Two weeks ago, I submitted my final assignment for the second year of my social work degree. It was a reflective piece, asking me to give an insight into my ‘Personal and Professional development as a result of my 80-day Practice Learning Opportunity’(PLO). You would think I would be elated – running to the fridge for that prized bottle of bubbly, organising a night out or rewarding myself with a binge session of some box-set or other on Netflix. Strangely, although prosecco was chilling in the fridge, friends were on hand to chat to at the end of a phone and there were new seasons of pretty much everything on tv at the click of a button – I quietly went into my garden. To reflect some more.
You see, being a student undertaking a social work degree during a worldwide pandemic is quite a surreal thing to experience. By the time lockdown was announced to the nation, I had just finished my placement and was due to return to university lectures and academic life for the first time since November. Despite really enjoying my PLO, I was tired of writing reflective pieces; of planning direct observations and was looking forward to getting back to my ‘normal’ routine for a bit. I was excited about the prospect of returning to University and surrounding myself in an academic setting once more to hit my internal ‘reset’ button – it would give me the personal recognition that I’d successfully completed my placement and was now returning to a formal learning environment; looking ahead towards my final year. I’m fairly methodical like that where this degree is concerned – one assignment at a time – complete one task then move on to the next. It makes sense to me; it helps me process what I’ve learnt along the way.
Yet University was now closed. (That wasn’t part of my plan, what about my methodical approach?!) There would be no more face to face learning and life as we knew it was about to change in a way I had not seen before. It all felt very flat, very unnerving, and not a return to my ‘normal’ routine at all.
That was 9 weeks ago. These past 9 weeks have been a ‘corona-coaster’ of emotions and experiences. Up and down I go, around and around, sometimes closing my eyes because I don’t want to see what might happen next, other times committing to everything with eyes wide open. I reflect daily, about everything, just to try and make sense of a surreal situation. I could write about the ways in which this pandemic has had a negative effect on me as a social work student, but I’m choosing to take a different perspective because I actually feel like this experience could benefit my future practice. What if the Covid pandemic created a deeper understanding in me towards the lived experiences of others? What if I developed a different kind of approach that was hope-focused in the individuals I support? Wouldn’t that be a thing to keep in my toolkit?
I’ve learnt about many approaches in the past two years. Strength based, person centred, outcome focused, solution focused…the list goes on. I’ve learnt to look at different approaches in the same way as I view cake recipes, in that I’ve got a recipe book, written by a professional baker, giving me a list of ingredients – but to really make it work I need to add a bit of myself to the mix – and I’ve found that if I just add a little dash of hope here and there it can create a completely unique end result – a cake formed out of my own professional curiosity, learning and experiences! I think this is because when you have hope as an ingredient, it can make you think a bit further into the future, it encourages us to have faith in others, it reassures us that things will be ok. That’s not such a bad thing right now.
For once, I am sharing an experience with other people from all over the world. My liberty has been restricted regarding where I can go and what I can do. I have been parted from family members and friends for long periods of time. I’m having to re-think how I go about my daily life. As a community, I am one of many being asked, expected and encouraged to live in a way we are not used to; conforming to a new set of rules imposed on us by others who hold the professional power to make decisions in our best interest. While none of these terms or phrases are new to me within a social work setting, they are completely alien when being delivered directly on my doorstep.
It’s not the way I’d like to have developed a greater awareness of the impact of decisions I might make in the future. Nevertheless, I will use this experience to enhance my ability to empathise and consider the impact of change to an individual’s life. I always imagined that making a decision based on my professional assessment of a person’s situation would sit comfortably with me – I would have the backing of theory, legislation, policy, procedure. I am an empathic, thoughtful person – I can reassure and instil a bit of hope in an individual surely? Wake up call Becky! It’s not as easy as it looks, and you need to check out that recipe again (don’t forget the cake!). It’s not easy living through this at all, despite the guidance; despite my understanding. As students we are taught that being a social worker means we should always be learning, regardless of years in service. Well, if I can’t learn some important lessons from this experience, I never will!
I now have a deeper understanding of how it really feels to be parted from your family members, how tempting it is to break the rules and be with them again. I can empathise with the frustration of grey areas – goalposts changing regarding what is permitted and what is not. Building trust and respect in others that hold the power. That doesn’t come easily at all does it? I’ve learnt how to make it more manageable by thinking creatively around barriers, learning more about what I need to do to make this situation better, making use of resources available to me. If I’ve found it hard, how must it feel for those with support needs? Just because I remain hopeful that this situation will pass, I cannot ever assume that the people I support have an infinite amount of hope regarding their situation – how must that feel? How can I ensure that I change that without dismissing their lived experiences? I am fortunate, I can understand what I might need to make my situation better, but there are those that do not, or cannot. Reflecting on that, and the situation of others right now has been a motivator for my future professional practice. Just because the ingredients in my cake recipe work for me, doesn’t mean that everyone will agree or even like it, so I’ll need to learn how to adapt my recipe and ensure everyone’s personal needs are added to the mix.
All social work students currently living through this pandemic are adapting to the various challenges it has presented. It can easily get you running to the cupboard to comfort eat! I can see how easily it must be to feel overwhelmed and want to give up. Trying to home school our children while we home school ourselves has been testing. Wondering what the new student ‘normal’ will look like come September has been concerning. Thinking about how we can motivate ourselves to submit yet another assignment has been overwhelming. Sharing our experiences has been emotional yet uplifting. All the while remaining hopeful, navigating our way to adapt life as it is now; moving ever closer to achieve our end goal.
Trying, Wondering, Thinking, Sharing. If you popped them into a baking tin I wonder what the secret ingredient would be to achieve that really great bake…a teaspoon of hope perhaps and hey presto – I might just have baked my first professional curiosity cake!
Becky Salter, BSc Social Work Student, University of South Wales