Faculty Club / Assessment / 5 Eye-Opening Exercises for Students in Helping Professions

5 Eye-Opening Exercises for Students in Helping Professions

Dr. Yelando Johnson and Dr. Natalie Grant devised a series of exercises to give students the self-knowledge they need to enter social work with eyes open.

Dr. Yelando Johnson and Dr. Natalie Grant devised a series of exercises to give students the self-knowledge they need to enter social work with eyes open.

Yelando Johnson, EdD


Assistant Professor of Social Work and Director of BSW Program,
Newman University in Wichita, KS

EdD in Educational Leadership, MBA, MSW, and BSW

Natalie Grant, EdD


Associate Professor of Social Work and BSW Field Education Director,
Newman University in Wichita, KS

EdD in Educational Leadership, MA, MSW, and BSW

In their combined 20 years of practicing and teaching social work, Yelando Johnson and Natalie Grant have seen one problem more often than they wish: Students who were initially excited about their career choice are sometimes hit with grave doubts as graduation draws near.

Nobody wants that kind of crisis. To help students avoid it, the professors at Newman University in Wichita set to work developing a strategy aimed at drilling down to the source of such conflicts, so their students can decide early on whether they belong in this challenging field.

They observed that the root of the issue seemed to lie in a lack of awareness of self and others and how different viewpoints can intersect or collide. While most students who enter social work want to make a difference in others’ lives, some may find it difficult to put aside very strong opinions about certain topics—like abortion, religion, or gender and sexuality, for example—when working with clients. Others may not have developed strong core values yet, making it difficult to process the behaviors and views of others.

Their solution: to integrate cultural awareness and self-knowledge directly into the social work curriculum. Through two “identity integration” seminars, Johnson and Grant teach students about the professional behavior required in social work, such as respect for others’ opinions, values, and cultures—including peers and clients—and the ability to keep one’s own beliefs from creating a barrier to effective practice.

“The goal of each seminar is to evaluate and discover who you are, learn to integrate yourself into the profession, and understand and appreciate your own spiritual and cultural background, but also accept others that are different, and look at how can you help as a practitioner. Through our courses, students are learning micro-level practice skills, but we want them to have a macro-level mind to get there,” says Johnson.

“Becoming a social worker is a developmental process, and regardless of age, there is a negotiation one must work through in terms of ‘who I am’ in relation to the profession, if and how values conflict, and developing some sort of vision for the professional we want to become. We want students to wrestle with these questions long before they become a crisis, and to have a plan for themselves as they progress. It is a proactive response to issues students may not be aware of early on,” says Grant.


Students do not realize what social work requires

Too often, students lack the self-knowledge and the awareness of the workforce necessary to choose a career path. In a helping profession, such as social work, students may lack a sensitivity to other cultures that is critical to working effectively with clients and forging bonds that are important to success. Some make it as far as their junior year before they discover that the majors they have chosen are not right for them; they often stumble into social work only to realize over time that the profession requires a great deal of internal reflection, negotiation of values, and learning how to work within fragmented systems.


Use reflection to raise students’ awareness

Johnson and Grant developed a two-semester Integration Seminar: Identity and Industry, for students entering the bachelor’s-level social work program. In the first semester, students reflect on their identity and values, seeing how they align with the professional values of social work. In the second semester, they explore the industry of social work further by interacting with professionals and learning about specific areas they may wish to focus on. Through a deeper understanding of their professional values, students learn to manage their emotions, solve problems, and hone their social-emotional-spiritual-intellectual competency skills. Students are also able to gain a greater understanding of the social work workforce in order to begin identifying their own best fit.


“The goal of these integration seminars is to discover who you are, learn to integrate yourself into the profession, and understand and appreciate your own spiritual and cultural background, but also accept others that are different, and look at how you can help as a practitioner.”
-Yelando Johnson, EdD

“Social work as a profession has a very long history, and as students enter into work with clients and systems, it is important to value the sacred nature of connecting to people and community. Our integration seminars hope to help students build their foundation and deepen their commitment to this profession and their own self-care. We want to reduce burnout and high turnover rates for social workers, and these seminars directly relate to the prevention of these issues.”
-Natalie Grant, EdD

Courses: SWK 4041 Integration Seminar 1: Identity and SWK 4153 Integration Seminar 2: Industry

Course descriptions: This [first] innovative course aims to further the development of student identity as a social worker in relation to the larger world and goodness of fit. Drawing from Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics, big questions are presented in order to holistically integrate self, classroom learning, knowledge and experience. The course includes self-reflection, goal setting, creative projects and exploration of identity development and its application to social work. The course utilizes a learning community framework.

This [second] enrichment course is opportunity for students to further integrate knowledge and experiences as related to social work as an industry and study as a learning community. Preparing students to engage the professional world, the course uses self-reflection and goal setting while exploring professional interests, communicating effectively, and deepening their intellectual life.

See materials

See materials

Lesson: Assignments to develop self- and other-awareness

Assignments that build self-awareness help prepare students for interpersonal challenges they will face as professionals. Johnson and Grant hope that, after taking the Integration Seminar, students will have a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Gaining insights into their own family dynamics, past relationships, upbringing, and cultural background “will make a difference when [students] integrate themselves into the profession and when they practice,” says Johnson.

“Ultimately, they will have to put the professional values of social work first, and that has to guide [their] practice,” says Johnson. Learning to negotiate differences and challenges can be a difficult process for some. If they cannot reconcile social work values with their personal values, they may find that this field may not be where they belong.

Here are the exercises that Johnson and Grant created to help open students’ eyes:

1. Put personal identities in writing

Grant and Johnson have students write a paper describing personal identities at the start of the first semester. Students are asked to identify various aspects of their own identities in terms of gender, ethnicity/nationality, race/color, sexual orientation, ability/disability, social class, and religion/spirituality.

“In doing so, when they write about and discuss it, they can see that differences exist, and [they] begin wrestling with their biases and feelings related to difference,” Johnson explains.

Next, students are asked to write their first Integration paper. They produce two to three pages guided by a set of questions, such as: How does personal use of self impact practice? How will you reconcile your positions on social, economic, and political justice, and integrate these into practice?

Instructor feedback is extremely important in this writing process, say Johnson and Grant. Students tend to feel vulnerable when opening up about their own truths and experiences. The professors use a rubric to evaluate these student writings in order to build structure into grading and also to provide students with expectations prior to submitting their papers. They take into account the students’ absorption of the material as well as writing ability, and they give clear examples of responses that they consider strong (e.g., “includes ethics, includes commitment to professional development”), acceptable (e.g., “mention of advocacy”) and unacceptable (e.g., “focus only on ‘helping people’ ”).

2. Encourage reflection through art and graphics

To help students develop a better sense of self, Johnson and Grant have them create artwork, including culturagrams, genograms, ecomaps, collages, and infographics—graphic representations of each student’s family tree and culture that show how values and thought patterns are formed. They say these exercises tie into larger themes of developing a purpose, fostering integrity and maturity, managing emotions, establishing identity and personal relationships, and moving through autonomy toward interdependence. And it is important, they note, that these projects encourage discussion of personal values.

Many Pinterest pages are devoted to social work infographics; Grant and Johnson point to the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Pinterest page as a good example.

3. Use role-play to identify strong beliefs

When students delve deeper into their own upbringing by acting out roles, it makes them better able to articulate what they do and do not believe in. “We do role-play to determine that sometimes [students] might think they are OK with something and come to find that they’re not,” says Johnson. Through this, they develop a deeper understanding of their closely held values, which can help make them a better practitioner. For example, if their upbringing was very strict, they may find it hard to work with a family that raises children without structure—unless they are able to acknowledge that and set it aside when at work.

4. Confront biases by combining educational technology with storytelling

Because cultural competency is a major component of social work, students are encouraged to explore cultures other than their own. Having already learned more about their own values, they now learn to recognize issues they may have with acceptance, whether those issues are cultural, stigma-based, or simply rooted in a lack of knowledge and experience with difference.

In the Storytelling assignment, students consider universal themes found in stories from different cultures and societies. In the Social Media Advocacy assignment, students choose a specific client population and describe ways that social media is and could be used as an advocacy tool for this population. They also study the impact of social media and how it may have helped shape their attitudes about other cultures or groups.

“This is basically about confronting your own biases,” Johnson says. Students also have options to participate in ethnic-focused campus organizations or attend a variety of campus events focused on diversity, which may broaden their intercultural awareness and skills.

5. Interview practitioners in the field

Johnson and Grant enlist the help of professional social work practitioners to bring practical perspectives into the classroom and a real-world sense of what social work entails. They invite guest speakers and facilitate panel discussions with directors of various organizations, such as the YMCA, Catholic Charities, and Harbor House.

They also have students interview social workers, providing them with a list of pre-written questions. The students then present their findings via a technological presentation on the interview, organization, and their personal takeaways. This includes noting the challenges of working in that particular service area. For example, some students might be curious about working in the school system, and they will learn that many school social workers need to support Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special-needs students.


To determine the metrics for student learning success and outcomes, the professors use guidelines from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), Educational Policy Accreditation Standards (EPAS), and other teaching best practices. Students are evaluated in a variety of areas, such as professional conduct, reflective practice, application of ethical principles, engagement, assessment, and more.

“Our overarching goal is for students to demonstrate social work practice behaviors identified by the CSWE competencies,” says Johnson. “Are they able to define the roles and functions of the profession? Can they identify multiple methods that are used in a client-counselor setting? Are they able to put their own biases aside during their work?”

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