Interview with Lisa Hawash, MSW – Coordinator for the Online MSW Program at Portland State University

About Lisa Hawash, MSW: Ms. Hawash is the new Online Option Coordinator for the online MSW program at Portland State University (PSU). She has ten years of experience in community based social work, community organizing and nonprofit administration in organizations working on anti-poverty and homelessness. Ms. Hawash earned both her Bachelor of Science in Social Science and her Master of Social Work from PSU. After graduating from her MSW program, she worked for Sisters of the Road as a Community Based Practice Intern and then as a Fund Development Manager. Ms. Hawash is currently an instructor for PSU’s MSW program, and teaches campus, distance and online courses; she has also held roles as a faculty advisor/liaison and field instructor to students in the field.

Ms. Hawash has co-lead the development of several courses for PSU’s new online option, including the macro course Communities, Societies and Organizational Structures and Processes; the Poverty: Policies and Programs course, and a Fundraising/Grant Writing course. Additionally, she has collaboratively developed PSU’s new campus option advanced concentration: Practice and Leadership in Communities and Organizations.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Currently, there are approximately 25 universities offering online MSW programs. Why did Portland State University’s School of Social Work decide to start offering an online MSW program and how is the program be structured?

[Lisa Hawash] We decided to create an online MSW option in an effort to offer graduate level education to people across our state and nationally. We know that prospective students, particularly those living in rural communities, were wanting access to graduate level education and that there were many organizations in these communities who are in need of workers with graduate level education.

Our students enter into a cohort model and remain with this group for three years. The majority of our coursework is asynchronous, with some ‘foundation’ courses having one or two synchronous sessions each term. Ideally, students will start their program and remain enrolled the entire three years. Students admitted in our online option do receive the same quality graduate level education as those in our campus option, and also are engaged in a smaller cohort model allowing them to form deep relationships and community connections with one another.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] PSU’s online MSW program has a three day on-campus intensive at the beginning of each year. Can you describe how these intensives work and why students should consider a program that requires them to visit the campus?

[Lisa Hawash] Faculty involved in the development of the Online MSW Option strongly believe that social work is a profession based on relationships and that we needed to work hard to build and nurture our relationship with students in the online cohort, as we do with campus students. The three-day intensives at the beginning of each academic year will allow students to meet one another in person, as well as meet faculty who will be teaching their courses that academic year. The sessions include opportunities for face-to-face skill development and assessment; they also orient the students to the academic (and field) focus for the upcoming year.

Our first intensive three-day session with students focuses on building a sense of collaboration and community, technology training, library research/accessing library sources remotely with instruction provided by our social work/services librarian; introducing the core values and perspectives of social work, and some beginning skill development. Students’ instructors also hold their first classes – in person – for two hours, which allows instructors and students to have the opportunity to engage with one another before moving into the online engagement process.

The second year intensive introduces the expectations of field placement, provides training to students in the development of their field plans, begins building students’ interview skills, and builds relationships with faculty members whom they will learn from in their second year of the program. Their first fall term course and field seminar are also held during this three day intensive. We are currently deciding if we will hold a three day intensive in the third year of the program; specifically, we are looking into an end-of-program intensive that may focus on the completion of the academic program and field placement. It is our belief that these intensives add to the student experience in the online option, ensuring that students are well-prepared for the content and format that the online option experience has to offer, as well as the work to build intentional community amongst one another.

During the academic year we continue to engage with one another through the use of 1:1 Google Hangout sessions and group ‘office hour’ sessions. Up to nine students can be in a session with the instructor or teaching assistant at any one time. This is an opportune time to engage with one another, ask questions, receive clarification on an assignment, etc. Additionally, our students have been using video conferencing as a way to study together and build relationships with one another.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] PSU’s online MSW program has a Community and Organizational Leadership practice concentration. For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you briefly describe what this means and why students should consider this program of study? Does the program prepare students for a career in direct-service social work, clinical social work or both?

[Lisa Hawash] The Practice and Leadership in Communities and Organization concentration in our online option prepares students to build and manage programs that meet the needs of communities; address issues such as racial disparities, equity, and inclusion; and work in policy advocacy at the organizational and legislative levels. This advanced concentration trains students for both community and direct-service positions working with individuals, families and communities, and prepares them to mobilize leadership within communities and/or become leaders themselves within organizations.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Field Education is a major component of MSW programs and requires a significant time commitment from students. Many online programs are geared towards working professionals. How do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities?

[Lisa Hawash] It is our belief that we need to be discussing field and its role in this graduate level program from day one. We have created a format for ‘teaching’ about field that mirrors the curriculum in that we are utilizing the D2L learning platform, instructional videos and power points to teach about the process from the beginning. Students begin this learning in winter term of their first year as they prepare to meet with a field representative who will work to procure a field placement in the student’s geographical area. Students learn that they can engage in the ‘Employed Social Work’ option for one year – which means one of their two years of field can be at their place of employment, with certain parameters in place. We encourage students to think deeply about the expanded experience they need to obtain as they think about field placement options and employed social work options.

Students engage in 16 hours per week; 167 hours per term, which becomes 500 hours an academic year in the field placement. Field placements begin in fall term (late September) and end in early June, at the end of spring term.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who have already decided they want to pursue a MSW, but are unsure about online education, can you briefly explain the pros and cons to pursuing a MSW online?

[Lisa Hawash] The largest pro for students is that admission into our online option allows for busy work/family lives, in that students can engage in their coursework throughout the week, with many due dates for activities, discussions and such occurring by Sunday evening. Many students in this first cohort are working full time, have families and busy lives and the flexibility of online allows for the space to engage in graduate education. Additional pros of the program include a rigorous curriculum and field placements that are procured by trained field coordinators. Online education requires a person to be able to plan and schedule their time to engage in course materials – particularly if they have a busy work/family life. Finding the time and space to engage and learn can be challenging, and obtaining the support from others is vital to success in the long term.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Online education requires discipline from students to stay on track and keep up with coursework and assignments. What systems does PSU’s online MSW program have to ensure that online students do not fall behind? Do you have any recommendations for online students in terms of staying on track with coursework?

[Lisa Hawash] We have incorporated a ‘checklist’ in each weekly overview. This allows students to check off each learning opportunity – ie; article to read, chapter reading, video to view, discussion to post, activity to complete and upload to the drop-box, etc. It has greatly supported students in engaging in the work. Overall, thinking about our own time management ability and resources available to us is important as students embark on the graduate school journey. Within our learning platform we also have a grid that reports progress, which visually updates students, also a great tool. Our recommendation for staying on track would be to utilize the checklist within each weekly overview, use a planner or calendar as well, if that is helpful. The checklist has been sufficient for the majority of students, but some also like to use a paper-type planner to track their work and progress. Also, stay in communication with instructors, particularly if struggling or something has arisen that has not allowed for full participation.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Online programs have really helped to open the door to higher education for more individuals, especially those who do not have access to a local university. Does the program at PSU accept students nationally or only from certain states?

[Lisa Hawash] We accept students into the online program from all states except two (Arkansas and Minnesota); we also accept students internationally.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who are ready to apply to the Online MSW Program at Portland State University, what advice do you have in terms of preparing their application? I know the program requires a statement of purpose.

[Lisa Hawash] Be sure to obtain references who can speak to your ability to engage in graduate level coursework and field work. Be sure to write a statement that responds to the questions we ask, be sure to thoughtfully proof your statement as well. We look at applicants holistically, not just any one given area.

[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Finally, with more universities starting to offer online MSW programs, why should students consider the new program at Portland State University?

[Lisa Hawash] We have created a program that is uniquely macro-focused as an advanced concentration. The Practice and Leadership with Communities & Organizations focuses on the broader context of social work at many levels of communities and organizations. Our electives complement the foundation and advanced concentration courses – providing additional macro perspectives and deeper engagement with content focused on racial disparities in social work practice, poverty policies, grassroots fund development, community and organizational research, substance abuse/use, supervision practice, anti-oppressive practice and multi-cultural social justice practice. The courses throughout the three year option provide a solid foundation for learning, as well as deeper practice. The School of Social Work has a long, successful history (over fifty years!) and is a top-ranked school, nationally.

Students who are interested in getting more information about Portland State University’s online MSW program can visit Portland State University’s website or contact the School of Social Work at (503) 725-4712.

Thank you Lisa Hawash for your time and insight!


About the Author: Aaron Tooley, Ph.D. is a web content expert who is committed to building websites that help students make informed decisions about graduate school. He is passionate about researching and crafting high quality content about graduate programs and educational pathways.