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A new direction

The Four Corners is a vast region with long stretches of highway between small towns. The area encompasses parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and its diverse geography includes mountain ranges, river valleys, dry canyons, windy mesas and desert. Farmington, N.M., one of the region’s larger cities, is home to about 42,425 people and three Starbucks.

Four Corners program graduate Nelda Martinez (pictured on right) is a home ownership specialist with the Acoma Pueblo Housing Authority. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

Four Corners program graduate Nelda Martinez (pictured on right) is a home ownership specialist with the Acoma Pueblo Housing Authority. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

The region also is home to numerous American Indian tribes — including Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain and Southern Ute — each with distinctive customs and belief systems.

Like the rest of America, the region has problems — poverty, lack of education, lack of employment, alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence and other crimes. But complex jurisdictional boundaries and the interplay of federal, tribal and state systems can hinder social services.

The University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) is hoping to help improve the outlook, designing its Four Corners Master of Social Work (MSW) program specifically to meet the needs of the Four Corners region, including American Indians, educating students about the region’s unique backgrounds and Native American communities. Founded 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, the program aims to equip both Native and non-native social workers with the tools they need to relate to diverse perspectives.

Read about Four Corners graduates Leland Becenti, Sara Hunt, Nelda Martinez and Loretta Martinez.

“The program is going to improve the services that are offered to Native Americans,” says Marie Jim, a Four Corners Advisory Council member from the Navajo tribe in Ganado, Ariz. “There will be fewer barriers, so services will be better.”


Different approaches

While many American Indians live on reservations, others have moved to cities where job opportunities are more plentiful. Some were raised traditionally; others were not. All of these factors affect their worldview and receptivity to various social work approaches.

“Being aware and being sensitive to cultural differences and viewpoints is vital for social workers,” says GSSW Clinical Assistant Professor and Four Corners program Director Wanda Ellingson, who has practiced human services in the region for 20 years.

Many of the students in the Four Corners program are American Indians themselves, representing the Southern Ute, Navajo, Jicarillo Apache, Acoma and Shawnee tribes, among others.

“The norm in social work education is to learn the Western theoretical approach and apply that to services with Native Americans,” Jim says. The DU program, however, “helps students recognize their cultural knowledge and utilize more of their cultural background, which is beneficial in working with Native peoples.”

The two-year program works in a cohort model in which 10-25 students start together, take every class together and graduate together. By the time they leave, Ellingson says, “They are a tight group.”

The first year prepares students for general practice while the second year delves deeper, preparing students for rural community leadership and advanced clinical practice.

Classes are taught in Denver and Durango, Colo. Students in Durango take all the same social-work classes as Denver students during the first year. In the second year, students in Durango can take courses specifically designed for the Four Corners program, including Native Peoples Practice: History and Policy and Assessment and Interventions With Native Peoples. The program uses interactive television to link students in the Durango classroom with professors in Denver, allowing students and professors to engage in a real-time videoconference.

As a liaison with the campus in Denver, DU Professor Jean East, director of distance education at GSSW, travels to Durango once or twice per quarter and teaches a summer class there.

“We work closely to make sure the Four Corners program is congruent with what’s happening on the main campus,” East says.

Classes take place over weekends, allowing students to continue working. While they’re on site in Durango, students can work on their homework in the computer lab, read or get to know one another in the break room, or walk to downtown Durango just a couple of blocks away. As friendships form, some of the Durango-based students offer their classmates spare rooms or couches during the weekend sojourns. During the summer, students attend classes every day for two- to three-week “intensives.”

Students meet with Ellingson every week. And after they graduate, many stay in touch, filling her in on their personal and professional successes.

“Wanda is an excellent ambassador for DU and the program,” East says. “She is a great mentor for the students. She influences their careers and they continue to seek her out for support, guidance and advice.”

Options in the program include a two-year MSW for students with bachelor’s degrees and a one-year advanced-standing program for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work.

It’s important for the region’s social workers to earn master’s degrees, Ellingson says, to become eligible for supervisory positions. The program, founded in 2002, has 62 graduates thus far, and those graduates have gone on to provide social-work services in a variety of arenas.

“It brings this higher level of skill and knowledge, which many agencies really need,” she says. “They take back new ideas and ways of doing things. It benefits agencies — especially on the reservations where they’re trying to fill supervisory positions with Natives and not Anglos, which had been the case for years.”

Classroom learning is just part of the package. Fieldwork is where students take theories and put them into practice. Internships relate to students’ career interests in or near their local communities. Two-year students must complete at least 1,080 field hours; advanced-standing students must clock 600 field hours.

Fieldwork sites dot the Four Corners region, with locations in Shiprock and Farmington, N.M., and Montrose, Cortez and Durango, Colo. Placement agencies include the San Juan Regional Medical Center, Navajo Nation Department of Human Services, New Day Counseling, the Southern Ute Department of Regulatory and Justice, and many more.

La Titia Taylor directs the Southern Ute Higher Education Department based in Ignacio, Colo., and is a member of DU’s Four Corners Advisory Council. She says the Southern Ute tribe has been receptive to the GSSW Four Corners program.

“I think it’s really needed to help with our programs,” Taylor says, “and to help create a healthier community.”

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