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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

“A Get-Your-Feet-Wet Kind of Experience”

The College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) has always emphasized a connection between formal and practical learning in the service professions. One of many strong upholders of that tradition is Elizabeth Clemens, a social worker and half-time CPCS faculty member. Her course in Value Conflicts illustrates the valuable links between UMass Boston and its urban surroundings.

For each of the last two semesters, Clemens’ class (about fifteen students each semester) has combined classroom instruction with an up-close encounter with staff and clients at St. Mary’s Women and Infants Center, a homeless shelter located nearby at the top of Cushing Avenue in Dorchester.

St. Mary’s Women and Infants Center has contracts with two state agencies (the Department of Social Services and the Department of Transitional Assistance) to arrange a range of supportive services for homeless families at risk of child abuse and neglect. It houses mothers (many of them teenagers, as young as 13) and their dependent children.

In keeping with the current financial plight of human services in Massachusetts, the shelter is crowded, a mother and three children may live in a single room, for example. Clients have multiple problems: no housing, lack of family support, limited education, and in many cases the challenge of recovering from substance abuse.

The choice of St. Mary’s was not an accident. Elizabeth Dugan, the Program Director at the center, is a CPCS student who had studied previously with Clemens. She invited Clemens to use the setting of the Women and Infants Center for the Value Conflicts course. “I think it’s really imperative for students to be exposed to hands-on work,” Dugan says. “Sometimes people make a career choice without having worked in the field, and that’s wrong.”

The students were given a tour of the center’s three residential programs, observing client/staff interactions. In several sessions, staff members met with the class to discuss the issues that they face in their work. Equally valuable were visits to the class by graduates of the program, talking about their experiences in the shelter-what was helpful and what wasn’t.

For students who are considering Human Services as a major, Clemens describes the connection with Women and Infants Center as a “get-your-feet-wet kind of experience,” which “makes the work less abstract.”

The subject matter of the class-value conflicts-is evident in the students’ discussions with staff and clients. For example, the rules say that no drugs or alcohol can be brought into the shelter-that a client who brings either onto the premises may be discharged along with her family. Bending the rules could pose a risk to the whole community, given that many of the clients are in recovery. The agency responds to the dilemma by offering a range of services including women’s recovery groups.

Likewise, everyone who works at the shelter has the legal status of “mandated reporter,” required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to state authorities. But would a child be better served in foster care than receiving intensive support at the shelter? Dugan adds that staff members must be on guard against biased judgments based on culturally different styles of parenting. “It all comes down to: Is the child safe or is the child not safe?”

“Dilemmas can lead to sleepless nights and burnout,” Clemens says.

Still, Clemens says her students have been “struck by the resilience of some of these very young mothers. With a structured program run by very skilled people, many of them have been able to pull their lives together.” Some have found jobs, located Section 8 housing, and furthered their education, including college in some instances.

Dugan says that from the point of view of St. Mary’s Women and Infants Center staff members, “It’s been a pleasure for us” to have the students come to the center. Clemens, for her part, says, “The students love it. There’s nothing like going to the shelter and meeting the staff and seeing the impressive work that they do with at-risk clients.” The class has been “touched by the difference the program has made in the clients’ lives.”

To find out more about unique learning opportunities at the College of Public and Community Service stop by the Office of Student Service in W-4-151 or call 617-287-7120.