An education in compassion
Social worker grad program brings knowledge, skills

Students of the Graduate School of Social Work program in Durango, from left, Michelle Olguin, Abbie Bremer and Ian Altman discuss a recent project from their “multicultural social work practice” class./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Karin L. Becker

Poverty. Homelessness. Unemployment. These were some of the problems Americans, including many in Durango, faced during the Great Depression. Eighty years after the Depression, Durango still faces similar problems. To help address these problems in the 1930s, the University of Denver launched the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), the first such program in the Rocky Mountain Region. Today, it is the region’s top-ranked graduate social work program and nationally ranked in the top 17 percent. In recent years, DU’s Graduate School of Social Work has become available in Durango. And in that time, students enrolled are making a difference throughout the Four Corners.

Although it has only been eight years since the Durango campus opened its doors, it was decades ion the making. Aware of a need for social workers in rural areas, DU conducted a needs assessment of the Four Corners, examining the number of social workers in the area and holding forums with educators, agencies and social workers. Despite finding interest in creating a satellite campus for the program, two large obstacles remained: figuring out how to broadcast from Denver and making tuition more in reach for rural students.

Under the guidance of former Dean Catherine Alter, and with help from Morley Ballantine, chairwoman of The Durango Herald and a member of DU’s Board of Trustees, technological barriers were overcome, and tuition was reduced. The first students for the two-year Four Corners Master of Social Work (MSW) program were recruited in 2002.

Over the years, the program has graduated 78 students from Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. With an emphasis on rural and Native American social work, the graduates are likely to stay in the area, impacting their communities and reservations.

Every two years, 15 to 25 new students enroll in the two-year MSW program. Additional students who already hold bachelor’s degrees in social work join the program with “advanced standing” during the second year. A partnership with Fort Lewis College allows students to obtain a bachelor’s degree and an MSW in five years. The small size of the program attracts many applicants. Called a cohort model, students take all classes together throughout the program. Through this process, students undergo an academic transformation together, examining family systems, values and beliefs.

“An intense bond is formed,” notes Clinical Associate Professor Wanda Ellingson, site director of the Four Corners program.

Considering that most graduates will be employed in small towns or rural areas, relationship-building is essential. Having the same classes with the same classmates builds support and offers consistency in a program that is known to be intense.

However, while the small size of the program helps build rapport among students, it also means there are some differences from the MSW program offered in Denver. For starters, electives are more limited and are specifically geared to reflect the needs of the community.

A satellite campus also poses logistical problems, requiring sophisticated technology as well as creative approaches to teaching. Interactive Television (ITV) allows for professors in Denver to correspond with Four Corner students in real time, and courses are taught via the Web. Professors also travel to Durango to teach some courses, while others are taught by professionals in the Four Corners. Both students and faculty have online access to DU’s Penrose Library.

Although the requirements for the degree are the same whether earned in Denver or Durango, the local program is tailored to meet the needs of area communities. The degree emphasizes both clinical and community practice, with a specific focus on rural and Native populations. Native History and Policy is a required class for all Four Corners students, as is Mental Health Interventions with Native Peoples.

“Since the Four Corners program began, GSSW’s community and tribal partnerships have ensured that we’re providing a social work education that is culturally sensitive and equips our graduates with the tools they need to serve their diverse communities,” says GSSW Dean James Herbert Williams. “And our new partnership with Fort Lewis College is making that education accessible to even more people in the Four Corners area.”

For student Abbie Bremer, the cohort model led her to choose the Four Corners program. Although she applied to several others, GSSW won her over, and specifically the Durango campus, because of the one-on-one attention from faculty and small class size.

“I feel more comfortable asking questions, and we all work on being sensitive to each other’s learning needs,” Bremer says.

The close bond created in the classroom extends to the real world as alumni socialize and consult after graduation. “I talk with about 60-75 percent of my classmates on a weekly basis,” says former student Catherine Hines. Since most classmates are employed in the community, there is a built-in professional network.

At the heart of the MSW program are internships, with field sites located throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Some students are able to intern in the agencies where they currently work, but in a different role. According to Ellingson, the internships benefit the agency and make for a more versatile employee. They also help the community, contributing 8,640 hours in the areas of health, human service and community development in the Four Corners.

“It’s a very organized and intense process,” Ellingson notes, “and field internships can lead to job offers.”

This is precisely the case for Hines, a 2010 graduate, who was admitted with advanced standing because she had a bachelor of social work degree and a masters in a related field. She interned at the La Plata County Department of Human Services, and when there was an opening for a Child Protection Service investigator, she had her foot in the door.

For Charmaine Summers, who graduated in 2008, the internship was what she enjoyed most about the program. Her internship at the Department of Human Services also led to a full-time job, and she is now a case worker for foster care and adoption.

“The hands-on experience was the most educational and valuable,” says Summers. She acquired plenty of information through reading, but the opportunity to work with people made it possible to apply her bookwork directly.

And application is the objective of the program, which is beneficial not only for social workers in the Four Corners, but the overall population as well. “It is important for the region’s social workers to earn master’s degrees,” Ellingson says, “… to bring skill and knowledge that many agencies really need.” •

For more information about GSSW’s Four Corners MSW program, contact Wanda Ellingson at or 970-247-9773



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