Students Learn from Policymakers, Professionals
NMU students in a social work policy analysis class are gaining valuable insight on social welfare policymaking and the impact of related budgetary decisions from professionals working in those areas. State Rep. John Kivela (pictured far left with the class) recently attended a session to discuss the key steps involved in policy development from the legislative perspective.
Patricia Cianciolo (Social Work) regularly invites guest speakers to the class, which is offered the second semester of the students’ senior year.
“As an educator, it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening on the front line with every policy area because the context is changing so quickly,” Cianciolo said. “Our guest speakers can share their qualified experiences and opinions, making the material more timely and relevant to the students. They can also personalize the concepts covered in the textbook. John Kivela talked about the different subcommittees so students know where to go for information. He also explained how you can’t approach setting policy strictly from a political angle. He said you have to think about compromise, collaboration and bridging gaps while also keeping an eye on what you’re there for—representing your constituents.”
Other speakers this semester and their topics were: Ed Banos from UP Health System Marquette, who addressed integrated health care and changes prompted by the Affordable Care Act; and Doug York, a graduate of NMU’s bachelor of social work program and business services director, Region 1 for the former Michigan Department of Human Services. York discussed the potential merger of DHS with the Department of Community Health, which became official Monday, April 13. The combined agency is now the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. He also addressed the ripple effect of decreasing budgets at the service provider level.
Student Sarah Rymkos (pictured with student Frank Lombard and Cianciolo) is in the midst of her senior field placement at Pathways, which had $1 million cut from its general fund. She said the guest speakers inspired her to address the Pathways board of directors to reiterate the mission statement, redirect the board’s focus to advocating for clients’ needs and suggest cost-saving measures related to the board itself that could preserve services for a half-dozen cases. She said she received a standing ovation after her comments.
“Without this class, I don’t think I would have had the confidence or knowledge to get up in front of the board,” said Rymkos, a Gladstone native who plans to pursue a master’s in social work with a concentration in mental health. “The financial cuts are cutting services for clients with serious mental illnesses. If they don’t have Medicaid or Medicare, they’re discharged back into the community with no support system, which will only increase the stigma and oppression against the mentally ill. It’s a damaging cycle.”
Student Frank Lombard’s goal is to pursue a master’s in social work and launch an advocacy-focused career specializing in veterans’ issues such as combat traumas, poverty/homelessness and substance abuse. His field placement is with the Department of Veterans Affairs homeless prevention program. Lombard’s career interest is fueled by his personal experience serving two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
“It’s great that we have opportunities to listen to speakers whose work impacts our chosen field and ask them questions,” said the Bruce Crossing native. “Most of society’s patchwork safety net services are part of an integrated system. Some partnerships are stronger than others, but they’re connected, so there’s a ripple effect of policy decisions and budget cuts. We get to see the direct consequences of decisions in the community. I’ve realized how important it is to get legislators the correct information so they can make well-informed decisions that analyze input from all stakeholders involved and avoid unintended consequences.”
Cianciolo said the senior-level class and related guest speakers help to demystify the “nitty gritty” of policy for students. It follows a junior-level American social welfare policy class that provides a general overview of programs such as Medicare, Social Security, State Children’s Health Insurance, unemployment, workers’ compensation and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
“These two students won’t forget that the core values of social work include social justice, valuing diversity and making resources available to people,” said Cianciolo. “I’m going on 24 years of teaching policy and it hasn’t gotten old yet. I’m proud of the class for taking it very seriously and asking these speakers some amazingly thoughtful questions that will help them in their future professional careers.”