Spring semesters, more so than fall semesters, are typically times when undergraduates from a variety of programs offered at Saint Leo University are spending busy days at social service agencies, clinics, public school classrooms or in businesses, gaining crucial real-world experience that will help them launch their careers.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and necessary safety protocols have made it more challenging for some students to leave campus or education center classrooms for work experience in their fields, there are many cases where students are able to move forward on their original timetable for completing their degrees in spring 2021.
There are individual cases where students in the Saint Leo Bachelor of Social Work program decided to postpone their field placements because of family or personal health circumstances, but the program itself has found ways to continue offering field placements since the first lockdowns in the Spring 2020 semester, notes Dr. Ebony Perez, chair of the undergraduate social work program at Saint Leo. The program itself could have stopped making placements for a time—a choice that some other institutions made—but that would have prevented students who wanted to graduate on time from doing so, she says.
She added that social work students simply do not have the option of skipping a final semester of field work and filling a schedule with classroom courses instead, because the accrediting body that certifies the quality of social work programs will not allow such short cuts. "Not only did we not stop," Perez said, "we cannot stop. Students still need these hours to graduate and get their degree. It was never an option to stop altogether."
In spring 2020, for instance, some students who were already in field placements shifted to working at Feeding Tampa Bay because their former sites were inaccessible.
This year, Perez and instructor Christina Cazanave, who oversees the BSW placement program, worked to survey students about their needs, collaborate with agencies that accept and supervise students into their organizations for field work, and make the necessary arrangements. Thirty-seven students are in their final placements during this semester, which compares to an average of 50 or 60 in a more typical year's spring semester, Cazanave says.
In some cases, some hybrid work with virtual contacts were introduced into the work plans. Safety accommodations have been introduced into some field-placement sites anyway, such as drive-through services for client intake meetings, the introduction of more social distancing during client visits, and installations of plexi-glass dividers at some offices, like the kinds now in use at checkout counters. Also, the accrediting body for the field agreed, starting in 2020, to a modest reduction in the number of contact hours BSW students must complete during field placements to graduate: It is now 340 hours, down from 400.
If those measures still did not make placements workable, students had the option to shift to a different agency to get their work done. Placements are made with organizations that meet varying needs, from child welfare to mental health, pregnancy services, and aging care, to name a few.
The determination to meet both the educational needs of students while providing valued assistance to clients as agencies "speaks to who we are as a profession," Cazanave says of social workers. The approach the program adopted to provide field placements during a health crisis, she explains, is similar to the thinking and ethics social workers apply routinely. Both involve finding out what someone needs, learning what resources are available, and matching the two.
Future teachers in undergraduate programs
A new Saint Leo graduating class of teachers are also completing undergraduate final placement assignments this semester before entering the education workforce, mainly as elementary or middle school teachers.
Even before the final, full-time placements, Saint Leo undergraduate education students are spending 90 hours per semester in classrooms (about seven hours a week) for three successive semesters, beginning with the start of the junior year. While the state of Florida does not require that much time for new teachers to be credentialed, it is a hallmark of the Saint Leo undergraduate education program to give students this high level of exposure, explains Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of the Undergraduate Education Department. This way, the students have more time to apply their coursework learning to the practical setting, more time with supervising teachers at schools, and more opportunities to put technology to use in classrooms. They enter their final internship better knowing what to expect of their full-time duties, and exit the internship more confident in their abilities.
All these factors helped when the pandemic complicated normal procedures. School districts were still willing to accept future teachers from Saint Leo into field placements, despite the fact the extra burdens supervising teachers in districts were already handling, Atkins says. The good track record previous classes of Saint Leo education students set during their field placements assured districts that current education students would be assets to have on staff, even during a pandemic.
Dr. Carol McLeish, who oversees all the undergraduate education field placements, agrees that school districts have been flexible and accepting of Saint Leo's requests to maintain student placements. "They have said, 'Let's see what we can do,' '' McLeish recounts. "They understand what kind of a time we are living in." So, happily, 247 education students are in placements this semester that are part-time, and 57 seniors are in their full-time, final placements.
The work for future teachers is as rigorous as ever, if different in some respects from years past. Some education students have been placed in field assignments that are online part of the time. And some education students have had to go to different school districts than planned for early field placements. All the education students in placements have agreed to wear masks and abide by the safety protocols in place at their assignments.
Adjustments were made, too, for retired educators who work part-time for Saint Leo as classroom observers to evaluate the work of student-teachers, Atkins says.
Because some of observers have health conditions that would make it risky for them to actually visit classrooms, Saint Leo supplied the students in field placements with the technology to record their observation days so that evaluators can do their work remotely, Atkins says. That helps keep the student-teachers progressing to graduation on time.
Employers and companies from other sectors are still contacting university career-assistance operations to let the schools and student populations know of internship opportunities and entry-level hiring plans, according to Susan Mickey, executive director of Career Services at Saint Leo. The operation assists students and alumni no matter where they study or studied. Members of the Saint Leo community can visit the office web page, establish contact through email at email@example.com, or follow the operation's social media platforms.
The big difference between now and the pre-pandemic semesters is that employers working with campuses to meet and interview job seekers are not coming for campus visits. Instead, the employers are engaging with campus students online and meetings are virtual. Still, Mickey says, her operation had 2,000 more job listings from employers overall in the Fall 2020 Semester than in the Fall 2019 Semester.
And a virtual job expo sponsored by the Colleges of Central Florida Career Consortium is coming up Thursday, February 25. Saint Leo students are eligible to attend.
Yet there may be facts and trends students need to become more aware of to land internships and job offers for post-graduation. Students have to start their "career exploration" research much earlier in their college careers than they think. And in general, they have to start looking for good positions, even internships, earlier in the academic year than they might expect. For example, she says, fall is actually a good time to start looking for summer internships, rather than waiting until the spring season right before summer.
In current pandemic conditions, it is true that re-opening and re-staffing plans among businesses are uncertain and subject to change. Still, Mickey says, the search favors the prepared, and there are steps students can start early in their college careers and continue to refine their approach, even if market conditions are still slow.
Use the career research materials on hand at the university, she says, and learn about different fields from speakers and publications, and practice skills such as networking.
Completely fill out a profile on the Handshake platform that Saint Leo University Career Services and many big employers use, she adds. Handshake subscribers would see the information on the February 25 virtual job expo, for instance. Students should also have a "well-structured" profile on LinkedIn, the major career-development social media platform.
A good guideline for students is to try to have completed two internships during college, before graduation. One of those internships can be general in nature, as long as it provides a student with the chance to develop and display fundamental aspects of a work ethic, such as punctuality, cooperation, and reliability in completing assignments. The second internship should be in the student's intended career field, Mickey advises.
Some large companies are even starting to look at college underclassmen for "early-career" programs that can lead to employment post-graduation, so students should look for those opportunities as well.
"There are good, good job opportunities for students," Mickey says. "It's just a matter of the work it takes to be prepared. There is a little more to it than just getting the degree."