Like most students enrolled in master’s level programming at the University of the Fraser Valley, Shannon Torhjelm had to balance the demands of a professional career with the busy life of a graduate student.
By day, Torhjelm is social work practice leader for Abbotsford and Mission hospitals, supervising the clinical practice of social workers in a hospital setting. And for the past two years, she has also been enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at UFV.
She graduates on Friday, June 13 as the Governor General’s gold medal winner, an honour given to the top student in a master’s level program. The award is given to the student with the highest GPA in a graduate degree program. Torhjelm earned a grade point average of 4.16 (hovering half-way between and A and an A+ average) in the MSW program.
The research she conducted as part of her master’s degree related directly to issues faced by social workers in health care.
Health care social workers help to address the psycho-social and emotional impact of health events on patients and their families, she explains, noting that they also help to mitigate risk by attending to practical issues and support needs of patients, such as housing and other poverty-related issues.
“My research was about the perspectives of social workers who had the experience of being on the receiving end of health care, either individually or in their families. I wanted to see how having had the client experience affected them when they came back to being health social workers,” Torhjelm said. “The research results showed that they gained more empathy for clients and the challenges encountered when navigating the health care sytem. The social workers became much stronger advocates as a result of having been in the system themselves.”
Torhjelm has been a social worker since 1994, and holds a Bachelor of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts with a major in psychology from the University of Victoria.
While she found it a tough haul combining the demands of a busy career and family with graduate studies, she welcomed the opportunity to reconnect with social work in a reflective way.
“My experience coming back as a student reinforced for me that social work is more than just a job, it is a profession. It was a refreshing opportunity for renewal and a reminder of what is important to me as a professional social worker.”
As part of her practicum assignment, Torhjelm became involved with the BC Association of Social Workers, working on projects to do with education and ethics in social work.
As for winning the top academic medal for a master’s student at UFV, Torhjelm was very surprised to find out she was the winner.
“It was so much work just getting through the classes that I wasn’t really thinking about where I stood in relation to others. It was a relief just to be finished!”
However, now that all the assignments are handed in and she’s graduating, Torhjelm finds that the learning bug isn’t so easy to shake.
“Now that I have reconnected with school, I miss it. I want to figure out how to continue to support my professional growth, keep learning, and stay connected.”
She says she’s “very honoured” to be the Governor General’s gold medalist this year.
“I went through school with a great class of colleagues, all of whom contributed to my learning experience. We also enjoyed great support from the faculty members,” she said. “I am very impressed with the quality of education offered by UFV.”
She also credits her husband and sons for the all the support they offered during this learning journey.
For more information about the Master of Social Work program at UFV, go to: www.ufv.ca/msw.