To D.E. or Not to D.E.: That is the Question

One of the cool things about being an Ambassador for the UNC School of Social Work is the opportunity to meet prospective MSW students and contribute my two cents to their decision-making processes about social work, grad school, and UNC. Recently, I helped with an information session for my program—the Winston-Salem Distance Education program—and one of the attendees mentioned that she was not sure whether she should pursue the full-time on-campus program or the D.E. option. Being a good and faithful Ambassador of the Winston distance program, I, of course, underscored the virtues of D.E.  However, I empathized her dilemma, in that I personally had faced the same one as an applicant a couple years ago. I know of other UNC MSW students who have as well. So I thought I would offer some thoughts here, for those of you pondering the question of whether to D.E. or not to D.E.

There are some pretty obvious advantages to choosing the full-time program. It’s faster, for one thing—finished in two years, rather than three—and you get to spend lots of time in Chapel Hill (Woohoo!). Also consider the advantage of being in close proximity to everything that is going on at the School—seminars, research, assistantships, student organizations, and more. There is opportunity aplenty! Furthermore, one of the things that makes our School of Social Work top-notch is the outstanding faculty who are shaping the field with their research and practice. Being able to walk into the office of a Kim Strom-Gottfried or a Gary Bowen to discuss their work is a pretty appealing opportunity—especially if you envision a Ph.D in your future.

On the other hand, not all of us can pick up stakes and move to the Triangle or do without an income for two years. Geography, scheduling, family, and financial factors may make one of the distance education options much more viable. That was the case for me. At the age of thirty-….something… my life is less portable and less pause-able. The part-time format of the Winston-Salem D.E. program—classes all day on Fridays—allowed me to maintain full-time employment during my first year, and even with the addition of field placement in my second year, I am still able to work part time. In Year 3, D.E. students essentially become full-time students, with three days of field placement and one or two days of classes in Chapel Hill each week. Nonetheless, for me and many of my classmates, this three-year distance format is more practical for keeping a foot in our “normal” lives while advancing our social work careers.

Beyond the practical advantages, I have discovered a few other aspects of D.E. that I consider to be selling points:

*The cohort model – Spending two years of Fridays with the same group of 15 to 20 people means building relationships. Your cohort is a built-in support system, a library of diverse experiences from which to learn, and a foundation for professional connections in the future. It’s also a fascinating experiment in group dynamics. 🙂

*Faculty – Each D.E. program has core faculty who will get to know you and invest themselves in your success. They are extremely accessible and helpful.

*Field placement – D.E. students don’t begin field placement until Year 2. As a result, we enter field slightly more acclimated to being students and with a little more of the social work “ethos” under our belts. Even better, our Field Coordinators have had a year to get to know us, so they are well equipped to help us determine the right placements.

*Age range – D.E. cohorts tend to have a fairly broad age range and are, on average, slightly older than full-time classes. My cohort, for example, has a few students who are recently out of college, a few that have been in the field for decades, and a lot of us who fall somewhere in between. The net effect is a wide spectrum of life experiences and perspectives from which to learn.

*Pace – Particularly for those of us who have been out of school for a while, two classes per semester makes for a much easier transition into graduate school than four classes plus a field placement. For me, the D.E. format has enabled me to adapt to the stress of grad school more effectively, because of the gradual “ramping up” of intensity from year to year.

I will freely admit that I am not an unbiased advisor on the issue of distance education versus full-time. I am a proud D.E.-er, and I will proclaim the virtues of my program!  Nonetheless, my bias aside, the UNC School of Social Work offers a fantastic opportunity in the form of its Winston-Salem and Triangle Distance Education programs. Any aspiring social worker for whom the traditional full-time format offers practical obstacles—or with whom the above advantages resonate as particularly appealing—should seriously consider applying to a distance MSW program at UNC.

P.S.  If you’re wondering whether you can apply to both the on-campus program and a D.E. program, voila:  http://ssw.unc.edu/admissions/masters/faq#Admissions

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About Ross Cole

I'm a second-year student in the Winston-Salem Distance Ed program. My primary career interests are in the mental health realm, and I plan to get my clinical license (LCSW). My current field placement is at CareNet Counseling in Winston-Salem. I live in Jamestown and am a native North Carolinian, but I've lived in several other states (spent 9+ years in Seattle, WA). Oh, and I ran into Bob Barker at the Louvre when I was like 10.
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