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Profiles in a DU Pioneer Education

Graduate School of Social Work

Q&A with Dean and Milton Morris Endowed Chair James Herbert Williams, Graduate School of Social Work, Part One

James Herbert WilliamsQ: Give us a brief overview of your school – a general snapshot of the education you provide to students.

A: GSSW is a graduate school; we have both master’s and PhD programs. Our MSW (Master of Social Work) program prepares students to become outstanding clinical and community practitioners, while our PhD program prepares students to become social work researchers, educators or policy experts.

The profession of social work, like many professions, fits very much into the University vision: to be “a great private university dedicated to the public good.” The mission of our profession is to improve the human condition, which means we’re training students in a myriad of ways to impact changes, with a strong social justice approach. For example, I’m working on the issue of health and behavioral health disparities. Looking at health in this country is based on number of things, such as access and quality of service; there’s not just one answer. Health issues in society must be addressed thoughtfully, not politically.

Q: How do you describe the value of collaborating and offering cross-disciplinary programs with other University schools and departments?

A: We have three established dual degree programs: students can earn an MSW together with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from the Sturm College of Law, a Master of Arts degree from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, or a Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Arts in Specialized Ministry (MASM) or Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree through a cooperative program with the Iliff School of Theology. Additionally, as our dual degree program is flexible, students can also choose, for example, to earn a degree from the Daniels College of Business.

These programs fit with what we try to do at the University: think about addressing larger societal issues. Addressing these challenges can’t be done within a singular discipline. Collaboration across campus allows to us to strengthen knowledge.

The Resource Center for Separating & Divorcing Families is a great example of this type of collaboration. A four-member partnership among GSSW, the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, the Sturm College of Law, and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the center addresses the scope of challenges families face while going through a separation or divorce. It’s not just about the legal aspect; it’s also about social and psychological interactions within the family, the welfare of the children, finances and more. Each piece is complex; it would be short-sighted for a single discipline to attempt to address the full scope.

Q: Tell us about the collaboration between your Institute of Gerontology and the new Knoebel Center for the Study of Aging.

A: The Institute of Gerontology has been part of our school for many years, and we have a number of faculty members who focus on aging. I co-chaired the initial committee to explore ideas for the Knoebel Center, prior to the University receiving the gift from Betty Knoebel, as it was a natural fit for us as a profession. We look forward to partnering with the new center; we know that many of the issues related to aging aren’t exclusively about biomedical engineering and medical. There are issues concerning social isolation, mental health, productive aging, etc. That’s where social work brings expertise to the research and service delivery agenda. In order for the center to be comprehensive, the social sciences need to be incorporated.

This is also an exciting opportunity for us to partner with engineers and the other biological and physical sciences. Our academic partners are usually within the social and psychological sciences, but here we’re thinking beyond the usual. For example, if engineering were to develop a mechanism that supports physical independence, social work can provide services that support changes the individual may face, such as how it impacts daily living and their social support network. These types of interdisciplinary partnerships will help to make DU a world-class university.

By Katie Watt

Posted March 9, 2015


Q: Given the challenges facing higher education today, what are some things GSSW is doing to stay successful? What differentiates you from your competition?

A: We have several signature programs that set us apart. Our nationally known Butler Institute for Families enhances the well-being of children, youth and families through research and evaluation, professional development and organizational capacity-building.

The Bridge Project is a social service agency embedded into GSSW that serves children, youth and families in four Denver public housing neighborhoods. We’re helping to break the cycle of poverty by preparing children to be successful academically. The Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) addresses the critically important relationships between animals and people through research, training and education, technical assistance and advocacy. IHAC is the first program of its kind within a human services academic setting.  

Our new MSW curriculum also sets us apart from other graduate social work programs. We now offer eight MSW concentrations, and our students begin their specialization after just two quarters of study, rather than having to wait until the second year as more traditional programs require. One of our new concentrations focuses on health and wellness; the wellness component and non-traditional medicine are topics that most MSW programs don’t include, emphasizing mainly traditional Western medicine and hospital social work.

We are also growing in the areas of internationalization and global practice, which fits nicely with where our students want to engage. This generation of students doesn’t want to just sit in classrooms; they want to experience hands-on learning. We currently offer global practice courses and internships in many countries around the world including Bosnia, China, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Switzerland. Our three certificate programs are innovative aspects of our MSW curriculum. These programs enhance our students’ future employment opportunities by providing in-depth knowledge in a social work specialty. We offer certificates in Animal-Assisted Social Work, Couples and Family Therapy (offered in cooperation with the Denver Family Institute) and Social Work with Latinos/as.

Additionally, our field education program sets us apart from most of our competitors. While all MSW students complete internships as part of their education, our students play an active role in selecting their internships, rather than simply being assigned to them as is typical of most MSW programs.

Our two off-site MSW programs in Colorado, the Four Corners program in Durango and the Western Colorado program in Glenwood Springs, were developed based on what the local communities perceive as their areas of need. These programs enable students to earn the MSW degree in or near their home communities, without traveling all the way to Denver. In Durango, the program has a special focus on social work with Native Peoples communities, and in Glenwood Springs, the community has asked for support in workforce development in behavioral health.

Q: Tell us about the One Health emphasis. Is DU a leader in this area?

A: I would say we are a partner. One Health connects the health and well-being of humans with that of animals and the environment. Our professor and American Humane Endowed Chair, Andreas Rechkemmer, serves as an officer with the Global Risk Forum, where One Health is the major focus.  

Our work in One Health has given us the opportunity to develop an MSW concentration in sustainable development and global practices. The Institute for Human-Animal Connection is also able to benefit; for example, they look at how protecting species on the planet relates to human welfare.

We’re also looking into developing internships at the Global Risk Forum, where we can send students over summer to work around these One Health issues. It’s a growing initiative, and it’s valuable for social work to be engaged.

Q: Talk to us about the field education program.

A: Our field education program has a national reputation for quality and for the variety of opportunities we offer our MSW students. We have relationships with more than 600 agencies nationally and internationally, and continue to build relationships over the years. Not all the agencies are large, well-known organizations; we also have partnerships with smaller groups who are doing really good work.

Our students have the opportunity to put classroom learning into practice immediately because they typically take courses and complete their internship at the same time. There is this move towards competency-based education, and our field education opportunities provide exactly that. Our partners within the agencies evaluate students’ mastery of skills based on observation.

Q: What do you want people to know about GSSW?

A: We have many established programs embedded in our school, which give us community exposure and provides wonderful educational experiences for our students, such as our focus on internationalization. This has become a strong focus at DU, especially at the undergraduate level, and we strive to bring it to the graduate level within our own school. One way we’re promoting it is with our Global Practice Bosnia, a cross-disciplinary program where students travel to Bosnia for an eight-week internship over the summer.

We also have a new center, the Center for Effective Interventions, that does work in the Rocky Mountain region implementing evidence-based practice.

Additionally, Professor Heather Taussig, GSSW’s associate dean for research, is the program director for Fostering Healthy Futures, which works with adolescents on developing positive outcomes. She brought this program to GSSW when she joined our faculty last fall.

Finally,I want to reiterate that GSSW represents the overall vision of DU very, very well – public good. It’s in how we educate our students and how we go about interacting with the community. Many of our faculty and staff members do a lot of work in the area of public good, and we have strong relationships with CCESL (DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning) and community organizations. We take DU out into our community and translate the University’s vision into action. Lastly, GSSW is a very highly ranked school of social work with the MSW program ranked in the top 11 percent of all MSW programs in the country.

By Katie Watt

Posted March 17, 2015