How to Make the Most of MSW Foundation Courses

By the end of my first semester at the Brown School, I had a portfolio full of well-researched content about the strengths and challenges of displaced populations.

This portfolio only existed because of a piece of advice I picked up during orientation week at the Brown School, which I believe is worth passing along to successive MSW cohorts: Pick a social issue you’re passionate about or interested in, and use that topic for every foundation course assignment that you possibly can.

If you’ve tuned in to Admitted Student Zoom Panels in the past, you may have heard me talk about this approach. I don’t know who shared it with me. Was it a wise second-year student? A well-meaning professor?  I truly cannot recall; all I know is that it made an impression.

During the first week of classes, I scanned my syllabi’s assignment sections to confirm if applying my own topic to multiple assignments would even be possible. Here are some examples of what I found:

  • Social Welfare Policies & Services – Policy Development Paper: Students are to write a paper that focuses on a policy of their choice.
  • Human Behavior – Ignite Presentations: You will apply human behavior theories that we have discussed to a population of your choice. 
  • Social Justice & Human Diversity – Meaning of Difference Paper: Document the historical explanation of social group differences relevant to a different social group. Discuss how this explanation of social group difference contributes to differences in outcomes key to well-being.

Thus, I wrote a paper analyzing the Refugee Act of 1980. I was published in an St. Louis newspaper demanding that the U.S. continue to welcome asylum seekers and to allow their acquisition of work permits. I gave a 10-minute Ignite Presentation grappling with how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory interact with humanitarian response for displaced populations. I wrote a paper arguing that the history of British colonialism in East Africa has led to a current-day region which simultaneously creates the most refugees and most forcefully persecutes people with nonbinary gender identities. 

These assignments sparked my curiosity and allowed me to develop a much deeper and holistic understanding of the micro, mezzo, and macro level challenges associated with my social issue, as well as skills to advocate for the populations marginalized by these barriers. The approach to using the same topic across courses also prepared me for a Foundation Practicum at the International Institute of St. Louis, where I assisted newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers with benefits applications, landlord communications, medical bills, and other resettlement needs.

Lastly, this approach may help you to narrow in on which social work career path you’d like to pursue — whether that be policymaker, clinician, researcher, community organizer, etc. — by giving you a glimpse into the different angles of applied practice for addressing the issue you care about most.