OPINION: Unpaid practicum field experience for social work students creates an unfair financial burden

As we all know, one of the trickiest parts of completing a college degree is not the coursework, but being able to find a balance of focusing on your schoolwork and financially supporting yourself. Unpaid practicums for social work students, which are similar to an internship, make this even harder.

All accredited social work programs require field placement, with the hours varying by degree level. They usually last for a year. Practicums allow students to practice skills they are learning in their courses, observe and assist professionals, determine where their strengths lie as a social worker and give back to the community.

Here’s the problem: Many of them are unpaid. While I understand that some placements do not have the resources to pay students, and some may be OK with this to gain the necessary experience, it is creating a huge hurdle for students to get a degree in a field that we already know doesn’t pay much.

For my bachelor’s of social work degree at WSU, I completed an unpaid practicum, and did about 15 hours a week. Between balancing a day of classes, being an editor for the paper, and my practicum, I found myself exhausted at the end of every week and with not a lot of extra money laying around.

I was constantly stressed, making sure I had enough money for bills and second-guessing if every purchase was necessary, even food.  This is also coming from a student who doesn’t have any kids or others to support, unlike many in the social work program.

I am not the only one affected.  A big topic of conversation for social work students is figuring out how they will make it through the academic year financially, and many have to make sacrifices, including their own personal well-being and the attention they pay to their coursework.

Unpaid practicums are an unnecessary barrier to obtaining our degree, and effectively limit many students from completing the degree. This is dangerous because our field works with diverse populations, and unpaid practicums directly work against diversifying the field of social workers.

Unpaid practicums go directly against our ethics, because they are exploitative and contradict the profession’s call for social and economic justice.

I do believe that there is hope on the horizon. Master social works students at the University of Michigan have created a group called Fair Labor Organizing centered around this issue.

According to a survey they conducted out of 110 students, 82 percent of respondents said their financial stability impacts their ability to be a good student. 73 percent of respondents work at least one more job on top of practicum and classes. 40 percent of respondents work 20 or more hours a week on top of their field placement. Mental health was also rated dangerously low.

This is not just a social work issue. This is an issue that all should be concerned about, as social workers fight for a just and equitable world for everyone to live.