Story and Photo from The Lakeland Ledger

A Warner University classroom was filled with student members of the social work and psychology club one recent morning, and official business was being discussed.

The agenda for the Social Work/Psychology Student Association wasn’t really about the students. It was all about people who need help, and ways the club may be of service.

There was a talk and a vote about how students can help a charity gather holiday gifts for children and teens. Lamario McNeil, a social work major, suggested visiting a local nursing home. Club members could provide company and comfort for lonely people there, he said.

Professor Erica Sirrine pitched in now and then to guide the group.

Sirrine, division chair of arts and sciences at Warner University, said there is no shortage of student enthusiasm among these majors. Warner has offered a bachelor of arts in social work since 1992.

There is pride that the program was granted initial accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education in June, Sirrine said. “One of the greatest benefits of attending a CSWE-accredited social work program is that graduates are eligible to enter a master’s of social work program with advanced standing, shortening the course of study for the graduate degree by up to one year,” she said. “This saves students a great deal of tuition money at the graduate level and makes pursuing a master’s of social work degree more affordable.”

For McNeil, 25, a junior from West Palm Beach, a chance to work in the field is a match to his heart. “Social work interests me because it allows me the opportunity to make a change, a difference, and a positive impact in the world.

“What appeals me the most about social work is, we often go into practice with the initiative to change others’ lives, but as a result our lives are changed as well.”

The field of study produces needed workers, the professor said. She cites the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and says that professional social workers are the largest provider of mental health and therapy services in the U.S.; outnumbering psychologists and psychiatrists.

A degree in social work is a stepping stone for students who plan to pursue a master’s degree in social work and eventually provide clinical counseling services, she said. Students who opt to work after completion of a baccalaureate degree can often find jobs with child welfare agencies — investigation, foster care, and post-adoption — nursing homes, hospitals, community-based agencies and schools.

Sarah Kruysman, a senior with a double major in social work and psychology, said she is looking forward to an internship in the spring at the Peace River Center Rape Recovery and Resource Center. “I’m really lucky I got the internship,” she said. She may be interested in working with trauma victims some day she said.

Kruysman said she started out with a focus on psychology, but became hooked on studying social work after taking some courses at Warner.

“They opened my world to social work,” she said. She appreciates the approach to helping with human angst and troubles, she said.

“With psychology it’s individual-based, but social work addresses the more contextual factors completely.”

At Warner, Sirrine said, 22 students have graduated with degrees in social work since May 2010.

“However, our social work student enrollment has increased by 17 students this academic year,” she said. “This fall, we have 37 enrolled social work majors, compared to 20 social work majors in fall 2012.”

Warner boasts a diverse student body, she said. “This rich diversity is evident in our social work program as well. Of our 37 social work majors, 54 percent are black, 38 percent are white, and 8 percent are Hispanic.”

According to the State of Florida Department of Education Annual Florida Education & Training Placement Information Program, 100 percent of Warner University social work graduates for the year 2010-2011 — the most recent data available — were employed within the year of graduation, she said. “According to our internal records, this appears to still be the trend for the most recent graduation years. One hundred percent of graduates who have actively sought employment in the social work field or applied for entrance into a graduate program are employed or currently completing graduate studies.”

Student Hayley Padgett said she’s looking forward to working with children and/or becoming a guidance counselor. Like Kruysman, she is working to complete a double major in social work and psychology.

Sirrine said as a professor, helping students like this group learn skills that will enable them to help those in need is very fulfilling. “It is very rewarding to teach such an amazing group of students,” she said.

“I am humbled and inspired by their commitment to caring for others, especially the vulnerable and oppressed in our society. They truly desire to display God’s love through their actions.”

[ Mary Toothman can be reached at mary.toothman@theledger.comor 863-802-7512. ]