How Laurier Brantford’s social work program is filling an important gap


By Koyal Vyas

Ever since she was young, Megan MacDonald knew she wanted to make a difference in the community. Once she began thinking about post-secondary education, social work was the answer.

“I chose the program at Laurier from the campus tour…I could truly imagine myself at home here and supported through the services that the university provided,” said MacDonald, who’s in her fourth year studying social work at Laurier Brantford. Her first year took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, so she only fully experienced campus life in 2022.

“Coming from a small town near Sarnia, moving to Brantford was like the big city for me so I knew there would be some culture shocks, but nothing was intense,” said MacDonald.

When she graduates in April, MacDonald will join around 1,500 other students who have graduated from Laurier Brantford’s social work program since it began in 2014.

A decade ago, the program opened its doors in Brantford with a new education model in mind: Blending classroom learning with on-the-job experience to help make inroads in a community that has struggled to keep on top of an increasing demand for social services. In Brantford, 60 to 90 social work students work at agencies as part of their education and play an important role in fighting employee burnout and understaffing. Ten years on, students in Laurier’s program are helping bridge the gap between the university and the increasing needs of the community it serves.

“An unjust experience is how I would describe the situation of social services in Brantford. There is so much more you can do in the social work field if everything was not an emergency reaction, we’d have more hands-on deck and the ability to take initiative rather than problem solve,” said Jodi Brown, who’s a manager and registered psychotherapist at Turning Point Counselling Centre (TPC).

Laurier’s approach with the social work program has been not to shy away from the challenges Brantford’s downtown core is facing.  

“Our main goal is to adapt to the community rather than having the community adjust to us,” said Sarah Verburg, who works with incoming students at Laurier. Part of her role as a Laurier recruiter is to manage open houses and campus tours for potential students and answer questions from parents who are sometimes nervous about the university’s downtown location. Recruitment staff like Verburg are seen as the front line for Laurier towards prospective students and families. According to the university website, Laurier has always attempted to showcase the Brantford campus in a positive light with honesty about the relationship with the community and the city.

‘Perfect example’ of hands-on-deck needed

Since it began in Brantford, the social work program has worked with 10 agencies in the city and Brant County. Students complete two placements by the end of their undergrad each worth 360 hours. “The students are the perfect example of the hands-on-deck we need with the passion and motivation to complete any task,” said Brown.

Tara Buchanan, who runs a citizen-led organization that focuses on connecting people in the community so that they’re less lonely and isolated, said organizations like hers must pick and choose what they focus on because the need is so great.

“Our social workers have an average of 30 cases each. The individual attention each case gets would grow and lives would be changed with more support,” said Buchanan, who supervises the Belonging Brant project.

Buchanan said staffing is never easy in her field with the long hours and budget restrictions.

Both Belonging Brant and TPC are constantly adapting their work to increase the transferrable skills and knowledge Laurier students leave with. 

“We are a community-led organization who provide the additional support and funds that members of the community would need to complete projects,” said Buchanan. “The students from Laurier help with the ‘paper-pushing’ so our team can focus on their project load.”

Belonging Brant has social work students each semester. Over the past year, Buchanan said they’ve seen huge changes in their organization’s productivity because of the students.

“We would be swamped, disorganized and surrounded by to-do lists if we did not have these students,” she said.

Placements an important grad requirement

Since it planted its roots in Brantford in 2014, Laurier’s social work program has been helping fill an important gap in social services in Brantford.  Students in the four-year program have placements at agencies taking on tasks, such as supervised counselling and helping register people for social services and facilitating group therapy sessions. Kaitlyn Heffern, a third-year social work student is currently placed at Hope Places Centres, an addictions live-in treatment centre for her first placement.

“It’s the most important grad requirement to me, the feedback and memories I earn are just a plus,” said Heffern.

The program is laid out across four years for students to graduate with a bachelor’s in social work. In first and second year, students are in full time school (five courses a semester). In the fall semester of their third year, students are enrolled in their ‘practice’ courses that teach them the hands on skills they need for their placements. In the winter semester students are enrolled in two courses and complete 360 hours of placement during the rest of the week. In the fall semester of fourth year students follow the same model and are in two courses while completing their final 360 hours of placement preferably at a different agency.

In Fall 2023 about 60 fourth-year students in the social work program gained real world experience at 10 agencies and organizations throughout Brantford, said Beatrice Leja, the program’s field education coordinator. In Winter 2024, that number rose to 90 third- and fourth-year students. Part of the program’s aim is to offer students work experience in the field while they’re still in school, but the other part is to better connect Laurier’s Brantford campus to the community.

“I have watched students de-escalate situations better than some of my staff because of their ability to make connections,” said Buchanan. “They grow by earning the respect of the community members and the community learns that these students are tougher than they look.”

Laurier’s social work program wasn’t always in Brantford. From 1966 to 2013, it was in downtown Kitchener. But its success meant that the university needed to find a new home where the program could grow while having close ties with a community where students could address social gaps, said Leja.

With the Laurier Brantford campus and its downtown location, it made sense to move the social work program there in 2014.

“Brantford seemed like the best option with the new campus being established,” said Leja. “Part of the appeal was the relationship the university could build with the Six Nations of the Grand River just southeast of Brantford.”

Program one of few accredited in Ontario

In 2020, the social work program was officially accredited by the Canadian Association of Social Work, meaning every student who graduates from Laurier’s program can automatically register as a social worker in Canada. Not every social work program is accredited and students who don’t go through an accredited program take general introduction courses, maintain an average and reapply into a specialized social work stream before completing placement in third and fourth year or complete an accreditation exam in their fourth-year post graduation.

Laurier is one of the few schools in Ontario to offer accreditation programs alongside University of Windsor, Kings University College, which is part of Western University, Trent University and McMaster University.

Laurier has been trying to get its program accredited since 2014.

“The program became stronger after we reached our goal. We could stop having to prove why choose BSW at Laurier. The accreditation spoke for itself,” said Leja.

After graduation, the university reaches out to recent graduates through surveys and alumni connections to collect data on how many students work full-time. The data shows that 85 per cent of students who have completed their placement and gain the Bachelor of Social Work degree work full time after graduation.

Nicole Gandza, graduated from the social work program in 2022 with a minor in youth and children’s studies. She spent her placements at the YMCA before and after school programs and at a Hamilton organization called City Kidz, which hosts children’s before and after school programs to ensure all children in the area get equal opportunities.

“Before graduation, I was going back and forth about if my BSW would be enough to get me a job or if I should go for my master’s or teacher’s college, but the accreditation made me qualified to apply for full-time jobs at City Kidz,” said Gandza. “Of course, I was nervous about the interview, but they knew me through placement, so it was a breeze.”

But for all its benefits, the program is demanding.

The accreditation means that students must spend 700 hours (the equivalent of about four months) in their placements to meet the requirements of their degree. Leja and her team work with each student through hour-long weekly counselling sessions and interview prep to ensure the student and the placement organization are both happy.

“I play a balancing game every day, between keeping our relationships with agencies strong and giving our students the best opportunities,” said Leja. “The last thing I want is for a student to lose their passion because of a bad placement or something I could’ve prepared them for.”

Social work students find themselves dealing with burnout from balancing school with their placement. A social work student in their third or fourth year completing their placement would have two back-to-back three-hour lectures on Monday and spend the rest of the week in placement for eight hours a day.

“I basically have no life right now because I wake up at 6:45 a.m. to go to placement and by the time I get home at 6:30 p.m. I have no energy,” said Heffern.

But the demanding schedule has a payoff: students often end up working full time after graduation for the agencies they worked with during university. While in school, MacDonald, the fourth-year social work student, focused her education on counselling and was placed with TPC for one of her rotations. The organization asked her to stay on part-time while she finished her degree.

“The connection between the ‘practice courses’ and placement is what enriched my learning,” she said. “I’ve got two years of experience with specialization in my chosen field, which is unheard from students graduating from an undergrad.”

Student placements a Band-Aid to bigger issues

As much as the program is making strides in filling a gap, there’s still more work to be done.  Student placements alone are only a Band-Aid to bigger issues such as burnout in the social work field.

A recent report from the Canadian Union of Public Employees shows that only 33 per cent of community agency workers report positive experiences in job satisfaction. Another 35 per cent in the same report show high stress in the workplace because of threats of violence, low pay, and insecure jobs. 

Many jobs in the field require a master’s degree in social work. Leja said students who want to work in a hospital would need a master’s degree, for example. There are also other courses and qualifications such as mental health and suicide training that students need to take on certain roles in the community and are too intense for Laurier courses.

Leja works with the university and groups like the Bachelor of Social Work Student Association to fund those additional courses and certifications for students. Recently, the student association found out they’ll be able to use money from the Student Life Levy fund towards an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training session for all social work students who are interested.

“I’m a firm believer that if students are paying for their education, it should include all of the opportunities for them to be successful post-grad,” said Leja. “As a grad from a program similar, I’m advocating for what I wished someone had gotten for me.”

The students try as much as they can to build ties to the community in their short time and some may also request to return to the same organization in their next placement but that is not always the case.

“Each student is different, so their role is not always consistent, with the strengths and weaknesses each student has…many times, the real limitation is that their placements end, and we are sad to see them go,” said Buchanan.

Students like MacDonald have found placements in the past that are valuable and interesting but find the distance or commute an issue. MacDonald wanted to work at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, for example, but couldn’t because she didn’t have a car to get there every day.

Students also feel like they sometimes don’t have the skills to advocate for themselves with the placements they want. MacDonald said one of her placement proposals was to work for the Salvation Army Booth Centre, but that didn’t work out.

“The process of proposing a placement is complicated and can at times be a very slow process,” she said. “I did make a proposal and due to slow communication, my proposed placement fell through.”