Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Four Corners program a ‘life changing experience,’ students say

graduate students

Students interact with Nancy Lucero, a GSSW faculty member.

After years of working in the trenches to provide services for those in need on her Southern Ute reservation in southern Colorado, Shelly Thompson was ready to take on a leadership role. 

But she didn’t find it in on the political path she’d been following. Instead, she found it in social work.

“It was my intention to get an MPA [master’s of public administration],” says Thompson. “But God’s intention was for me to get an MSW [master’s of social work].”

Thompson is a 2006 graduate of the DU Graduate School of Social Work. But she didn’t earn her masters at DU’s Denver campus. Instead, she is one of 45 students from five tribes and several small communities to earn social work degrees through DU’s personal and virtual Four Corners program. Another 15 students will graduate in 2008 and local students are already signing up for the program’s fourth cohort.

Begun in 2002 as a way to reach students in underserved areas where the need for social services is great but the opportunities for social work training are limited, DU’s Four Corners program combines summer on-site classroom experience with school-year classes made possible by interactive television. Students travel from the remote reaches of their reservations or over treacherous mountain passes to a classroom in Durango, Colo., where they interact with their Denver professors via a real-time video and audio feed. 

Using technology to provide distance education in social work is an emerging practice, says program Director and Associate Professor Jean East. 

The Four Corners program found its success with an on-site coordinator and an evolution in technology that now provides nearly seamless classroom discussion between Denver professors and Four Corners students. 

GSSW faculty members provide content through interactive television and regular on-site visits. Wanda Ellingson, clinical assistant professor and site director, responds to students’ needs through personal visits and consultations with Denver faculty via interactive television installed in her office. Ellingson works closely with local and tribal service agencies to learn their needs and place graduates.

“I feel so incredibly lucky to be involved in the lives of some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met,” says Ellingson.  

Some students, including Thompson, come to the program with a recent bachelor’s degree from Fort Lewis College in Durango. Others have been working locally in their fields for decades. About a third of the graduates are American Indians from the Acoma, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, Navajo and Shawnee tribes. Most students stay in the Four Corners area after graduation, earning leadership positions in local or tribal social service agencies, where the need for trained social workers is great.

Courses address native history, policy and clinical intervention. This focus on American Indian social work practice will be instrumental for social work graduates as they apply their knowledge and skills in agencies in the Four Corners area.

Thompson had worked for her tribe in victims’ and health services programs, witnessing first hand the need for social workers to combat the tribe’s domestic violence, substance and sex abuse problems. Thompson credits the program with changing her life.

She says the instruction made her more aware of her interactional style and helped her relate to different personality types. The interactive television courses, she says, were like having a teacher in the room. After graduation, Thompson enrolled in DU’s Sturm College of Law. She plans to return to the reservation after earning her law degree and combine her social work education with her knowledge of tribal law to run for a seat on the tribal council.

“My social work education gave me a better awareness of myself,” says Thompson. “It opened my eyes to the need for services and treatment for my people.”

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