Colorado State University’s School of Social Work: Past, Present, and Future

social work studentsIn 2020, Colorado State University will mark 150 years since beginning its land-grant mission of educating students from all walks of life in Colorado and beyond. It will also be 49 years since the first class of students graduated with a degree in social work from CSU.

Back then, we were not even a department. The B.A. in Social Work was awarded through Sociology. In a year of celebration and reflection for Colorado State University, we can also witness the tremendous evolution of the School of Social Work.

In 1971, 150 students declared the social work major; this fall there are more than 500 students enrolled in School of Social Work programs. In fewer than 50 years, the School of Social Work has evolved and grown tremendously to stand on its own. Programs today include accredited B.S.W. and M.S.W. degrees, distance and certificate programs for master’s students, the dual-degree M.S.W. / Master of Public Health, and the doctoral program in social work.

It was 1974 when the bachelor’s degree in social work was accredited by the newly-minted Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Colorado State University was one of the first in the U.S. to be recognized for excellence in social work education. As required by accreditation standards, CSU’s program prepared students for “generalist” practice.

Leading advanced generalist social work

A social work generalist is trained to work with individuals, families, groups, and communities to advocate for social change, as well as work to improve clients’ lives. Our faculty became national leaders in researching and elaborating the generalist concept. In 1981, the program moved out of the Department of Sociology and became a stand-alone department.

In 1984, Colorado State’s Master of Social Work degree was approved. The MSW program was oriented to preparing social workers especially capable of responding to the needs of small towns and rural areas. That focus was later expanded for serving residents in urban areas along the Front Range; today students even gain national/international perspectives through courses in India and Costa Rica.

This year, Colorado State’s Advanced Generalist MSW program placed in the top 15 percent nationally among public universities accredited by CSWE, according to the latest ranking by U.S. News & World Report. Our social work program has earned higher rankings each year since 2012.

Social progress powered by science

In 2002, the department officially became the School of Social Work, which more adequately communicated to national social work audiences the advanced degree and level of research activity at Colorado State.

CSU’s Social Work faculty translate research into practice in areas of child well-being, healthy aging, and health and behavioral health disparities. They are passionate about addressing core issues in our society illustrated by the Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative to champion social progress powered by science. It’s a call to action for social work researchers and practitioners to:

  • Harness social work’s science and knowledge base;
  • Collaborate with individuals, community-based organizations, and professionals from all fields and disciplines; and
  • Work together to tackle some of our toughest social problems.

Two members of Colorado State’s Social Work faculty have been recipients of Career Development (K) Awards in the past three years. Dr. Jennifer Portz was awarded a K76 career development award from the National Institute on Aging. Dr. Samantha Brown received the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development career development award.

School of Social Work Director Audrey Shillington earned the status of Fellow in the American Academy of Health Behavior, reaching the highest rank of the academy’s most prestigious membership group. Shillington also earned the status of Fellow in the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, for accomplishments as a scholar and practitioner for achievement and advancement of social good in the field of social work.

In 2004, the Social Work Research Center was founded to advance best practices in the prevention of child maltreatment through university-community partnerships. The center has grown to six researchers, including a new doctoral trainee from the Ph.D. program.

As director of the Social Work Research Center, Marc Winokur has been a recipient of the Leonard E. Gibbs Award for contributions to evidence-informed practice in social welfare, from the Campbell Collaboration; and the Innovative Leadership Award from Illuminate Colorado, an honor saluting nearly 15 years of work strengthening Colorado families.

Colorado State’s social work Ph.D. program was added in 2011. The program introduced a revitalized curriculum this year. The doctoral program in social work is designed to train engaged scholars and educators to be leaders to tackle the most persistent issues facing vulnerable populations around the globe.

New program developments and recognitions

The desire to improve the lives of others by changing systems is the hallmark of social work students at all levels. Over the years, students’ growing interests in community and policy practice, clinical work, school social work, and integrated care have guided new program developments.

In 2019, BSW students gained access to a new addictions concentration, which allows them to tailor coursework and field placement credits to be prepared to work as a certified addictions counselor in the state of Colorado.

For master’s students, new elective options allow them to explore specialized areas of practice within the scope of an advanced generalist education, and in some cases complete a graduate certificate concurrently with their MSW degree, in areas such as advanced clinical behavioral health, military and veteran culture, and nonprofit administration.

Social work faculty have been recognized for excellence. BSW Program Director Brenda Miles and Instructor/ BSW Advisor Marie Villescas Zamzow (B.S., ’95) have both been recipients of the Best Teacher Award given by the Colorado State University Alumni Association. Instructor/B.S.W. Advisor Dana Gaines (B.A., ’01; M.S.W., ’05) received the Outstanding Advisor Award from the College of Health and Human Sciences in 2018.

In 2018, M.S.W. Program Director and newly-appointed Assistant Director Amy Martonis spearheaded a new system which reports data to include assessment of the Council on Social Work Education’s required competencies, such as ethics, critical thinking, and research, all of which are directly tied to readiness for professional social work practice.

By allowing students, as well as administrators and instructors, to access this data in real-time, the school aims to encourage students to focus on improving those competencies—not just grades—for their professional careers as social workers. Earlier this year, Martonis had the honor of accepting CSU’s Provost’s N. Preston Davis Award for Instructional Innovation for the system.

Colorado State’s School of Social Work also celebrated the development of a new program this year with a milestone: Our first Master of Social Work/Master of Public Health program graduates received their dual degrees this past May. The M.S.W./MPH degree is awarded through partnership with the Colorado School of Public Health.

Partnerships invigorate the School of Social Work’s future

Indeed, partnerships at all levels have been critical to the development of the School of Social Work. They supercharge our ability to provide exemplary education, applied research, and transformative outreach towards the accomplishment of our mission: to advance social, environmental, and economic justice, promote equity and equality, alleviate oppression, and enhance human health and well-being across local and global community systems.

For example, in 2017, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work and Metropolitan State University-Denver’s School of Social Work were jointly awarded $1.92 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for M.S.W. students to learn to engage in behavioral health interventions with rural and medically under-served populations.

Also in 2017, the Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) center in the School of Social Work received a significant gift from the Avenir Foundation, to grow the research and educational components of the center, which aims to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic benefits of companion animals.

Funding for social work student scholarships comes from committed donors who support student success through their generosity, and in the name of social work student success, such as the:

  • Lowell Eugene Jenkins Scholarship in Social Work;
  • James and Katharine Pappas Scholarship in Social Work;
  • Hoole/Sagan Scholarship;
  • And the many individual donors to the general Social Work Scholarship Fund.

CSU’s School of Social Work is also filled with gratitude for the generosity, in the name of student scholarships, on behalf of emeriti faculty, such as Brad Sheafor, John Gandy, and Victoria Buchan.

We have the highest percentage by department of students who are the first in their family to go to college: 43 percent of undergraduate majors in Social Work are “first-gen,” which means the student has no immediate family members who graduated from college. Scholarship donations gave outstanding students in need greater access to education that can change lives.

And, as per our mission, all School of Social Work students do change lives, even before graduation. In 2018-19, students contributed 115,380 hours of service to the community through field placement internships. The current estimated value of volunteer time, calculated by Independent Sector, is $25.43 per hour. As a result, CSU social work students contributed $2.9M to the community in volunteer service hours last year.

Whether in a school, hospital, mental health clinic, senior center, elected office, private practice, prison, military branch, child welfare agency, nonprofit organization, research institution, or other setting, all of our students’ successes reminds us that while Colorado State University’s School of Social Work has come far in its first 49 years, our impact in the field of social work has only just begun!

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.