Abstract: White MSW Students’ Transformative Learning Experiences about Racial Justice (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

White MSW Students’ Transformative Learning Experiences about Racial Justice

Saturday, January 14, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Mirick, PhD, LICSW, Associate Professor, Salem State University, MA
Ashley Davis, PhD, LICSW, Clinical Associate Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA

Social work education should prepare students to address racism and advance racial justice. MSW students have varied awareness about racism and White privilege (Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Fultz & Kondrat, 2019). Half of all MSW students are White (CSWE, 2020). For White students, anti-racism requires that they acknowledge benefitting from this system of oppression, and actively work to interrupt and dismantle racism and White privilege (Deepak & Biggs, 2011; Hamilton-Mason & Schneider, 2018). It is important to understand the learning experiences that help White students develop anti-racist awareness and behaviors. When students are able to shift their exiting frames of reference, they can “generate beliefs and opinions that prove more true or justified to guide action” (Mezirow, 2000, pp. 7-8). This study explores White students’ transformative learning experiences about racial justice in their social work education.


Directors of MSW programs were asked to share an anonymous online survey with their students. Data were part of a larger study about White students’ commitment to anti-racist practice. Student responded to a question asking them to describe a transformative learning experience (TLE) about racial justice in their MSW program or, if they had not had such an experience, what one might look like. Responses were uploaded to Dedoose and a thematic analysis conducted by multiple coders.


Of the 1,131 White MSW participants, 618 students (54.6%) reported having a TLE, and 513 (45.4%) reported they had not. The respondents attended programs in all regions of the country. They primarily self-identified as female (84.1%), were in their 20s (58.8%) and started their program in 2020 (49.4%) or 2019 (34.7%).

Many students (n=437) described their TLE about racial justice. They focused more on racism (n=327) than White privilege (n=179), and developed awareness on individual (n=273) and structural levels (n=293). Students identified resources that made transformative learning possible, including specific courses, readings, discussions, engagement across difference, and current events. Applying the TLE framework, students primarily described critical reflection (n=249), followed by new perspectives (n=172), disorienting dilemmas (n=104), and new patterns of action (n=42).

Of the students who had not had a TLE, some students (n=298) described what one might look like. They suggested learning new information about racism (n=88), listening to people of color (n=78), looking inward at themselves (n=57), and calling out (or “calling in”) other White people (n=32). They also identified the need to take action (n=47) and challenge oppression within the social work profession (n=45). A few students doubted that they would experience a TLE in their MSW program (n=10), or felt that they already knew a lot about racism and thus, would not have a TLE (n=17).


These White MSW students felt that transformation occurred through critically reflecting on their beliefs, assumptions, and values, and developing new perspectives. Social work educators can support White students with opportunities for TLE, including providing materials to facilitate reflection and resources to deepen their understanding. This study illustrates one way to work towards the SSWR theme of “Battling inequities and building solutions.”