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Emerging themes in community-based training.


This program was designed to prepare students to work in community-based agencies. This study included analysis of reflective journals of 12 undergraduates who completed their field placement over three semesters from spring 1999 to spring 2000.The data were sorted into learning theme categories: rapport building; understanding organizational functioning; and engagement with the community as a sociopolitical system.


Community advocates support training programs to build specialized skills for community practice. Burhardt (1987) identified community care as unique from traditional counseling practice because community-based agencies focus on organizational functioning and engage with sociopolitical systems, like intra-group process and fundraising. Still another aspect of community practice involves advocating for social change (Davenport & Davenport, 1998; Sanfort, 2000; Zlotnic, 1998). Some of these activities include coalition building, supporting political activity, and implementing policy for social change (Picciano, 1998). Educators as well as social service professionals recognize the importance of understanding how students integrate community service with professional practice (Kahne & Westheimer, 1996; Long & Heydt, 2000; Root, 1994). Current literature on the effects of community-based learning on pre-professional trainees calls attention to the need to know the affective and social aspects of trainees' experiences from their own perspective (Bacon, 1999; Rocha, 2000). Information on the perception of similar training experiences from the perspective of social workers is omitted from this body of literature.

This article enhances the existing literature by relying on reflections to identify emergent themes that describe trainees' learning experiences. In addition, by identifying rapport-building as an emergent theme, these findings add another dimension to understanding the pre-employment training experience of social workers in community-based agencies. Findings also (a) support the themes of understanding organizational functioning and engagement with sociopolitical systems as defined in the prior literature and (b) expand the existing knowledge base by providing insight into the perceptions of these functions from the perspective of students.

Training Program

Undergraduate students interned at the Attucks Community Service Board (ACSB), the only community service agency in rural Southern Illinois providing services for and managed by African Americans. Based on the results of an annual community needs assessment ACSB assists more than 2,000 families with a variety of programs designed to address educational enrichment, substance abuse, food distribution, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and job training. To aid the agency in achieving identified needs goals, students developed and implemented workshops for youth that provided education on HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and substance abuse, tutored teens in pre-job skills, and provided on-going mentoring, academic tutoring and informal counseling. They also conducted a community needs assessment, wrote grants, and attended local community network meetings. Agency meetings addressed staff related issues such as scheduling, staff conflicts, event planning, and matters related to ACSB financing.

While field placements are typical of many human service programs, this project differed from traditional experiences in several ways. First, this was designed as a pre-employment training program to prepare trainees for careers with community-based agencies. An assumption of the training program was that community-based workers maintain a different frame of reference than care workers in traditional counseling practice. To address concerns about the learners' adjustment to community-based employment, faculty support was built into the structure of this program through weekly seminar meetings. These sessions provided trainees with a comprehensive understanding of community-based agency social work. They also provided opportunities to discuss issues that arose at the placement as well as to address conflicts with role expectations. Finally, this field experience complemented students' education by offering opportunities to engage fully in activities consistent with the role of community-based social workers. Trainees engaged in a wide range of tutoring, organizational, and evaluative activities.



The study was conducted over three semesters from spring 1999 to spring 2000 with 12 trainee participants, participants worked at ACSB for 440 hours during the course of a semester. In all, participants in the training program contributed more than 5,280 direct service hours over three semesters. Trainees completed reflective logs each week chronicling their learning experience. They identified and discussed major learning experiences and their thoughts on the positive and negative aspects of the week. Each undergraduate completed 14 reflective entries, which produced 168 logs for analysis.

The reflective logs generated a total of 420 potential reflective statements. Of the significant statements made, approximately 300 statements were used in the analysis (71% of the statements in the logs). Statements not considered in the analysis included incomplete thoughts, statements that lacked clarity, or notations that nothing significant happened over the prior week. Narrative data were also collected during weekly meetings between the faculty researcher and the undergraduates Trainees spoke informally with one another and the research staff. These sessions afforded students an opportunity to tell the stories of their experiences. Faculty recorded comments reflecting their perceptions of what students had gained from the experience. All responses were coded, and participants verified the records.


The data were sorted into categories reflecting learning themes. These categories include rapport-building (152 or 51%), understanding organizational functioning (108 or 36%), and engagement with the community as a sociopolitical system (40 or 13%). Rapport-building referred to the process characterized by establishing a positive and productive relationship with community members. Statements that reflected an understanding of agency culture and efforts to contribute represented the theme of understanding organizational functioning. The final theme that emerged during analysis was engagement with the community as a sociopolitical system. These reflections expressed an understanding of the role the community played as an influence on the agency. Often, trainees expressed an understanding of the need to network with community leaders in order to achieve agency goals.



The majority of the reflective log entries demonstrated rapport-building themes. Trainees often reflected on their struggles to interact with the children during tutoring. One intern voiced an example of these concerns by stating, "The high point of this week was meeting the kids in the tutoring program. It's weird to deal with so many different personalities. It's just a different experience working with children". Still other comments demonstrated student concerns over their ability to perform fundamental skills related to internship responsibilities. One intern stated, "I learned you must have patience to work with children. Tutoring was the greatest challenge because I haven't even tutored children before."

At times, the interns seemed to respond to the children from authoritative positions. They appeared to try to control their clients as a way of coping with their new roles For instance, one intern expressed, "The greatest challenge was getting the children to recognize who I was. You have to let them know you are not on their level, and they need to respect you". A peer who reflected, "I was able to take an authoritative position with the kids in the tutoring program It seems to work. The children do what I tell them to do. It was encouraging to know that they did listen to me", shared this sentiment. Another intern shared her classmates' struggles when she reflected on the conflicts between her authoritative experiences in practice and the role expectations she formed as an intern. She expressed concern about the imbalance of power toward the social worker when working with children in both tutoring and mentoring roles. These thoughts illustrated this trainee's progress as she established an identity as an adult with boundaries that are different from her friendships It appears that the use of authority was at least one approach to accomplish this goal.

The interns also tried to build mutual relationships with the children at the community center. At times, their reflections included empathy with the clients. The same intern who saw herself taking an authoritative position also stated, "I tried my listening skills with the children. It seemed to work, a little. Instead of me just telling them what to do and them doing it, I asked them what they want to do." Another intern voiced an understanding for the mutual aspect of the relationship. She stated that she wanted to know more about the children in the tutoring program. In particular, she acknowledged, "I have gotten to know one of my second graders a little better talked with him about school and what he did over the weekend. I want to get to know these children better." In general, the interns' reflections ranged from feeling uncomfortable to feeling confident in their ability to establish mutual and cooperative relationships with their clients. During the training experience, they struggled with establishing a balance of power in their relationships, especially during mentoring and informal activities. Through this process, they practiced various respectful methods of interacting with the children. Their results included a deeper respect for the learning process of others as well as the desire to enlist others in their own learning experience.

Understanding Organizational Functioning

Placing students in a field setting deliberately exposes them to the reality of agency functioning, its messiness and its need to adjust to issues quickly and as they arise. This differs from students' formal theoretical understanding of how an agency should work. Placing students at ACSB presented these students with just such a contrast. In many cases, trainees questioned the informal nature of the agency. Characteristic results included difficulty identifying their contribution to the organization. At times, they expressed frustration relating to their formal notions of how an ideal agency should operate. A student reflected, "I learned agencies aren't always as well structured as they appear. Everyone needs to work together and do what [he or she] can to make the process move along as smoothly as possible. One of her peers echoed this: "I learned that an agency goes through an on-going process of change. It can be hectic." Still another log commented, "I learned that it is difficult to get everyone to agree on one thing. I was able to participate in a staff meeting. I learned that organizing functions takes a lot of time and effort."

Despite their frustration, trainees often expressed a desire to make sense of the agency's functioning. In a log entry, one intern shared this, "I learned how the agency structure was. I was able to see that there was a group effort and group input on the decision making process." In an attempt to understand how ACSB functioned, a peer stated, "It was interesting taking the ideas of three different individuals and making them all work together". One intern who wrote, "I learned that everyone must work as a team and cooperate, or life at work will not be peaches and cream", clarified the theme of understanding the importance of cooperation. Student efforts to reconcile their ideal image of an agency with the reality of an agency translated into finding a place students could contribute within the existing organization. Each intern reflected on efforts to make a unique contribution, through either leadership or participation.

Engagement with the Community as a Sociopolitical System

This theme related to the students' connection of the community into their understanding of the clients and agency. At times, they demonstrated excitement and concerns about their engagements with community members. One excited intern wrote, "The high point of the week for me was learning that we would have to do some visits. I thought this would be a chance for some excellent experience." Another intern reflected on the outcome of these outreach activities. She stated that the most significant thing she learned was that "most parents are open to people who are trying to help them." Outreach experiences that included home visits lead trainees to understand their tutoring within the context of their families.

Relationships with community members were also identified as important to help the organization meet its goals. One intern wrote, "This week I learned a lot about fundraising and how it relates to our major goals and public relations. If you want to get donations from people, you must have a cheery personality as well as verbal skills. Another intern identified community relations as a key factor in recruiting volunteers. She stated, "I used my recruiting skills and was successful. I think it worked because I know some good people and have good friends that understand my predicament."

Another intern addressed the need to assume an active role in community activities by connecting personal action with her prior beliefs about individual responsibility in this statement:
 I have already known that if you want to make a difference, you
 have to do something about it. This week really has shown me how
 things won't happen unless you do something about it. Sitting around
 and talking only does so much. You must be an active participant.

Finally, community experience also provided trainees with an opportunity to transfer knowledge from the target group to their own lives. One trainee's statement regarding her experience preparing workshop on HIV/AIDS provided an insight into the role of self-growth in the learning process.
 I learned how important it is to educate the children about sex and
 STD's. The high point of the week was when it hit me about how
 cautious you must be to keep from risking getting a sexually
 transmitted disease. The greatest challenge was putting this HIV
 workshop together. I am still not done yet but it's coming together.

Overall, the process of developing a perspective of community that integrated clients within the context of families and neighborhoods was enhanced by the experience of self-awareness. Trainees who accomplished this also experienced a journey marked by mutual relationships with respect and the appearance of a balance of power.


The ability to support community-based agencies is an important part of social work practice. As a result, educators in the academy and in the field of professional development seek the most effective way to teach students these skills. It is not only important to know whether these training programs are successful; it is also important to understand how trainees perceive their experiences while engaging in these programs. Knowledge of the perception of training experiences can help educators incorporate students' interests and needs into training models. Each of the students in this study expressed the same three themes in his or her reflections. Over half of the reflections addressed concerns about the trainees' attempts to establish a relationship that was mutual and respectful while, at the same time, directed toward producing a positive outcome for the other person. It is important that so many of the reflections addressed rapport-building. Given that the prior literature did not identify rapport building as a primary attribute of community-based practice, findings that point to the emphasis on this theme contribute insight into the learning process of these students.

The findings substantiated the importance of understanding organizational functioning and relating to the community as a system. These findings expand the literature by contributing a deeper understanding of these themes when presenting them from the students' perspective. In particular, this perspective highlights the struggle that one group of students experienced as they attempted to fit into an informal organization. The findings also help understand the potential for growth when students relate learning experiences with the community to their own lives.

Aspects of these findings require further investigation. Particularly, these themes represent the reflections of a small group of students in one setting. Further research is needed to investigate these themes and determine whether other groups represent their training experiences similar to these students. Another issue for future research is determining whether there is a developmental pattern that can predict student learning in similar situations. It would be valuable to identify whether students transition predictably from one theme to the other, as stages, or whether these themes exist concurrently. Finally, additional research is necessary to identify which aspects of community-based training programs effectively support student learning.


Bacon, N. (1999). The trouble with transfer: Lessons from a study of community service writing. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 61, 53-62.

Burhardt, S. (1987). Community-based social action. Encyclopedia of social work (18th ed.). Silver Spring, MD.: NASW Press.

Davenport, J., & Davenport, J. (1998). Economic and social development and rural social work as a model of the generalist approach for the 21st century. In S. Jones & J. Zlotnik (Eds.), Preparing helping professionals to meet community needs: Generalizing from the rural experience (pp. 45-58). Alexandria, VA.: CSWE Press.

Kahne, J., & Westeimer, J. (1996). In the service of what? The politics of service learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 593-599.

Picciano, L. (1998). Community-responsive partners for environmental health: perspectives for rural health professionals into the 21st century. In S. Jones & J. Zlotnik (Eds.), Preparing helping professionals to meet community needs: Generalizing from the rural experience (pp. 59-70). Alexandria, VA.: CSWE Press.

Rocha, C. (2000). Evaluating experiential teaching methods in a policy practice course: The case for service learning to increase political participation. Journal of Social Work Education, 36(1), 53-66.

Root, S. (1994). Service-learning in teacher education: A third rationale. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 1, 94-97.

Sanfort, J. (2000). Developing new skills for community practice in an era of policy devolution. Journal of Social Work Education, 36(2), 183.

Sweitzer, F. & King, M. (1999). The successful internship: Transformation and empowerment. Boston: Brooks and Cole.

Zlotnik, J. (1998). Preparing human service workers for the 21st century: A challenge to professional education. In S. Jones & J. Zlotnik (Eds.), Preparing helping professionals to meet community needs: Generalizing from the rural experience (pp. 135-139). Alexandria, VA.: CSWE Press.

Laura Dreuth, Southern Illinois University Martha Dreuth-Fewell, DePaul University, IL

Laura Dreuth is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Human Services. She completed her doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University. Martha Dreuth-Fewell is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education. She completed her doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
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Author:Dreuth-Fewell, Martha
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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