The importance of fieldwork while studying psychology

Published: March 25, 2019 / 0 Comments

Importance of Fieldwork

You wouldn’t entrust an inexperienced hairdresser with a razor-sharp pair of scissors and you’d think twice before hopping on a plane with a pilot who had never taken to the skies before. Research shows that hands-on, practical experience is just as important as classroom learning when it comes to producing skilled counsellors… and nowhere more so than in South Africa.

“Dislocation and trauma are stark realities of South African society across the socio-economic spectrum,” says Lance Katz, CEO of SACAP, who explains that, while books may teach students the multitude of different theories that apply to social science, psychology and counselling, only supervised fieldwork experience can practically prepare them for applying these principles in a real-world scenario.

The importance of fieldwork

SACAP is one of the few academic institutions in South Africa to include a practical fieldwork module as a significant element of its training within a number of qualifications. “SACAP’s fieldwork component is the culmination of the educational journey that our students have travelled with us. We believe that having the opportunity to enter the field while still being supported with supervision, guidance and advice from one’s training institution, not only greatly benefits the students, but is something that makes our qualifications different from many others.” Says Managing Director Zerina Royeppen.

Benefits of the fieldwork component include:

Understanding cultural factors

When you take into account the myriad diverse cultures that exist in our country, it’s not hard to see why a one-size-fits-all classroom-based education is completely untenable. “An awareness of cultural sensitivity needs to be applied to the field,” explains Lance Katz, who emphasises the importance of prospective counsellors being equipped with an awareness of different cultural perspectives around mental health and mental illness, as well as practical tools when practising cross-culturally in South Africa. “Only self-aware individuals in healthy relationships with one another are capable of making a significant contribution to the community,” he adds.

Tamsin Acheson, who studied the Advanced Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills and did her fieldwork as a counsellor at Norman Henshilwood High said: “The SACAP fieldwork experience reinforced, for me, the importance of practical exposure at the end of an intense learning programme. Although I had a cognitive understanding of the South African context, with its social insecurities, economic difficulties, structural inadequacies, political challenges, history of violence and trauma – and its ongoing search for a national identity that accommodates multiple cultures and respects cultural heritages – it was only in fieldwork that I got to fully appreciate the practical impact that all these factors have on the lives of the adolescent clients and their families that I counselled.”

Understanding the industry

It goes without saying that, in a country where job scarcity is the number-one challenge facing new graduates, practical experience also gives students the opportunity to gather significant insight into the industry, to establish the contacts they’ll need further down the line and, ultimately, to gain the confidence and professional know-how necessary to hit the ground running, so to speak. “Field training in areas like HIV/Aids and trauma counselling produces graduates who are profession-ready, says Lance Katz, adding that such practical experience is, ultimately, an investment in one’s individual development: “Our ability to effect positive external transformation is critically dependent on our own personal growth,” he explains. “Only by empowering ourselves are we able to empower others.”

Gaining qualifications

With the employment market remaining competitive, graduates continue to need skills that set them apart from their fellow graduates. Workplace experience is often cited as a crucial gap at universities and many students graduate with no work experience whatsoever.

In a study by PepsiCo in 2012, two thirds of 537 employers surveyed said that graduates with a placement year under their belt were more employable than those with no industry experience, indicating that this problem is not uniquely South African. Tertiary institutions have an important responsibility in bridging the gap between the employer’s needs and the graduate’s skills.

Witnessing the impact your work can have

SACAP’s Social Impact Report conducted in 2015 revealed that over 1 600 individuals were directly impacted by the fieldwork activities of SACAP’s students during the previous year. Over 26% of those impacted were children under the age of 12. Adolescents represent 17% of the beneficiaries and 57% were adults.

“Of course this measures only the direct beneficiary of a SACAP fieldwork intervention, whereas the actual impact is far wider. Take for example an abused woman seeking refuge with her children in a shelter. The mother may have been the individual to have directly received counselling but the intervention would have positively impacted her entire family”, says Managing Director Zerina Royeppen.

Dr. Gordon Isaacs, former Psychosocial coordinator of at Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) reflects that SACAP interns demonstrate an extraordinary ability to contextualise their skills within a community mental health setting – working with key populations. “They were seen as staff members from the outset and were assigned particular spaces in order to maximise their learning needs. Some ran groups, some initiated new programmes and others worked systemically within the organization”, said Dr. Isaacs.

SACAP’s fieldwork experience is “one of its kind”

Fieldwork is where training really comes to life, offering a comprehensive practical placement within an organisational setting that is related to a specific counselling area, e.g. working with adolescents, addiction, trauma and more.

According to Zerina Royeppen, the SACAP fieldwork experience is one of its kind. “It is in the field that our students experience their steepest learning curve. Albeit daunting, this is where they begin the exciting journey of connecting with clients in a real world context and making a real difference and a positive impact in the lives of others,” she says.

Interested in learning more about psychology? SACAP offers a range of courses, including part-time and full-time as well as distance learning options. For more information, enquire now.

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