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Social work conference building on recipe of success

January 20, 2016

Bruce Hoem, left, with SW 435 class members following their 2015 conference. (Tena L. Cook/Chadron State College) Bruce Hoem, left, with SW 435 class members following their 2015 conference. (Tena L. Cook/Chadron State College)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Beginning in January 2016, CSC College Relations is initiating a monthly series of news articles, features and Q&A interviews highlighting various departments on campus in an effort to assist the faculty and staff in gaining an increased awareness about and understanding of each other's roles and responsibilities.

This month's area of focus is the Counseling Psychology and Social Work department.

CHADRON – Talk with Bruce Hoem for a few minutes about the social work conference that his class, SW 435, offers annually at Chadron State College and you’ll begin to see a formula emerges. First, take a small, student-driven class and give the students a social issue to build a conference around. Second, offer opportunities for collaboration with college and community officials as well as other principal participants. Finally, allow several months for precise event planning and professional teamwork that ultimately results in a tangible example of high-impact learning.

The yearly fall conference is a capstone project required for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in social work. The logistics, including planning, preparation and event management, as well as advertising and audio and video public service announcements, are entirely the students’ responsibility.

“I give them their topic and guide them on what they’re doing but it goes from them relying on me to where they don’t even care if I’m in the room,” said Hoem, an associate professor in the Counseling, Psychology and Social Work department. “It’s amazing to watch the transformation from them being afraid of doing it to actually seeing them produce an incredible event.”

SW 435 meets in the fall semester, but Hoem said since senior social work majors know the conference requires several months of behind the scenes work, a lot of planning happens prior to class. Among several group meetings and discussions about ways to incorporate state, regional and national experts, the students host principal player meetings, often involving city and college administrators, school counselors, school superintendents, school principals, health representatives and law enforcement.

“There are so many details and the students can’t leave anything out because there is a lot that goes into helping the community. I really don’t think there are other bachelor’s degree programs that put out this type of conference,” Hoem said.

Indeed, Hoem is well aware CSC is one of the only colleges offering this type of active learning in social work. He said the idea came to him in 2007 and the class had its first conference in 2008.

“I thought, ‘why can’t we put on a conference?’ I talked to several colleagues and they all thought I was crazy because there was too much involved,” he said.

Past conferences have covered veteran’s awareness, disabilities, civility, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cancer awareness. The 2015 conference, “Not Asking for It: A Workshop on Sexual Assault” focused on educating the community and students about sexual assault, as well as how individuals can report an assault. Presenters included Brian Van Brunt, who is the past-president of the American College Counseling Association, and representatives from the Chadron Community Hospital, the Chadron Police Department, the Dawes County Sheriff’s Office and Project Strive TRiO.

While the conference attendees benefitted from the various workshops and presenters, the students in SW 435 also developed their own skills by working cohesively.

“In my opinion, we learned as much about ourselves as we did about planning an event. This course showed us about planning, creating and successfully putting together a workshop,” said Shelby McKay, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work in May 2016. “We never let the little things get us down and we didn’t see the tough situations as failures or weaknesses, but as points that we could use as building blocks to make it better.”

McKay’s classmate, Yadira Gurrola, agreed the class actively learned through trial and error.

“I learned that not everything will go as planned and that you should have a backup plan for every aspect of the event. We spent a lot of late nights and early mornings contacting people making sure everything was put into place,” Gurrola, who will also graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work in May, said. “We learned that life happens and that sometimes the perfect vision in your head is far from what may be possible to achieve, but that you can get pretty close.”

Another side effect of planning an event of this magnitude is stress. However, Gurrola chose to embrace the pressure in order to prepare her for future professional endeavors.

“Honestly, SW 435 provided me with more stress than any other class I have taken during my college career, but it was truly the type of stress that taught me how a real job works. Social workers work a lot of hours to put together something that may only last a few hours but the final outcome is worth it in the end. I had wonderful instructors who helped guide my class through the entire process, but never did the work for us. They let us flounder for a while, but then would step in when we weren’t able to get over a hump.”

Hoem is quick to point his role is to be a mentor and not a lecturer who determines how the event will be handled. He said he wants the class to decide everything, including resolving differences.

“Working on the conference gives them a tremendous amount of confidence. By the time they go into the field, they are remembering what they did and they have a lot of confidence and are able to perform at a high level,” he said. “This isn’t easy – there are some disagreements and a lot of things happen, but the students settle things themselves. I often tell the class, it’s not for your sake for doing this. It is for the sake of others.”

McKay certainly appreciated Hoem’s pedagogy.

“This class was different from other classes in that it was primarily hands-on. While Bruce gave us limited instruction and guidance, for all intents and purposes we were allowed to succeed or fail on our own,” she said. “We were required to come out of our comfort zones. This class allowed us to learn in a hands-on setting rather than from a lecture or textbook, and I think we learned more in being allowed to succeed or fail for ourselves than we ever could have by reading a textbook.”

Gurrola said SW 435 was her most enjoyable class.

“At the end of our workshop, my class got together and reflected on the entire process, from beginning to end. We had never felt more together then we did when we were working on this workshop. We were so grateful for all the support we received from Chadron State, the community, local businesses and the surrounding areas,” she said. “It may have looked like it was all of our work that made it successful, but it truly couldn’t have been put together without all of those outside resources we had. I enjoyed this class so much and the entire process that I wouldn’t mind planning another one. Hopefully, my future jobs will allow me to do so.”

—Alex Helmbrecht, Director of College Relations

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