In a given week, more than 300 students — some local to the Washington, D.C. area, and some from as far as Alaska, Germany, and Japan — log on to their virtual Catholic University campus to download class lectures, participate in group discussions, turn in assignments, and communicate with teachers and classmates through video conference. These students are studying for their Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree through the University’s online program at the National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS). The flexibility of the program enables most students to maintain full-time jobs or take care of their families as they complete the requirements to become licensed social work clinicians.
“We are passionate about helping working professionals earn the credentials they need to perform the kind of work they want to do,” said NCSSS Director of Online Field Education Danielle Stokes. “We help them keep their jobs, even many times transforming their full-time work into field placement credit. We help them gain both theoretical and hands-on experience whether they are local or thousands of miles away.”
Philip Rizzo (M.S.W., 2020) simultaneously works two part-time jobs, pursues his degree, and completes a field placement at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., working with HIV and Hepatitis C positive patients.
“I chose Catholic University’s online M.S.W. program because of its flexibility,” he said. “Even working full time, with a three-hour commute, I had no trouble completing my tasks and assignments.”
Rizzo’s favorite part of his field placement is co-facilitating the peer support group, where patients struggling with the same disease can share their challenges and support each other.
“There is so much stigma in the HIV positive world, it’s great to watch these patients let their guard down and share about everything they are going through,” he said. “Many of them also struggle with homelessness and poverty and I am privileged to be in a position to help them help themselves out of that situation.”
In the future, he hopes to run his own social services agency to help people who are struggling with severe mental illness.
NCSSS has the unique task of actualizing the Catholic mission of the University in its commitment to the poor and most vulnerable of populations. Interim Dean Marie Raber said that focusing on the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of the individual is one component that sets the University apart in its curriculum.
“Our students are often attracted to our program because they are able to include spirituality; that Catholic University is a place of faith,” she said. “That and our reputation of 100 years of providing high-quality social work education is what enables us to attract so many students from all over the country and beyond. Our students are strong in this field when they go into the workforce.”
The Catholic identity of the University is what first caught Louise Cremona’s attention when she started considering a second career after teaching.
“After helping many family members work through mental illness, I have always felt called to a career in this field,” she said. “I wanted to find a place that was open to people of all faiths but supported Catholic ideals and I found it at Catholic University.”
Cremona lives in Maine and completed her degree virtually, only travelling to campus for graduation. She passed her licensing exam this summer and currently works at the St. Francis Recovery Clinic with Catholic Charities, helping patients who struggle with mental health and substance abuse.
“I can’t say enough positive things about the curriculum and professors in the program,” she said. “I received an outstanding education at Catholic University and still stay in touch with so many friends I made in the program, from Louisiana to Rhode Island.”
In addition to the online program, the University also offers a traditional on-campus M.S.W. where students are able to not only obtain a degree with a focus in clinical social work, but also in social change or social work-related research and public policy. Nearly 200 students are enrolled in the on-campus program.
In November of 2018, NCSSS celebrated its 100th anniversary. It was originally created in 1918 to help train wartime workers, especially women, to assist soldiers and those affected or dislocated by war. Today, 100 years later, it continues that tradition of educating generations of social work professionals to serve the poor and vulnerable both locally and all over the world.