College students in New Mexico studying to become licensed social workers are required to conduct hundreds of hours of field work in places like schools, prisons, hospitals and clinics.
That requirement is often unpaid labor.
For the estimated 1,500 students enrolled in social work programs at universities across New Mexico, that volunteer time cuts into their mental well-being, family responsibilities and the wages they need to pay or things like rent or tuition. It also delays the work they could do to begin servicing community needs across the state.
In interviews and testimony to lawmakers earlier this month, social work students and their instructors said paid field placements would go a long way to making social work education less of a sacrifice and financial hardship.
“I felt like I either had to choose between not working my general assistantship, which is my part-time job, and not working my practicum,” New Mexico Highlands University student Amber Vilas said.
In February, Vilas and other students conducted a survey at Highland’s Facundo Valdez School of Social Work and learned that most students at the school have never received any pay for their field placements. The survey found only 13% had received any stipend at all.
Vilas, who is in a master’s program at Highlands, heard students from other social work schools across the country speak in November 2022 at a virtual conference, and started talking to students at her school. Together, they decided to start a chapter of Payment 4 Placements to advocate for legislative changes.
She and other social work students in the group are trying to question why the unpaid placements are the standard, she said.
The only accrediting agency for social work education in the U.S. requires a minimum of 400 field placement hours for bachelor’s students, and a minimum of 900 for master’s students. Vilas and her cohort say financial support is necessary to meet these requirements and also help their overall well-being.
Almost every one of the students surveyed at Highlands said they had to sacrifice other priorities for their field hours, including self-care, family time, study time, and paid work.
“If there is a social work crisis now, it’s going to take time for students to get through school and be able to be licensed and serving in their communities, so this is the support that they need now,” Vilas said.
More than 94% of those surveyed who did get a stipend reported positive impacts on their mental health including being able to focus more on their studies, easing their financial stress, making them feel their hard work is recognized and providing a feeling of security.
Vilas understands this firsthand, and sees reform is needed even if a student does get the rare paid field work position. She was paid in her first practicum through the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
But even the paid field practicums do not pay enough, Vilas said.
For example, Vilas said CYFD offers a stipend which pays the student’s tuition first. Any leftover money is not a regular paycheck and comes at the end of the school year, Vilas said.
Vilas’ second and third practicums were unpaid. She’s doing her third one this summer in part because she found it difficult to balance everything she needed to during the spring semester.
Two months of unpaid labor
Maddie Carrell is a graduate assistant at the Social Work Educational Enhancement Project.
She will start her second field placement this fall doing group therapy for Spanish-speaking students in New Mexico, based out of Gerard’s House, a grief resource center in Santa Fe.
She’ll be doing the placement only part-time because she can’t afford to go to school and not make a wage to pay tuition.
Bachelor’s students must complete one full-year internship, while master’s students must complete two different ones depending on their degree track.
Every hour a student spends in field placement is an hour not spent earning income, said Judy Barnstone, interim dean and associate professor at Highland’s Facundo Valdez.
It’s the equivalent of roughly two months of unpaid labor, Carrell said.
Most students in social work in New Mexico average in age around 35 years, Barnstone said, which can limit their capacity to focus on — much less afford — their schoolwork.
Caring for their school-aged children and older dependent family members also limits their ability to complete their courses, Barnstone said.
The limited availability and high costs of everyday needs like health care, housing, and childcare make it difficult to progress in their courses, she said.
Each field placement requires 16 to 20 hours of work per week, in addition to the time they spend in class, reading and doing coursework.
Lanette Valdez, who works full-time as a behavioral health responder with the Albuquerque Community Safety Department, is finishing her first field placement as part of her studies this week.
Valdez said she has met many people who stopped trying to do social work because they couldn’t afford to take on a field placement.
The lack of available time to spend at work also sometimes makes it harder for social work students to meet their most basic needs, Barnstone said.
“We have students who delay or stop their progress through their programs because they are caring for family members suffering poor health,” Barnstone said.
Others are food-insecure, or have trouble finding housing, especially as landlords have raised rents, Barnstone said.
Social workers are experiencing high rates of burnout, Carrell said, which exacerbates the existing severely unmet needs of the people they help.
“Investment in social work and paid practicums would support the whole state,” she said.
If a social worker doesn’t have the time or space in order to do self-care, then it becomes difficult to show up for the people they’re trying to help, Vilas said.
“A lot of the people who I have known in the social work field have decided to do it because they grew up in certain areas that were underfunded, underserved,” Vilas said. “We want people who have some kind of experience in this area to be able to relate to people.”
What can be done by the state?
The Legislature in the 2023 session set aside $20 million for school endowments meant for social work educational programs in the state.
The money, overseen by the state Higher Education Department (HED), is meant to pay for scholarships, field practicum stipends, and stipends for supervisors at government agencies who are tasked with training students or recent graduates in field placements, Barnstone said.
“While we’re all eagerly awaiting more information from HED on what this resource will look like, we’re quite certain it will not fully meet the needs of the 1,500 students who are currently in our state training to become social workers,” Barnstone told the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee on July 10.
They could look like general stipends open to all students, Barnstone said, or available only to students with fewer resources.
They could also include stipends in exchange for a work commitment, Barnstone said. CYFD already does something like this, she said, but it could be expanded to other local or state agencies.