KEARNEY, Neb. -- Empathy. Communication. Active listening. Critical thinking. Patience.

These essential skills and traits for social workers can’t be learned from a textbook. They’re developed through real-world interactions.

“Social work is a profession where we work directly with people. We can talk about it all day, but I’m such a firm believer that until we experience it we don’t know what it’s like,” said Nadine Stuehm, a senior lecturer in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Social Work.

Students in Stuehm’s aging services class had that opportunity this semester when they stepped outside the classroom to work with and learn from residents at Kearney Manor, a public housing community that serves older adults and people with disabilities.

Over the past two months, the UNK students met one-on-one with residents there to develop a better understanding of the older population and build the skills they’ll use every day as social work professionals.

“In the social work profession, you have to learn how to communicate and meet with people from different age groups,” said sophomore Esther Uma, one of nine students in the class. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to the older population. There are a lot of things I didn’t know before taking this class.”

The weekly conversations focused on a number of topics, including physical and mental health, religion and spirituality, social activity and support systems, finances, relationships with friends and family and end-of-life plans. They’re part of a psychosocial assessment each student completed on a resident.

“It’s not hard to ask somebody about their family, but it is hard to say, ‘What are your end-of-life plans?’” Stuehm noted. “That’s a really hard question. If you’re going to work with older people, that’s a question you have to ask them.”

Uma, a social work major with an international studies minor, was paired with Martha Tiede, who’s lived at Kearney Manor since 2001. Their ages and backgrounds are drastically different.

Tiede grew up in the Overton area and never attended college. She’s worked “a lot of different places,” including Washington, D.C., and currently enjoys reading and knitting. The 88-year-old makes stocking caps for local schoolchildren and donates prayer squares and shawls to her church.

“Being able to meet with someone who has lived so much more than you and has that knowledge and experience, that really helps,” said Uma, 18. “There are a lot of things that I learned from her that I will take with me and I will think about as I move on to my profession.”

The relationship was mutually beneficial.

“It’s very interesting to hear about some of things she does,” Tiede said of Uma, who lived in southern Nigeria until age 10 and graduated from Boone Central High School in Nebraska. “It’s a different experience for me to have her come once a week to talk.”

For Kearney Manor residents, the program is an opportunity to give back while interacting with people from outside their regular social circles.

“They really enjoy having the students come visit,” said service coordinator Misty Hasselquist. “Many of the people who participated this year have done it before. They enjoyed it so much they wanted to do it again.”

The program allows UNK students to “put course material into action.”

“It’s really about experiential learning,” said Stuehm, who started the project several years ago and moved it to Kearney Manor in 2021.

When they’re not meeting with residents, the UNK students gather in the classroom to discuss their experiences.

“I think they all come out of it with a much different sense of how to work with older people,” Stuehm said.

One of the hardest lessons came this week, when the program wrapped up with a bingo party. On their final day together, the students learned how to disconnect and say goodbye.

“That was something I had to think about how to approach,” Uma said. “It was really hard. It’s really hard getting to know someone and then you have to cut it off.”

“If I see her in a store someplace, she’s definitely going to get a big hug,” Tiede added with a smile.