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No distance too great

Via distance-education technology, Graduate School of Social Work professors -- including Adjunct Prof. David Blair (pictured) -- are training students to serve in the Four Corners region. The area is beset by poverty, suicide and substance-abuse problems but lacking in social workers.

DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) has an outreach program so effective that when a student in Denver sneezes, another in Durango, Colo., offers, “Bless you.”

Thanks to interactive television technology, 21 students living in the Four Corners region are graduating this summer with master of social work (MSW) degrees earned from DU, which is 340 miles away.

Students hail from the Acoma, Southern Ute and Navajo reservations, from Montrose (three mountain passes away), and from Arizona and New Mexico. Distance-education classrooms on campus and in Durango are outfitted with cameras, television monitors and microphones. During class, both the professor and the students can interact in real time. Sometimes, a professor teaches students in Denver and Durango simultaneously. The remote classes are supplemented by courses taught in Durango. The students take every course together in a lock-step format, and the entire class will graduate this summer.

Each student also had to complete an internship, and according to Wanda Ellingson, the program’s coordinator in Durango, they have provided 22,720 hours of social work services to agencies in the Four Corners region. “This has come at a time when those agencies were experiencing difficulty serving clients due to state budget cuts,” Ellingson says.

With a high suicide rate, overwhelming poverty and severe alcohol and drug abuse issues, the Four Corners region — where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah abut — is starving for social workers, says GSSW Assoc. Prof. Jean East, director of distance education. But, it is hard to get social workers to leave cities to move to rural areas, East says. So, DU decided to educate those who already lived in the region.

Tuition for the program is 55 percent of the standard rate. The Colorado Department of Human Services provided equipment and three $8,000 stipends for students, who in return must work in child welfare for two years after graduation. EduQuest, a private technology company, donated more than $100,000 in equipment and services. DU’s Center for Teaching and Learning and University Technology Services division assisted with technical matters, and the human services department of LaPlata County — where Durango is located — provided a classroom and technology support.

Student Loretta Martinez has focused her education on substance abuse and domestic violence and she plans to use her skills on the Navajo reservation in Ramah, N.M.

“When I started school, it was difficult for me to incorporate the teachings of the dominant society into the Navajo culture,” Martinez says. “DU has helped me to incorporate a cultural awareness into my practice.”

Martinez hopes to one day have her own family oriented practice on the reservation. “I want to bring thorough assessment to the reservation — not only looking at the negative, but working with a family’s strengths, trying to keep children in the community,” she says. “I will need to use a lot of the tools presented to us in graduate school.”

The distance program also has provided rapid career advancement for some of the students, including Durango resident Bill McKeon, who works for the Southwest Colorado Mental Health Center. He has already received a promotion in anticipation of his master’s degree.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the program is to provide often-neglected areas and people with professional social-work services. Because of the success in the Four Corners region, East says that GSSW is now looking at offering a similar program in northeastern Colorado. GSSW also will begin training a second cohort of Four Corners students this fall.

“In a broad sense, this really is the mission of our entire school,” East says. “We want to get social workers to the people who need them, and this program has clearly helped us to do that.”


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