Social-work students practice full time in Washington, D.C., assisting and advocating for clients from all walks of life.

By:    Date: 10-14-2015


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All social-work students want to change the world for the better, but learning how to do that requires training and experience, says Carroll Phelps, instructor and internship coordinator for The University of Alabama School of Social Work.

For the past 35 years, the University has offered students pursuing social work master’s degrees a nationally unique opportunity to gain and practice skills in a place that teems with both social-service organizations and institutions shaping policies that affect their clients: Washington, D.C.

Since 1980, more than 500  students have worked full time for four months each spring at more than 300 Washington, D.C., organizations, including those serving veterans and their families, at-risk youth, the homeless, cancer and AIDS patients, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, the Hispanic community, the elderly and more. Between 18 and 22 interns work with more than 1,000 clients each year. In Fall 2014, UA launched a Washington, D.C., internship program for students pursuing social work bachelor’s degrees as well. Students worked full time at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – the nation’s largest military medical facility. They were the first BSW students to work in the U.S. Department of Defense. The partnership with Walter Reed is ongoing, and five to 10 BSW students will work with the medical center and other Washington agencies every fall. Each BSW student fulfills 450  field education hours.


all 2014 undergraduates and Carroll Phelps at the U.S. Supreme Court. Students attended oral arguments, which included a redistricting case from Alabama. ABOVE: Students work with many agencies serving military members and their families.

In addition to completing internship classroom hours and assignments, undergraduate and graduate students also learn about the legislative and policy-making processes and practice advocacy on their clients’ behalf through other courses they take while in Washington.

“We teach students to pay close attention to policy, as policy affects their lives and their  clients’ lives,” Phelps says.

Caroline Miller, a junior double majoring in social work and political science, was one of five students selected for the BSW pilot program in Washington. “Living and working in D.C. made me feel like I was a part of something important,” Miller says. “Every day I felt like I was making a difference in someone’s life.”

Of the 600 schools of social work in the United States, The University of Alabama’s program is the only one outside of the Washington, D.C., metro area that offers a structured internship program in the nation’s capital. In addition to exposing students to direct-service organizations and public-policy and advocacy implementation, the program includes a leadership component that trains students to integrate all aspects of professional behavior into practice.

Phelps says students have represented the University so well over the past three decades that she often gets calls from people requesting UA interns at Washington social-services agencies.

The graduate-student partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was so successful that when the medical center’s social work department decided to launch a program for undergraduates, it wanted the first ones to be UA students, Phelps says. Stephen Bromberek, commander of Walter Reed’s social work department, approached Phelps with the idea in February 2014. “They said to us, ‘Your students are just so well prepared,’” Phelps says. “We’re honored to have been chosen.”

Phelps began the program with assistance from Javonda Williams, assistant professor and Bachelor of Social Work Program chair, and Debra Nelson-Gardell, associate professor of social work.

Students see how policies and legislation affect clients and learn to advocate on their behalf.

Working with Clients
Both the BSW and MSW D.C. programs use a rotational model. Students work directly with clients – in two different areas  of their partner agencies – and often assist with administration and policy/advocacy tasks. “It is very important to us for students to have a variety of experiences,” Phelps says.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, for example, offers services in more than 100 specialties to military personnel and their families from across the country, giving students an opportunity to pursue career interests and see sides of social work they had not considered.

Miller, who has an interest in child advocacy, worked in the Mother Infant Care Center and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She conducted psychosocial assessments of new mothers experiencing stressors such as perinatal depression, marital discord, financial difficulty, medical problems and single parenthood. She then provided psycho-education and counseling and collaborated with patients to develop treatment plans.

“Working with clients has been such an incredible journey,” Miller says. “I began with no field experience and no idea how I was going to interact with clients. By the end of my field placement, I was seeing clients by myself and was calmer and more confident in my abilities as a social worker. There is nothing more rewarding than feeling like you have helped lift the burden of others.”

After a period of supervision, undergraduate and graduate students at all agencies are given caseloads and practice independently. They help clients and their families process and deal with difficult situations and they connect clients with needed resources.
Simone English, a graduate student who completed her degree in May 2014, worked with Walter Reed’s Wounded Warrior Care Center. The center is the first destination in the continental United States for critically injured military members. Many have limbs amputated or suffer from traumatic brain injuries. English provided psychotherapy and case management and made sure her clients transitioned smoothly from the hospital to home.


MSW students at the U.S. Capitol. Students research legislation that would have a positive impact on their clients, then meet with Congress members to explain why it should become law.

“It was pretty difficult because you have not only the physical injuries, but the emotional injuries,” says English, who handled a caseload of six to eight patients at any given time.
Sometimes military members arrive a couple of days before their families can get to Washington. “I pretty much was there as a support system,” English says. “Then, once the family arrived, I worked with them, too.”

She made sure children had tutors while away from school and family members’ other needs were met. Amputees typically are in the Wounded Warrior unit three months, English says, and those with traumatic brain injuries usually are there two or three weeks.
“Having the opportunity to help families get back on their feet and enjoy life again gave me confidence,” English says. “If I can work with this population, I can work with anyone. It also gave me the opportunity to see this is truly what I want to do. I really want to work with the veteran population.”

Julie Holden, a graduate of the social work master’s program, is interested in geriatric social work and assisted older adults and their families in the primary-care and cardiology divisions of the National Naval Medical Center. Holden ensured her clients were connected with all the services they needed – rehabilitation, physical therapy, home health care, etc. – when they left the hospital.

Families can be tempted to make quick decisions in the hospital, and the social worker’s role is to make sure the best-possible outcomes are achieved, Holden says. For example, family members might want to move their relative into an assisted-living facility when the individual is not ready for that. The social worker explains to family members why they need to look at alternatives.

“Anytime you’re in the hospital, it’s a very stressful time and emotions are high,” Holden says. “You just want to make sure the family overall is taken care of and all voices are heard.”

When working with the elderly, students make sure their clients’ voices are heard.

Holden says participating in a team approach to client care – working with nurses, doctors, psychologists and physical therapists – was a valuable opportunity. It’s a sentiment other students echo.

“I felt I grew both professionally and personally by working with different professions in the hospital,” says Keri Warren, who interned as a BSW student in 2014 and is now an MSW student at UA. “All of us might be assisting one patient to try to improve his or her life. This was a wonderful experience because it taught me to work with a diverse group of people.”

In regular staff meetings, professionals from each discipline talk about their clients, English says, and she served as the social worker, giving advice and opinions. “I learned how to communicate effectively with other professionals in the field and how to advocate on behalf of clients,” she says.

Warren worked in inpatient and outpatient units at Walter Reed. During her inpatient rotation, she helped lead HIV/AIDS support groups and facilitated cystic fibrosis health clinics for children and adults. In her outpatient rotation, Warren worked with the elderly in an internal-medicine clinic. She assisted patients in ordering medical equipment, setting up home health care and locating other resources.

One client, a woman who was a caregiver to her sick husband, made a strong impression on Warren. “When I first spoke to this woman, she sounded beat down and defeated,” Warren says. “She felt like she had nowhere to turn for help in caring for her husband. I helped her receive assistance for different equipment, benefits and resources that could provide some relief. She became happier and less discouraged. I realized that I love doing this because the work that I do can have a positive impact on people.”


2014 Undergraduate students [back row] with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and instructor Carroll Phelps. Each student shared with Sewell research into how a policy or piece of legislation would affect his or her clients, and Rep. Sewell discussed the nuances of the policies with them.

Courses and Advocacy
Both undergraduate and graduate students take two courses while in Washington. All four courses are related to students’ internships.

SW 490 Field Education and SW 595 Field Education II are attached to the internships. SW 443 Seminar in Generalist Practice assists BSW students in integrating foundation content with their field experience.

SW 501 Advanced Policy Analysis teaches policy analysis and implementation from the perspective of all three branches of government: legislative, judicial and executive. Students meet with members of Congress, attend Supreme Court oral arguments and meet with a justice’s law clerk and discuss policy implementation with executive-branch representatives. They also tour the Holocaust Museum with a survivor. “The class is very experiential and hands-on,” Phelps says. “Students are given the opportunity to do things that cannot be done outside of D.C.”

In addition, students identify a policy or piece of legislation important to their clients, research action on it in Congress and then talk with members of Congress and executive-branch staff about specifics of the bill or policy and how it will affect their clients.
Phelps travels to Washington to work with students bimonthly during the fall and spring semesters, teaching SW 443 and SW 501 and meeting with supervisors and students to ensure student success.

Miller says the field seminar course taught her more about the documentation process and things to assess for during client encounters. “My classes provided me with knowledge on social theories and intervention techniques that I was able to apply to my patient interactions,” she says.

In SW 443, students discuss positive and negative developments in their field placements, Warren says. “We would tell individual experiences and issues we were having and help each other work through them as a group,” she says. “We also did exercises with ethical dilemmas that assisted each of us in knowing what to do in the future.”

Undergraduates also visit institutions where policies affecting their clients are born and interact with speakers from policy and advocacy agencies. “We got to see firsthand how decisions are made in Congress and the Supreme Court and how policy implemented in the executive branch through the Veterans Administration impacts us as citizens and our work at Walter Reed,” says Shankitta Brown, a senior majoring social work.


Malika Moore, a 2011 graduate of the master’s program, with one of her clients at Iona Senior Services, where Moore interned and took a permanent job after graduation.

Graduate students are paired with staff members at the National Association of Social workers and attempt to get specific legislation signed into law. Students do research on the bills and give policy-fact-sheet presentations to NASW governmental and policy staff members. Students then contact lawmakers in person and via phone and email.

One student, placed at Iona Senior Services, worked with the D.C. Coalition on Long Term Care and researched legislation focused on eliminating service gaps for lower-income seniors so they could stay in their homes and receive resources they needed as they aged, Phelps says. The student helped write a brief given to the City Council of the District of Columbia and made a presentation before the Council, which approved the legislation.
When English was working at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, budget cuts resulted in Tricare – the health insurance program for military members – closing all its physical facilities and becoming an online-only entity.

“The closings had a huge effect on our clients,” English says. For example, an amputee recently returned from the battlefield might need to make changes to his policy. Not having staff on site puts additional stress on families, English says.

She and others at Wounded Warrior created a proposal to put on-site offices in military treatment facilities back in the budget and presented it to several legislators.

Phelps says her goal for the future of the Washington, D.C., internship is to expand it while maintaining rigorous training standards. Teaching students to be leaders in their field and to understand all aspects of practice and policy and advocacy implementation is imperative, she says.

“In this day and age, social workers are called upon to do more with less,” Phelps says. “They have to know how to meet the needs of clients as well as take care of themselves.”
“I really do think it’s working,” she continues, noting that many former students have quickly risen to supervisory positions, and a number of them have become CEOs at organizations including Voices for Alabama’s Children and Children’s Specialized Hospital.

Holden says the Washington internship opened her eyes to an entirely different world. “It changed my life,” she says. “I was able to learn from my clients and was challenged by working with clients who came from completely different backgrounds and cultures than myself.”

After her internship, Holden got a job at Community Connections, the largest nonprofit mental health agency in Washington, and remained in the city for two years. “It broadened my horizons,” she says.

To learn more about the Washington, D.C., internship programs or the application processes, contact Carroll Phelps at or 205-348-5571.