USC Offers First Master of Social Work Program within Family Services Agency

USC School of Social Work Executive Vice Dean Paul Maiden, fourth from left, and the first Seneca MSW@USC cohort

The USC School of Social Work has teamed with California nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies to offer the first Master of Social Work degree program within a child and family services agency. This innovative graduate program enables Seneca employees to earn a top-tier MSW using USC’s online learning platform while they gain real-world social work experience. Seneca MSW@USC students will continue to be paid as full-time agency employees while receiving substantial tuition assistance from both Seneca and USC.

“This is our first community partnership of ‘embedding’ our MSW program in an agency,” said Paul Maiden, executive vice dean at the USC School of Social Work, who spoke at Seneca’s kick-off celebration in April. “These types of partnerships are enormously important employee retention opportunities for agencies that are investing in their human capital.”

Seneca encourages its employees—whether they are counselors, mental health assistants or case assistants—to apply for the seven-semester degree program, which is billed as an exclusive company benefit for personnel seeking professional growth and the means to a highly respected, yet affordable graduate degree. In turn, Seneca hopes the program will help it sustain a highly qualified clinical staff.

“Many community-based organizations are unable to recruit and retain social workers who reflect the diverse populations they serve,” said Ken Berrick, CEO of Seneca Family of Agencies. “This program enables us to recruit nationally, while supporting dedicated practitioners who otherwise may not have the opportunity to reach their clinical and professional potential.”

“In the end, Seneca’s services and supports for children and families will be even better, and there will be a more competent and diverse social worker workforce to address the future needs of our communities,” he added.

A growing need

The Bureau of Labor Statistics points to a very favorable job outlook for the profession, highlighting a significant national need for competent social workers trained to serve families that struggle with profound emotional, psychological and financial challenges.

Berrick anticipates a continuing need for MSW graduates to staff Seneca’s social service, mental health and education programs – even after hiring nearly 400 new clinicians from 2009 to 2014. The organization operates in 12 counties across California, providing services for nearly 6,000 youth and their families.

One of the first 11 students accepted to the program is Alexandra Riley-Sorem whose interest in social justice began in junior high as an advocate for migrant workers, Planned Parenthood clients and gay classmates. “I feel in every fiber of my being that everybody deserves to be treated well and that people should support each other,” she wrote in her application.

Riley-Sorem thinks she’s an ideal candidate for the program having grown from her own experiences with therapy to those of her clients she has served. “I developed a respect for the therapeutic process, as well as a better understanding of the behaviors and needs of people who have experienced trauma,” she said.

A Seneca employee for nine years, Riley-Sorem applied to the Seneca MSW@USC program for its promise of a theoretical, research-based curriculum she hopes will help her improve her ability to service her clients and create positive change in the field. She said it didn’t hurt that she can keep her day job, and she won’t have to commute!

The Seneca MSW@USC program will also be available on an advanced standing basis for individuals who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, but are not currently employed by Seneca. They can participate in the four-semester advanced standing option, as long as they apply for employment with Seneca and MSW@USC admission, and are accepted. This accelerated alternative enables students to complete their degree in just 35 units (as opposed to the traditional 60 units) for a little over half the tuition of a standard USC MSW degree.

All Seneca MSW@USC students will take part in live online classes utilizing an interactive, web-based learning platform that connects them with other students from all over the country. The interface is reminiscent of “Hollywood Squares,” where classmates appear in a grid-like screen on the computer for face-to-face interaction. Additionally, students can link up in study groups and chat sessions – just like they already do on many of today’s popular social networking sites. The online curriculum is the same as that of the campus-based program, but with the addition of an elective course on Seneca’s therapeutic practice model.

The Seneca MSW@USC program for current agency employees starts in May. Applications from individuals with a BSW degree will be accepted from May through July for admission to the advanced standing program beginning in January 2015.

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