UM-Dearborn Health and Human Services senior Riley Day hadn't really considered a career in social work until she took her first couple classes in the subject and got hooked. After that, her previous goal of being a child life specialist, a very focused branch of pediatric health care, seemed a bit too narrow compared with all the options she’d have as a social worker. Day particularly loved the holistic approach that the field takes to supporting people, which is something she’d experienced firsthand at the family service agency she volunteered with while in high school. “I worked in the childcare center, and you’d be spending time with the kids when the parents were doing a parenting class or someone was helping them find some economic opportunities,” Day says. “The more I learned, the more I saw how everything in a person’s life is interconnected, and it’s not just one thing that can bring someone’s life back into balance. So how could I work in just one area?”
There was just one snag with Day switching gears. While UM-Dearborn has three versatile Health and Human Services (HHS) major concentrations, and some great courses in social work, the university doesn't formally offer a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) — the degree many students pursue when they’re looking to get into the field. However, shortly after Day started at UM-Dearborn in 2019, the university started offering a degree program with arguably more perks than a BSW. Through a partnership with the Ann Arbor campus, which has a top-ranked social work program, UM-Dearborn HHS undergrads could earn a U-M Master of Social Work degree (MSW) with just one additional year of study.
Here’s how the Human Services and Social Work 4+1 program works: During their first three academic years at UM-Dearborn, Health and Human Services students interested in social work complete their required courses for the Bachelor of Science in HHS with a Human Services concentration. Then, by March 1 of their junior year, they can apply for admission to the 4+1. If accepted, UM-Dearborn seniors take four graduate courses that count toward both the completion of their undergraduate HHS degree at UM-Dearborn and their U-M School of Social Work MSW. Then, after completing their bachelor's, students fully matriculate into the MSW program and can finish in as little as three additional semesters.
For Day, the 4+1 was a great fit. Now in the first semester of the program, she says her experience has been really positive. One of the things she appreciates — and which has also been a bit of an adjustment — is taking classes with older students who have more robust social work experiences, including many who have been working as social workers for years. “Some of my classmates have traveled abroad to work, they are married with kids, they moved here from other states to study, and I was feeling a little like, ‘I’m very much at the beginning of my career, my bachelor’s has not solely been in social work, and I’m still very much learning,’” Day says. “I think part of me was wondering if I was too young to be here, and that maybe I needed to get some more experience and then come back. But the flip side of that is it’s pretty amazing to have classmates with different backgrounds and so much experience, because they can speak to how things are in the places they’re coming from. I honestly feel like I’m getting so much more out of my classes because of that.”
U-M Associate Professor Katie Richards-Schuster, who’s been involved with the planning of the program since the beginning, says making sure the 4+1 students feel like they belong is something the program administrators always have their eye on. For example, while they don’t call out a student’s 4+1 status to the whole class, they do let faculty know when they have undergraduates in one of their courses. “We want our faculty to be prepared that students may have a lot of questions, so they may want to check in to make sure they feel confident or have what they need,” Richards-Schuster says. “Knowing that students might need a little extra nudge to participate, a faculty member may also want to find ways for them to speak up in class; for example, starting with pairs, then small groups, so it’s not always just one big class discussion.”
That’s a strategy Lecturer Grace Helms-Kotre has used effectively in her MSW courses, where she frequently asks students to write personal reflections on class topics. That provides students a chance to test drive and get feedback on their ideas in a more private setting, while giving her a window into how they’re doing both personally and academically. Day, who has Helms-Kotre this semester, says she’s really valued having that platform, and it’s helped reassure her that she deserves to be there. Regarding performance, the results have been definitive thus far: Richards-Schuster says faculty consistently report that 4+1 students, which include Dearborn HHS students and sociology undergrads from the Ann Arbor campus, are doing some of the best written and theoretical work.
Only a handful of students from Dearborn have enrolled in the program so far, but applications are showing signs of picking up in 2023. In many ways, Richards-Schuster thinks a slow start is probably a good thing, because there are always administrative and scheduling bugs to work out when you’re coordinating systems between two campuses. Based on the feedback of some of the early enrollees, they’ve also built out a more comprehensive set of programs to strengthen the cohort experience and guide students on admissions, financial aid and different tracks within the MSW program.
Day doesn’t mind being an early adopter/guinea pig. For her, the timing of the program launch was fortuitous, and she says she’s received a ton of support from advisers on both the Dearborn and Ann Arbor sides. She’s also starting to get more questions about the 4+1 from students coming up behind her, which bodes well for the future of the program. “I actually had a classmate ask me about it when I was applying, because she was kind of in the same boat I was in,” Day says. “She wanted to do social work with geriatric populations, but we didn’t have the BSW. Obviously, this gives you the option to get a social work degree, but being able to reduce the time and money it takes to get a graduate degree is huge. So I’m happy to answer any questions and be an ambassador, because I definitely think it’s a great option for a lot of students.”
Are you interested in learning more about the 4+1 MSW program? Get more information and learn how to apply. Story by Lou Blouin