Distance MSW grad shifts gears to pursue a new career in social work

jeff wagnaarJeff Wagnaar (MSW, ’20) has always had a passion for helping others. When he was in high school, he completed a personality and interest profile that indicated physical therapy and social work would be a fit for him.

Now, after a 30-year career as a physical therapist, his passion has led him back to school to earn his Master of Social Work from Colorado State University’s Distance MSW program.

As a physical therapist, Wagnaar said he always considered physical health along with emotional health and well-being as part of providing holistic care for his clients. His interests even led him to Rwanda, where he participated in medical and social support projects over the span of a decade.

“When the opportunity for a career change presented itself, I chose to make a switch that could blend the two worlds more fully,” he said.

Applying research methods to student experiences during the pandemic

To complete their degrees, students in the Distance MSW program conduct capstone research projects in collaboration with a field agency or community organization, or complete projects in alignment with a specific School of Social Work faculty researcher.

Wagnaar‘s capstone research project team had direct implications for students. It focused on their experiences during the pandemic. The team shaped the project with a clinical interest and amid the rapidly changing COVID-19 realities of early 2020.

“Our team found the topics of transition, fatigue and trauma continually coming up,” said Wagnaar. “This included personal experiences as well as considerations within our school and work communities. Narrowing this down to the COVID-19 experience for the MSW student at Colorado State University became our focus.”

His capstone research team created a survey to investigate the student experience related to self-care techniques, as well as academic and social support.  Results were viewed from the perspectives of on-campus and distance students, with implications for program evaluation and support opportunities.

Staying motivated while remote learning

jeff wagnaar and his wife

CSU’s Distance MSW program combines online learning with in-person learning weekends. This model offers peer support and connection with the flexibility of remote learning, so students can earn a degree while continuing to pursue career, family, and other goals.

For Wagnaar, learning remotely is based on each student’s personal vision. Setting a clear and well-defined future goal is key, he said, and this includes “waypoint” goals and contingency planning for the realities of life.

“My wife Deb’s support was critical,” said Wagnaar. “She believed in me when I struggled. A pandemic was not specifically anticipated, yet we faced the challenge. Having an excellent research team and instructor helped with this.”

“I would also add that celebrating the milestones along the way is important,” Wagnaar said. “Very few of us have medals for achievement handed to us. We may have to be our own ‘commanding officer’ for making sure that recognition and celebration is experienced.”

The School of Social Work is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.