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Stories foster connections for social work class

By Catherine Monson '12
December 18, 2009

Meeting regularly with residents of the Northfield Retirement Center this fall provided one group of St. Olaf students studying the “how-to” of social work with a valuable hands-on learning experience.

Sokun Bobson '11 gives a birthday card to Northfield Retirement Center resident Milt Hanson during a recent meeting. Bobson visited Hanson weekly as part of a social work class that aims to help students learn to build in-depth relationships.

Throughout the semester, each of the 24 juniors in the “Inclusive Practice: Individuals and Families” course met weekly with a resident at the Northfield Retirement Center to engage in conversation and other social activities. The interaction gave students the chance to experience an environment very different from the St. Olaf campus, says Associate Professor of Social Work and course instructor Naurine Lennox ’64.

“For social work,” she says, “we are talking about how to work with people from different cultures. We often think about working with different ethnic or racial cultures, but in this case, it’s a difference in age culture and a difference in residential culture.”

The main goal of the social work class, offered each year, is for students to learn how to build in-depth relationships with elderly people, especially through the use of stories and memory. In the first visit, students prepared a story from their past to share with a resident. Stories could be about anything the student wished to tell (a funny incident, a special pet, a personal loss), but mainly functioned as “a kind of memory prompting,” says Lennox, and a starting point on which to build conversation. Students wrote reports on each visit and combined those into one reflection for their final project.

The purpose of the visits was to gain experience for real-life social work settings. The student-resident interaction was an important learning tool, says Lennox, “because the most fundamental piece of a social work relationship is being able to form that relationship.”

Learning the power of stories
For the past several years, Lennox’s social work class has worked with Northfield resident Don Forsberg, a co-founder of Story Circles International, to learn about the power of personal story-sharing. He helps students understand ways they can use personal memories to interact effectively with residents.

Prior to visiting the Northfield Retirement Center, students receive coaching on proper conduct and conversational skills and are also provided with safety information and a tour of the facility. A representative with the retirement center matches students with residents.

Nichole DeSloover ’11, a social work major in the class who would like to work with the elderly in her future career, enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about interaction with older people. “I never before thought about going in with a plan of telling a story and hoping to hear one back, but it worked out really well,” DeSloover says. “I would share something and then she would share something that went with it, and then it would make me remember something else.”

Classes that include a civic engagement component like this are beneficial in more ways than one: they provide hands-on experience for St. Olaf students while reaching out to local organizations such as the Northfield Retirement Center. If students succeed in forming a relationship with a resident, that older person also benefits from their company and shared memories.

“Forming this relationship and learning how to work at a relationship so it has depth is crucial to being a social worker, and it’s a big piece of this class,” Lennox says. “It’s a foundation piece for social work.”

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or