June 7, 2022

Practicum makes perfect

University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services field education pilot program places Bachelor of Social Work students in northern, rural Alberta
Close up portrait of Geneve Berkencamp, who is wearing a headset, an AHS lanyward and black blouse with red and blue flowers.
Recent BSW graduate Geneve Berkenkamp had such a positive experience during her practicum in Fort McMurray that she hopes to relocate there. Courtesy Geneve Berkenkamp

A joint pilot project between the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services that placed students from the Faculty of Social Work in practicums in rural, northern Alberta locations has both mentors and mentees asking for more.

“Given the success of this collaboration, other managers have asked, ‘How do we get [practicum students]?” says Rosalita Jn-Pierre, an AHS manager of addiction and mental health at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray, which recently hosted five UCalgary students.

“It is not just Fort McMurray — the entire North zone is very excited.”

Calgary-based social work student Geneve Berkenkamp, who gained experience working with clients of the walk-in clinic at Wood Buffalo Addiction and Mental Health Services, says she’d like to relocate permanently to Fort McMurray to pursue her practice.

What I love about rural is that you have the opportunity to really grow and develop your skillset. You're kind of wearing a lot of different hats at times.

Berkenkamp adds that her UCalgary coursework with the Faculty of Social Work complemented the practicum by providing grounding in both practice and theory, preparing her for the nuances of providing care in different community settings.

“You have to be really aware of maybe how relationships impact how the client is presenting — especially where you know it's difficult for clients to be open about what's going on with them in a group setting in a small community,” she says. “I think the most important thing to me was looking at the client within their environment — doing a kind of psychosocial assessment.”

“What was really well taught in the social work program was that when [you’re] going out into the world, to note the systemic issues — oppression, history of colonialism ­— that contribute to that situation.”

Emily Goobie, another UCalgary social work practicum student who worked with the crisis response team at Northern Lights, echoes Berkenkamp’s sentiments.

“Since we are a rural community and we do work in a lot of Indigenous communities in the area who are displaced from health care and mental health services that are adequate and consistent in their lives, being able to apply Indigenous ways of knowing, indigenous social work theory, and patient-centred practice into those situations was really, really impactful and it's definitely something that I'm going to continue to learn to do.”

Goobie, who is from Fort McMurray and plans to stay there, says it was through her two practicums this year in the Wood Buffalo zone that she found the area she’d like to focus on upon graduation this spring.

“I accepted my first practicum here in the fall with the inpatient adult psychiatry unit and immediately I just fell in love with the atmosphere. There are so many opportunities for advocacy and for me to really practise my skills in conjunction with the code of ethics. I don't think I’ll ever look back, I love it.”

Jn-Pierre says the benefits of the program have been reciprocal and several social work practicum students will return — as employees with AHS.

“I think this is really a teaching institution, a learning environment, and, at the end of it, we looked at recruitment as part of our strategy,” she says. “We looked at it as an extended orientation and this worked out extremely well — we were able to fill some positions that been vacant for close to a year.”

For information on field education for Faculty of Social Work students, please visit here and/or contact Field Education Co-ordinator Stephanie Grant.