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Dr. Thomas Felke

Dr. Thomas Felke On International Social Work And Macro Practice

By Rachel L. West
Advocacy & Community Outreach Specialist

As part of the Job Search for a Macro Social Worker series I will be featuring interviews with community practice professionals. This week’s interview is with Dr. Thomas Felke. He discusses how a trip to Armenia changed his life, the role of tech in social work as well as his thoughts on social work education.

A big thank you to Ashley Blanchard who recommended that I interview Dr. Felke.

Rachel West: In the pre-interview you mentioned that you applied to UConn because of its strong administration track. What did you find so appealing about macro social work practice?

Thomas Felke: At the time I was looking at graduate school, I was working for Catholic Charities in Southern CT. I knew I did not want to pursue a career as a clinician and, at the time, thought that the purpose of obtaining an MSW was to eventually become a clinician. However, I attended an information session at UConn and learned about their macro concentrations, specifically in administration and policy planning. It was the first time I was ever exposed to the macro side of social work. It was a great fit with what I was currently doing as well as where I and others saw my career going at that point, which was as a Program Manager or Agency Director. I immediately made the decision to enroll and pursued a major in administration and a minor in policy planning as well as a concentration in international social work issues. For me, it was the perfect academic fit between where I was in my career and where I saw my career going over the next few years. As it turned out, I moved on from Catholic Charities to take a position with the Connecticut State Department of Social Services, which was my first field education placement. My academic training in administration and policy practice served me well in that position.

RW: Do you think attending a program with a macro track matters in the long run?

TF: I had a debate with a professor once concerning students obtaining licensure as an LCSW despite having completed a macro concentration. She felt that these students should not seek an LCSW as they had not completed the requisite coursework. I agreed with that point but also countered that individuals who complete a micro track might end up managing/directing an agency without having administrative training like I had received. At the end of the day, we agreed to disagree but I still think there is some validity to the point. If an individual is going to run an agency, they need to understand a wide variety of topics including but nowhere near limited to personnel management, marketing (especially now with social media), finance and budgeting, etc.

In my perfect world, all graduate social work programs/schools would offer, at least, both a micro and macro track. However, I also understand that this is not feasible for many programs, particularly small ones such as mine. I think the important thing is to expose students to the fact that there is more to social work than just an LCSW and/or private practice. In my current position, I am constantly stressing this point early on to my students and have found that many do not realize that is the case. Students just assume that they will pursue an MSW and then obtain licensure because that is how the process follows. They do not realize that you can obtain employment in social work without an LCSW or that there are graduate programs that offer macro concentrations. I recently became an ally of the Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work. My hope is that the work of the Special Commission will help to educate students about everything that the social work profession entails.

RW: While at UConn you participated in a study abroad program. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

TF: A little bit, no, but let me try as best I can to condense the story. I consider myself to have been very fortunate to have studied under great faculty at UConn. Three in particular piqued my interest in international social work – Dr. Lynne Healy, Dr. Nancy Humphreys, and Dr. Diane Drachman. Dr. Healy really introduced me to international social work and I was very fortunate to intern at the Center for International Social Work Studies under her direction. Dr. Drachman taught a course on immigrant and refugee issues that I really enjoyed. Dr. Humphreys then introduced me to the collaboration that already existed between Armenia and UConn. I had no intention of travelling to Armenia to be honest. A student who I knew well and had just returned from Armenia was presenting about her trip. I was joking with her about using a slide projector for her presentation and she remarked that they would love me in Armenia as they were very interested in technology. I was being sarcastic and said that I would love to travel to Armenia. As it would happen, Dr. Humphreys was standing nearby and told me to get my passport ready. I thought she was joking but when I arrived for the Fall 2002 term, and my first class with Dr. Humphreys, the first thing she asked was if I had my passport yet. I realized then that I was going to Armenia. I obtained a passport and ended up being the first male student from UConn to travel to Armenia as part of the collaboration. I loved the country and became very interested in the refugee situation there as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. A visit with a refugee from Azerbaijan ended up changing the course of my life for the next decade basically. She was relaying her forced migration experience, which was being translated from Russian to English for us by one of our guides. She was telling us about her husband died in the Conflict, how her teenage daughter disappeared as a likely trafficking victim, and how they all arrived in this informal refugee village far from the capital with little food and resources. I have to admit that I was only half-listening as my attention was split due to her infant son who was lying near me on a bed, bundled up so tight that he could barely roll over. I ended up saying out loud what I was thinking in my head at the time – “How do they do it?” Then this woman who had only spoken in Russian since we arrived looked down at me and, in perfect English, said, “We just survive.” I knew from that moment that I wanted to learn more and study all that I could about their situation. I developed a short documentary based on the 2002 trip and subsequently returned to Armenia three more times in 2005, 2008 and 2009. The last visit was undertaken to conduct research for my dissertation on the situation of ethnic Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The best part about that last trip was that I was able to return to the village and meet again with the woman and her son. They were doing very well despite the still difficult conditions. We looked at pictures from my trip in 2002, talked about their experiences since we last met, and I thanked them both profusely.

RW: You teach GIS mapping and you mentioned that you try to integrate technology into many of your classes. How can social work programs begin preparing students to be more tech savvy?

TF: For one, faculty themselves need to be aware of what is available in terms of technology. This can be a daunting task nowadays considering how apps have really taken hold. Luckily, I think there are faculty out there who provide solid workshops and sessions at conferences to educate us on these advances. There used to be a great technology conference held at the University of South Carolina for many years but it was discontinued. Currently, CSWE and the Indiana University School of Social Work are convening a conference on Social Work and Distance Education for April 2015 in Indianapolis. I think this is a great venue for social work faculty to learn more about what is being done related to distance education technologies. Hopefully, it will lead to the rebirth of the technology conference.

I also think that once faculty becomes familiar with a technology application, they really consider everything about its potential use before sharing it with students. Unfortunately, I have seen a few instances where faculty have become very excited about a new technology application and put it into practice without considering potential ethical concerns. I have taught a course on GIS in social work since 2004 but was sure to attend several trainings offered both through commercial vendors and other academic institutions before doing so. I also spoke with front-line and staff and administrators at non-profit and state government agencies about concerns they might have in the use of data for mapping. I discuss this in the first session of my GIS class before I even have the students look at the software.

Once these things are in place, I think the final step is looking at all, sound and reasonable, possible applications for the technology. I think we can be short-sighted at times in this regard in two ways. First, we do not consider all the possible uses for a technology application. When I talk about GIS, most people look at it as an evaluation tool, which it certainly can be, but I primarily use it as a planning tool in my work. Second, I think faculty often get excited about technology and try to use it for everything they teach and practice. This does not always result in the best utilization of the technology, potentially leading to students being turned off by the application itself. Overall though I think many faculty are finding creative ways to utilize technology for a wide variety of purposes while also realizing that just because a technology application is available does not mean it is always the best fit.

RW: What advice do you have for new community practice social workers?

TF: My advice for any social worker is to consider early on what it is about the profession that gets you excited. That may sound clichéd but I think questions like “Why are you pursuing a degree in social work?” need to be asked with students being pushed to consider a better answer than “To help people.” We need to let students know that there are more options open to them as a social worker than they may be aware. One of my big efforts now is to push my students to become more politically active, something I learned at UConn through Dr. Nancy Humpheys. Over time, I have come to realize just how important this is and have tried to instill that in my students. We are fortunate to have legislators in Southwest Florida who are active and engaged with our local NASW chapter. My students have come to realize that, while these people may be elected officials, they are people all the same. My students are starting to see that they are the experts that the legislators need in order to push forward legislation to assist those most in need. It has been one of the most rewarding parts of my work at FGCU.

Thomas’ Professional Profile

Currently Works at:
Florida Gulf Coast University

Job Title:
BSW Program Coordinator & Assistant Professor

Providence College (1996) – BA in Elementary & Special Education
University of Connecticut School of Social Work (2002) – MSW in Social Work Administration
University of Connecticut School of Social Work (2010) – Ph.D. in Social Work

How to Connect With Thomas:
Twitter – @SocWrkDoc 

Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.

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