Practicum Comes Full-Circle for New Director of Field Education

Alumni; Community Engagement

Nearly ten years ago, when Jenni Harpring was a student at the Brown School, she worked as a practicum student for the School’s Office of Field Education. She was focusing her studies on international social and economic development and had completed most of her practicum hours at an NGO in Ghana. But in order to fulfill a one-credit requirement for evaluation experience, she conducted an evaluation of the School’s fledgling international practica program.

“Part of my work in practicum was trying to build more structure and resources for students looking to go international,” said Harpring, who graduated with a MSW/MAPS joint degree in 2007.

So it was a homecoming in many senses when Harpring returned to the Brown School in August to become Director of Field Education.

Harpring’s role focuses on strategic and operational planning for the Office of Field Education, which oversees practicum experiences for the Brown School’s Master of Social Work, Master of Public Health and Master of Social Policy students.

Cynthia Williams, who directed the Office of Field Education for nearly a decade, has been promoted to assistant dean for community partnerships, where she continues to deepen the Brown School’s institutional commitments with key partners and to advance the School’s work in the St. Louis community.

Harpring comes to the Brown School from Washington University’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, where she worked to build undergraduate students’ skills for civic agency through community-based initiatives like the Goldman Fellows and Civic Scholars programs. She sees her role at the Brown School as a natural progression of that work.

“What I did at Gephardt was a lot of experiential learning, community-based learning, and preparing students to be in community without causing harm — preparing them to do the most good,” she said. “It requires a lot of self-reflective work, self-awareness, and recognizing that communities are places that exist before you and exist after you. It takes skill to be in that space in a way that is additive and doesn’t detract from the community.”

Over the years Harpring has served as a field instructor for a number of Brown School practicum students, who have helped to design, facilitate and evaluate the Gephardt Institute’s programs. That experience helps her to advocate for field instructors, who spend hundreds of hours supervising and mentoring each practicum student, as well as for students, who work diligently to build their professional identity and skills.

“In an ideal scenario, practicum is where the academic knowledge and personal passion are applied in the field in real life,” Harpring said. “In the field, in the midst of the intricacies of a client or a community or an organization, our students are figuring out who they are in the world and how they’re going to best use themselves towards social justice, social good or community well-being.”

Harpring emphasizes that a student’s work in practicum is much more complex and layered than it might appear. She gave the example of a student working at St. Louis Effort for AIDS, for whom a successful practicum experience requires content knowledge relevant to HIV/AIDS; an understanding of the geography, demographics, history and resources of St. Louis; and the skills to navigate a new organizational and interpersonal context.

“The value of field education is that it happens in conversation with someone who’s working in the field and alongside peers who are in similar situations,” she said.

Her goal is for each student’s experience in the field to be one of the most influential and impactful parts of the Brown School curriculum.

“I want people who graduate to look back and say, ‘My field education experience prepared me for this, or taught me these things about myself, and that’s why I ended up where I am now,’” she said.

So, in retrospect, has Harpring’s own practicum experience met that threshold?

“Absolutely,” she said. “I think having broader global perspectives and understanding the interrelatedness of social and economic systems has been important throughout my career.”

“I really thought I was going to end up working internationally, and yet what I do now is I work with students who are either preparing to work internationally or to go into contexts that they may not have previously been a part of. That skill set is absolutely parallel and is critical to how I think about the world.”