As we graduate today, we master’s students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) School of Social Work have quite a lot to be proud of.
For many of us, our entire school experience has occurred during the pandemic, requiring us to navigate both in-person and virtual services. We’ve adjusted, we think, exceptionally.
Through our internships, we’ve served the city from the Covid-19 front lines, working in hospitals, schools and mental health agencies. We’ve served in communities engaged in organizing and in Annapolis, supporting efforts to improve public policy.
There’s just one problem:
We are not compensated for our work.
As a requirement for our degree, we must complete over 1,000 hours of internship, typically spanning two years. This translates to working two days per week the first year and three days a week the second year.
Meanwhile, we pay for our internships through our tuition. It’s egregious.
In some cases, our internship sites will bill clients for the services we provide, while we do not receive any compensation for our labor other than “education.”
UMB is not alone. This practice is widespread and getting pushback. The majority of Masters in Social Work field positions are unpaid, even though the Council on Social Work Education requires that students complete at least 900 hours of field work.
In March, graduate students at the University of Michigan School of Social Work walked out of their classes to protest the lack of compensation.
Internship Horror Stories
To be clear, we are in favor of hands-on learning experiences and supervision from experienced social workers. In fact,we feel it is essential for our professional development.
But many of us are paying for experiences that have been far from educational. It is not uncommon to exchange horror stories about being told to engage in unethical practices, learning that there are consistent issues with supervisors or internship sites or, honestly, just not having anything to do.
Even worse, we do not feel supported by the UMB administration because our attempts to go through the proper channels and bring attention to our experiences get no tangible results.
In a survey we conducted of 57 students, two thirds report having to work outside of school.
Paying students would improve our internship experiences in multiple ways.
Some agencies rely on the labor of unpaid social work students as part of their business practice. If they had to make a monetary investment in us, they would likely do more to ensure that we were receiving a quality experience.
And, of course, paying for internship work would take a huge burden off of already overburdened grad students. In a survey we conducted of 57 students, two thirds reported having to work outside of school.
Paid internships would help to support students who are having to manage a full-course load, an unpaid internship, paid work outside of school and any other obligations as parents or caregivers.
When is there time for the “self-care” that is so often suggested by the UMB administration, which is necessary for our health, well-being, and longevity as social workers?
We do not feel supported by the UMB administration because our attempts to bring attention to our experiences get no tangible results.
Paid internship would allow us to be better students and more present for our clients, family, and communities.
It would make pursuing a degree in social work more accessible, benefiting women and those with marginalized identities in a field which is overwhelmingly white.
In addition, unpaid internships are in direct opposition to our profession’s Code of Ethics, which espouses principles of social justice and the dignity and worth of individuals.
If our clients were in our position, we would be called upon to advocate for them as their circumstances would be wholly unjust. So why is it then, that we are asked to endure these conditions?
“Because that’s what we went through” or “social work is a difficult profession” are not sufficient answers. It is past time to abolish this practice.
• Students for Fair Labor Practices is a group of graduate students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work working to improve the student experience by addressing issues surrounding internships. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.