Susan Tohn says the MSW program at the Boston College School of Social Work looks very different today than it did when she joined the faculty in 1999.
“It used to be much more of a generalist program. Now there are specific fields of practice that students can choose to really hone their skills with the population that they are excited about working with,” says Tohn, an associate professor of clinical practice, who plans to retire from BC at the end of June after 24 years of service. “The rigor and expectations in terms of assignments, class participation, and investment from the teachers as well as from the students have all increased over time.”
Today students can choose from six fields of practice—among them Afrocentric Social Work, Mental Health, and Latinx Communities—and over 50 electives. Plus they can further tailor their degree to meet their career goals by earning up to two certificates in areas such as trauma, child welfare, and Black leadership.
Tohn, who has taught up to seven courses a year for more than two decades, says the revamped curriculum has prepared students to tackle pressing social problems like never before. As she puts it, “The social workers graduating from our program now are much better equipped to deal with the problems of our current times than our students would have been if we hadn’t evolved.”
Tohn has played a leading role in preparing students for careers as clinical social workers, teaching several generations of them how to integrate solution-focused therapy into their work with children and families.
Small wonder that it won’t be easy for her to leave teaching, a vocation that she describes as a “privilege from the beginning.”
“It’s an exciting hour and 50 minutes for me every week to learn from our students and to watch them transform over the course of a semester,” says Tohn, who plans to keep a private practice as a solution-focused therapist up and running even after she retires from BC. “The place where they start is not the place where they end by the end of the semester. And it’s just thrilling, really, to be on that journey with them.”
She calls social work the “most exciting” profession and advises newly-minted social workers to use their transferable skills to make the world a better place. “There is an unlimited set of ways to apply our skill set and our perspective to anything,” she says. “And so I would say expand your thinking. Think about the places and spaces where you can have influence and make that space a better place for the people who are in it.”
As Tohn prepares to retire, we asked her to reflect on her career at BC, her biggest accomplishments, and her plans for the future.
You’ve been teaching at the Boston College School of Social Work since 1999. What’s kept you at BCSSW for the past 24 years?
I think the excitement of helping to train our future social workers, watching the field evolve, and then contributing to our program evolving and changing and improving every year.
How, in your view, has the School evolved since you joined the faculty?
There isn’t much left of the original program from when I started, so almost every course has changed. It used to be much more of a generalist program. Now there are specific fields of practice that students can choose to really hone their skills with the population that they are excited about working with. The rigor and expectations in terms of assignments, class participation, and investment from the teachers as well as from the students have all increased over time. So I think the social workers graduating from our program now are much better equipped to deal with the problems of our current times than our students would have been if we hadn’t evolved.
Associate Dean Tom Walsh, who directs the MSW program, is very invested in the School being cutting edge—we have such a deep bench of clinical electives. He encourages part-time faculty and full-time faculty to create syllabi for the up-and-coming evidence-based practices that are new in the field. We are often the first graduate school—or the only one—to offer clinical electives in those particular modalities. And so it has really set us apart, especially in the Boston area, from the other schools.
You’ve routinely taught six—or even seven—courses a year. What will you miss most about teaching?
Being in the classroom with students. It’s a job that has been a privilege from the beginning. Each week I think about what I’m responsible to teach and what will be helpful to students, and then they ask me questions that are thoughtful and deep, deepening my learning. Students sometimes bring in information and knowledge that I don’t have. And so I learn about new things from them. It’s an exciting hour and 50 minutes for me every week to learn from our students and to watch them transform over the course of a semester. The place where they start is not the place where they end by the end of the semester. And it’s just thrilling, really, to be on that journey with them.
What’s been your favorite course to teach—and why?
My favorite course is Solution-Focused Therapy because that’s the kind of therapy I practice. In the course, we are done with theory by maybe the third or the fourth week of the semester and the rest of the semester is practice. And it’s so exciting to watch students try on new ways of thinking and to struggle with it and to experience it and to have aha moments where they realize, “Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way before. Do I like that? Do I not like that? Let me think about that.” So there’s time in that class and space for a lot of reflection and journeying for the students.
That’s my class where students probably ask the most evocative questions where they’re like, “Well, what would you do with a client with this problem?” And I have to really pause and think, from a solution-focused perspective, because they're usually asking about a very difficult situation. They’re not asking about the easy ones. And so I have to really pause because I know that they are probably approaching it from a problem-focused perspective because most people would, and to approach it from a solution-focused perspective takes some thinking because it’s not our natural way in the mental health world to formulate something like that. I get excited by that kind of challenging question because then I’m really having to work hard. And everybody is benefiting from learning a new way to think about someone’s life and what they want out of their life.
You’ve integrated LGBTQ issues into the BCSSW curriculum. You’ve taught several generations of students how to incorporate solution-focused therapy into their practice. And you’ve been praised by alumni for helping to shape their philosophies as social workers. When you reflect on all your accomplishments at BC, what are you most proud of?
I have two answers to that. One is that I feel most grateful for the opportunity to have grown so much as a social worker through being on the faculty at the School. I am not the social worker I was when I arrived in 1999. I am a much better social worker. I have learned techniques because I had to teach them, and then I’ve incorporated them into my practice and it has helped the clients that I work with. And so I feel very grateful because I never would have discovered those techniques had I not been required to teach them. And that dovetails back to the fact that we keep evolving our curriculum. We keep changing it every year to update it. And so you’re learning new things all the time.
The other thing that I love is watching students graduate from our program and go on to become these incredible social workers. It’s such a thrill to watch all the people who graduated from our program win awards and go on to make such amazing contributions to our field, to the world. That’s so exciting to me, to stay in touch with them, to follow them, to learn from them as they grow beyond what I know about lots of things. I’m excited when we invite them back and they share with us this wisdom that they have accumulated over their time since they were with us. It feels powerful to know we were the beginning of that journey, we were the launch, and then they went on to expand and grow in these really meaningful ways.
You said that you’re a much better social worker now than you were when you joined the faculty. What have you learned from your peers at BCSSW that you have incorporated into your own private practice as a solution-focused therapist?
I think learning internal family systems from Robin Warsh and learning about neuroscience from Jessica Black. When Jessica Black arrived, she transformed our program. I was just soaking up all the neuroscience I could, and I ended up completely incorporating that into the social worker that I am. And I talk about it with all my clients.
Robin Warsh is a master clinician. She has so generously shared her knowledge of internal family systems therapy, created an elective focused on the model, and made it accessible for people to understand and integrate into their own practice even if they don’t do a deep dive into the intensive training of it.
Although you plan to continue running your private practice, your retirement from BCSSW will free up a considerable amount of time. How will you spend it?
I have a new grandson, so I’m going to do some daycare. I plan to read books for pleasure, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’d also like to volunteer as a mentor for women who are in prison. And I’m going to learn Spanish. My daughter is raising our grandson bilingual and bicultural because she is, and so I would also like to be able to talk to him in Spanish. I think as social workers, we should know Spanish. It’s been the thing I haven’t had time to do that I’m looking forward to doing.
What advice do you have for students who are training to become clinical social workers?
I say this all the time to them: It is a journey and you’re never done learning. You’re going to continue to change as a social worker and evolve. Social work is really the most exciting, diverse profession I’ve ever known about. And you can do so many different things as a social worker. There is an unlimited set of ways to apply our skill set and our perspective to anything. And so I would say expand your thinking. Think about the places and spaces where you can have influence and make that space a better place for the people who are in it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how much I’m going to miss my colleagues. We have an incredible staff and faculty and our staff has been there for a long time. We have all been together for almost 30 years. The key staff in field education, in student services, in career services, Dean Walsh running the MSW program—we have all been there together for almost 30 years and it is such a privilege to work with them every day. They have the highest integrity and commitment to the students and to our program that I’ve ever experienced. And so I think I will miss the faculty and the staff deeply and miss working with them and learning from them.