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Navigating MSW Field Education with Christie Hunnicutt, GSS’s New Field Director


Field work is the signature pedagogy of social work education.

In an MSW program, students are expected to expand their skills beyond the classroom. They must go out into the field and get it done.

But that’s not to say they’re on their own. Field staff, supervisors, and instructors – as well as classmates and professors – serve as a support system for MSW students. The field experience acts as a bridge that connects academic lessons learned with “real world” successes and challenges. This helps prepare students for a thriving career.

The director of field education makes sure this complex procedure runs smoothly, working in tandem with faculty and staff dedicated to student success. Most importantly, the field director maintains relationships and oversees the field process to ensure an optimal academic experience for all involved.

GSS is proud to announce that, as of this summer, Christie Hunnicutt, LCSW, will act as its director of field education.

We spoke with Ms. Hunnicutt about her career, her personal experience with field education, and the importance field plays in feeling successful as a social worker.

Educational and Professional Experience

Hunnicutt began her social work journey at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, obtaining her BSW and completing her first field internship with Child Protective Services (CPS) in Austin, TX. After graduation, Hunnicutt worked full-time with CPS in Dallas, TX.

“I worked with high-risk children, birth to age four, and this was during a time when you went to homes by yourself, you did interviews alone, and had little support while out in the field. I was a brand-new grad and needed a lot of support,” she said. “The people I worked with were integral to guiding me along that path.”

After spending a few years in Dallas, Hunnicutt decided to pursue her MSW degree. She attended the University of Texas at Arlington, describing the decision as one of the best learning experiences she’s ever had.

“Graduate education opens the door to explore so many different opportunities, and also to think about new ways that social workers can have a presence in the field,” she said. “We have traditional ways of being, but there’s so much that is rapidly evolving and changing, especially with the use of technology and the need for more interdisciplinary work in a variety of settings. We must always think, where else can social work make a mark and really help foster social change in important ways? Graduate education is the conduit to these exciting new ways of being a social worker in today’s workforce.”

And along the way, Hunnicutt hasn’t stopped learning. She is currently on track to receive her Ph.D. in Social Work by December 2022 from Smith College.

A Well-Rounded Social Worker

Hunnicutt’s career has been eclectic. She’s seen social work from its many different angles.

Most recently, she worked as a vice president overseeing substance use and integrated health services at Wellmore Behavioral Health, as a clinical director of mental health services in the nonprofit sector, and as a director of communications at Yale University. Currently, she’s also a clinical instructor at Yale, holds a lecturer position at Columbia University and Smith College, and runs her own private practice.

That breadth of experience allows Hunnicutt to bring a unique perspective to all situations. She said the knowledge she’s gained from each experience builds upon the others to make her more effective as a field director.

“My foundation is always built from a desire to perpetuate positive social change and pursue social justice and advocacy,” she said. “So, in everything I do, I really try to bring my own experience and skills, while also remaining humble and open to others’ experiences and knowledge. Social work, whether it’s administrative or clinical, is all about relationships at its core, and the ability to see outside of your own perspective. And most importantly, you never stop learning no matter where you may be in your career.”

When did you first become interested in social work? What gave you the motivation to pursue it as a career?

I think, in general, we all come with our own histories and frameworks around that, and our backgrounds and experiences guide us toward this field in some manner. I actually have a really clear pinpoint moment in time when I knew this is what I wanted to do. For me, this occurred in the early 90s. It was a case I read in Time magazine about a four-year-old girl in New York who was a victim to some significant child abuse and was perceived as a failure of the NY system at the time. And I think in that moment, my initial passion was, I want to contribute to the betterment of the system that protects kids. I can try to do something about that. It was a simple desire and feeling but it felt intuitive and right for me. With that, I started to pursue a career direction in college that would really help me think about how to direct this action and channel this passion. I found social work.

How important is the field experience to the MSW education and for students moving forward into a social work career?

It’s integral. What I love about social work is that field is the signature pedagogy. Students can take all of these wonderful skills, knowledge, and theory taught by the amazing faculty, then actually be able to apply it. Often, we can read about this experience through an article or from someone else’s narrative, but it’s very different when you’re actually in that experience. You think you know how you’re going to act or what you can do based on what you’ve learned, but you don’t really know until you’re actually able to practice that and work through some of these situations and scenarios with real-world and real-time experiences.

Field also offers this unique space where students get to experience the workforce while also still utilizing academic supports, mentors, and advisors — people they can go back to and work with in the field and in the university to help support them through this transition. Field experience is a wonderful window into the workforce this way. It helps prepare students in ways that perhaps some other types of study don’t necessarily get the opportunity to do, which sets social work education apart in an incredible way.

Do you remember your graduate school field placement? What was that like?

By [the time I was in]graduate school, I was in an advanced standing placement, so I had one internship, a legislative internship. Politically, it was a very interesting experience. We all have our own political base to some degree, and I ended up being placed in an office that was not intuitive to what I believed and practiced politically, and it was a very different experience for me. It was an incredible learning opportunity. At any point in time, I feel that you have to be able to see and understand many different perspectives and know that even if they don’t align with your own views or beliefs, there’s still room for understanding, compromise, and change. This experience was integral in helping me understand this more clearly.

I could have said, I can’t do this placement; I don’t agree with that. But to have a single-focus mindset doesn’t allow you the opportunity to really gain some valuable lessons. You can reflect and say, what can I learn from this opportunity? How can I show up and be the best that I can in this placement, and also open my mind to other types of beliefs and perspectives? Often, that will leave you somewhere in the middle, and you’ll come away with a really rewarding experience and a better understanding of the person behind the belief.

If I’m a first-year social work student who just got my field placement, what are some things I can do to get ahead and make a good impression/get the most out of my experience?

Once the process has happened and you have your agency, I always encourage students – especially if you know who your field instructor is going to be, or the agency you’ll be reporting to – to reach out to the people in the field you’re going to be working with. Introduce yourself; let them know your excitement about being part of the agency, and just ask in advance, are there certain things I can read up on or learn about before I start my internship? How best can I contribute to the agency, and how best can I learn within this atmosphere? Really just starting to build that connection before you even actually start.

OK, so you’ve lived in the Northeast since 2004. With that… Yankees, or Red Sox?

Between the Yankees and the Red Sox, I would pick the Yankees. But I’m definitely an Astros fan. And coming from Texas, football is in my blood, too — mostly college football. Always bet on the Texas Longhorns.

What’s one book and one film that have had a lasting impact on you?

I am a huge film and book buff so those are hard questions for me.

Book: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison influenced me significantly.

Film: Frida —I have read and studied a lot on her and her art career.

Favorite thing to do in New York City?

The most fun part about NYC is getting a bit lost in it when you can, if there is ever time to get to do that! Specifically, I love going to the Strand book store. I’m a total book lover, and wandering around the store is a welcome and enjoyable way to lose track of time. I am also a huge jazz music fan, so I love attending live jazz shows whenever possible.

What gives you hope?

That there’s always opportunity to evolve in our thinking and practice; that we don’t have to keep doing the same thing we have always done just because. We don’t have to be trapped in one mindset or process; there’s always room for growth and to contribute, in our own ways, to our own communities and to the social work field at large.


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