High School Counseling Field Placement

MSW student fosters individuality, growth at local alternative school

This series highlights the internships of three Walla Walla University social work majors during the 2017-18 academic year. (Part two of three.)

Social workers are called to recognize the importance of human relationships and acknowledge the worth of every individual. Maybe that’s why Ruth Martinez shines.

Martinez, who will soon receive a master of social work degree from Walla Walla University, is an advocate—for women’s rights, racial equality, victims of gun violence, the LGBTQ+ community, and, most recently, local youth. Since her senior year of undergrad, she has been working with students from Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Walla Walla, Washington.

Lincoln High has received national attention for implementing a trauma-informed approach to discipline, helping students build resilience and overcome adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Rather than resorting to punishment, the staff at Lincoln High now look for a deeper reason that may be causing students to act out. Three years ago, “Paper Tigers,” a documentary about Lincoln High’s transformation, was released.

“I watched ‘Paper Tigers’ my junior year, and then my senior year, I was like, ‘OK I want to be at this school and I want to do social work at this school,’” Martinez said.

She was still working on her bachelor’s degree at the time, and she asked for Lincoln High to create an undergraduate placement so that she could fulfill her practicum requirements there. She got the position and worked alongside the intervention specialist, doing student checkups and other intern tasks.

When Martinez graduated with a bachelor of social work degree last spring, she wasn’t quite ready to part ways with the Lincoln community. As she prepared to begin the master’s program at WWU, she secured a practicum placement as a counselor at The Health Center on the high school’s campus.

Martinez’s role has allowed her to do both individual and group therapy. Over the last several months, she has counseled eight to 10 students each week and facilitated a girls group that aims to build communication skills and self-confidence.

“What we’re really trying to do is connect these kids and help them be OK, because high school is such a coming-of-age time,” Martinez said. Every day that she has worked in The Health Center, she says she’s learned a little bit more about therapy and who she is as a therapist.

Almost finished with her master’s degree now, Martinez has had time to practice bringing classroom lessons to her counseling sessions. She has called on several strategies to help her students communicate more effectively and form healthier relationships, even incorporating concepts from the Gottman Institute, which focuses on couples research and therapy.

Though skill-building exercises are an important part of counseling, Martinez quickly discovered that successful therapy requires much more. Since becoming a counselor, she has had to find a balance between applying social work theories and forming genuine connections.

“The relationship is the most important thing,” she said. “At the end of the day, my kids just really want somebody to listen to them.”

Martinez believes that students are more willing to practice skills and complete worksheets once they begin to trust that she has their best interests in mind. When students enter her counseling room, they enter a safe space where they can be themselves.

Martinez hasn’t decided what her next career move will be, but after working with Lincoln High School students and seeing the positive change that can come from understanding people’s ACEs, she likes the idea of continuing to help youth in risky situations find their grounding.

To learn more about the social work program at WWU, visit the Wilma Hepker School of Social Work and Sociology web page.

Posted June 5, 2018

Portrait photo of Ruth Martinez
In 2017, Ruth Martinez received a bachelor of social work degree from Walla Walla University. She will complete her master of social work degree this year.
Ruth Martinez counsels a student at The Health Center
Martinez fulfilled her practicum at The Health Center, an organization that provides medical and mental health services to Lincoln High School students.