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The Joy of Directed Studies

Last academic year I had an honour to work with Rayell Sellars-Sarnowski on SOCW 4900 Directed Studies Course: Developing Professional Self-Identity in Social Work. TRU School of Social Work and Human Service provides a unique opportunity to students to select a topic and design the course that can strengthen their research and expand their knowledge (the course should cover topics that require in-depth exploration of the issue outside of regular courses). We work with Rayell on creating course learning objectives and selecting readings that can enhance the development of professional self-identity. Rayell participated in all aspects of course design and contributed many ideas that I incorporated in the final version of the course outline.

The course critically examined the role and the contributing elements of professional social work identity development process. The course aligned with the core learning objective for social work students to develop professional identities as practitioners as outlined by the Canadian Association for Social Work Education: Standards for Accreditation. This objective also involves social work students developing the ability for self-reflection to develop an awareness for safety in practice. Due to the sensitive nature of exploring individual identity, self-care and support systems were established before an in-depth exploration of the following. Foundations such as intersectionality, and pedagogical influence were explored to deconstruct identity. Especially for populations that face discrimination, historical and contemporary, context were applied to conceptualize the influence on identity. By conceptualizing these aspects students had the opportunity to form their own professional identity separate from dominant discourse. Many frameworks that capture various facets of identity were introduced to aid in students establishing identity. This process allowed to deconstruct the pedagogies taught within education institutions and discern how they impact self and beliefs.

Rayell met all the key learning objectives and at the conclusion of the course, were able to:

  1. Understand professional social work identity components and implications to practice.
  2. Develop identity and find relevant supports to develop identity.
  3. Understand how pedagogy and power influences professional identity development processes for social workers.
  4. Ensure safety in the process of establishing identity.
  5. Achieve a well-grounded professional self-identity that positively strives to maintain the Canadian Association of Social Work Education: Standards for Accreditation learning objectives.

I have asked Rayell to share the experience of taking the course to encourage other students to take directed studies courses and receive one on one mentoring and preparation to advance their studies and promote social work research. Thank you Rayell for all your work and for being part of this directed studies experience.

Reflection on Directed Study – Developing professional self-identity in social work By Rayell Sellars-Sarnowski

                Participating in a directed study gave me the opportunity to develop a framework that would enable me to unearth identity’s role in social work. The basis of the course topic prompted by various antecedents I was experience within the program. These antecedents were related to the intertwining cultural complexities that form my intersectionality. I identify as a Secwepemc-Tsilqhotin woman, who was raised on traditional Secwepemc ne Esk’etemculucw territory.

Being raised on the reserve Esk’et, I was gifted with a very unique perspective of the world. I was blessed to grow up with knowledge of my culture, healing practices, and language. I was custom adopted as a child by my grandmother and provided with a safe, nurturing home. I also have a very large family, and was wrapped by supports and the community. I was provided with a very wide support circle from a young age, and given the tools and caring to strengthen my own resilience. I was very sheltered from the outside world, being surrounded by other Indigenous people until I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I transferred from Sxoxomic school in Esk’et to a catholic private school in Williams lake. Transitioning from a predominantly relevant culture to another was a culture shock, and since then I have been fascinated by the differences in discourse. Later in my teen years, I faced traumas that were detrimental to my holistic wellbeing. I became isolated and turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms. However, despite the hardships my family, community and friends came together to support my holistic wellbeing. Again, strengthening the resilience that I had been fostering since I was a young child.

This journey prompted my interest in the helping profession, as I understand it has with many others. I entered the human services diploma, successfully completing this, then moved on to the bachelor of social work. Within the BSW I noticed that I was questioning my reality, my perspective on life, and generally gaining a new one or trying to. As many of the course work involved questioning dominant discourse, I became more interested in societies perspectives and how they were created. Myself and another student started to focus on how social work discourses impacted our positioning as Indigenous students. Stemming from this, I began to question how is the program supporting students to shape their identity after losing it? It is heavily acknowledged that you will learn “more about yourselves than you want to know,” and that dominant discourse needs to be untangled to understand how it affects our clients. However, I felt that the program lacked supports for students having identity crisis. Especially to support those like myself, with complicated intersectionality’s. Acknowledging my own identity disconnection, and others, I began the process of enrolling in a directed study.

The process itself of entering into a directed study was not as daunting as it may appear. I hope that in the future there is more information on directed studies, I just heard about it from another student doing it and decided to try to supplement those identity development needs. If I hadn’t put myself out there by participating in extracurricular BSW club events, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. Upon discovering this, I was instantly intrigued and decided I was going to do it. Research and confronting gaps within structures is where I thrive. The directed study was an opportunity to utilize and grow those skills. I was pushed to do in-depth research at the library and start discussions with other students and faculty. The process allowed me to approach the topic of identity development utilizing a flexible approach. I wasn’t only able to take the appropriate amount of time to analyze my identities, I was also able to apply appropriate lenses to my work.

I was constantly applying Indigenous approaches in my other class papers, but in smaller scales. In this course I was able to view the entire picture of my Indigenous identity and the various ways it would impact my wellness. Not only was I able to more thoroughly utilize and Indigenous approach, but I was able to apply theories and concepts I truly associated with, such as strengths perspective, a structural approach, trauma-informed practice, decolonizing theory, and systems theory. I was able to weave these together, among many other concepts, to fully understand my approach to social work. By creating my own course outline, I was able to choose what mattered to me as a unique individual to be included in the content. Not only was this project about simply identifying how to manage identity development, it grounded my own knowledge and unique perspective of the world, to allow for my practice to become even more effective.

This was truly an opportunity not only for professional identity growth, but for personal identity growth as well. I believe truly digging into our unique world perspectives is a benefit to our practice as social workers who continue to have the need to understand the complexities of the unique individuals we serve every day. Not only do we have the duty to our clients, we have it to ourselves to truly grant ourselves with holistic wellbeing. It is a beautiful moment when you begin to understand your identity. I think in social work we become obsessed with the idea of controlling who we are as professionals, we lose touch with our true self, who has such a love for being in the helping profession. When we lose touch with our individuality we succumb to robotic helping, and lose meaningful connection to those we serve. These are the types of realizations and connection to practice that can be created in a directed study. How passionately I feel about a connection to identity, is only an example of what type of work can be done in this opportunity. If this sparks an idea about what you would study, I highly suggest exploring it in this manner.

“As life goes on it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself everyday.” ― Agatha Christie


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