gulfside Hospice & Pasco Palliative Care and finishing her Advanced Standing Master of Social Work (MSW) program.

Interactive Courses Build Collaboration

Saint Leo University's Advanced Standing MSW program is an intensive, full-time, one-year program designed for students who have completed a BSW degree from an accredited social work program within the last five years. Saint Leo also offers a two-year (or three-year, if attending part-time) MSW with an Advanced Clinical Practice Concentration for students who do not hold a BSW degree.

Most courses in the online master's in social work program are delivered live as Sherri and other students participate via webcam from the comfort of their homes. Sherri enjoys this innovative, synchronous online course delivery.

Sherri says the courses involve lectures, in-class small group work, discussions on various topics, and role-playing with classmates to practice therapy skills. In other words, there's a lot of interaction with faculty and classmates.

"It's collaborative. The professor can divide students into different groups—kind of like chat rooms with webcams. Each student has a head set and webcam to communicate with each other," Sherri says.

According to Sherri, a benefit of the live courses is that students can ask professors questions in real-time, so they can get clarification right during class rather than having to email back and forth with a professor after class.

Finding a Close-Knit Community Online

Outside of class, Sherri and her classmates read a lot of textbook chapters and research articles, as well as write papers, complete projects, and create and submit role-play videos. Throughout the program the students encourage each other to keep persevering.

"We're in this together and help each other as much as we can," Sherri says. In fact, the classmates interact with each other via a private Facebook page. Students post about class troubles, help others with material they don't understand, and support each other when classmates say they're getting overwhelmed.

Faculty also encourage students. "Most faculty are available if you need something. You can email, call, or set up office hours to communicate face-to-face online. They're very understanding and good at encouraging us. They realize it's tough and that we have lives outside of school," Sherri says.

Facing the Challenges of a Master's Degree Program

Balancing school with family and other responsibilities has been challenging for Sherri. To fit studying into her busy family life, Sherri says time management is key. She brings her textbooks with her everywhere, so she can read whenever she has a few minutes.

"My biggest fear was that I wasn't going to be able to do it, but the program is doable. It takes time management, and a lot of hard work, but if you're willing to do those things it's possible," she says.

It also doesn't hurt that Sherri's children are her biggest cheerleaders. "My children have seen me struggle and seen me succeed. They know the hard work it takes to get a degree. They've seen their mom graduate. I'm glad I can give that gift to my children—to show them how set a goal and accomplish it."

Sherri will participate in university commencement ceremonies in May, and finish her internship and final master's degree class in August.

National Social Work Month

The National Association of Social Workers has designated March as National Social Work Month. For more information about National Social Work Month 2014 or the social work profession, visit SocialWorkMonth.org.

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Online M.S.W. Degree Program Receives Professional Accreditation

Pursuing an Online Masters in Social Work So He Can Make a Difference

Online Social Work Degree Leads to a "Profession of Hope"

Image Credits: Positive Attitude Nation, Sherri McCann