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Madeline Phipps

MSW graduate Kari Gray forges a new path with the school social work certificate

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By the time Kari Gray (MSW ’19) began work on her degree at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, she had already experienced more professions than most of us will in a lifetime. From grief and loss counseling to advocating for individuals in drug and alcohol court, to teaching a kindergarten art class, Gray has had the benefit of helping people at all different stages of life.

“I’ve felt drawn to the helping professions for as long as I can remember,” she says. But in most of the jobs she has tried, Gray grew frustrated by limitations. “I became a teacher and experienced firsthand the systems that are in the way of teachers doing what they are trying to do,” she explains. “I felt like there were some interventions I could provide, but it also made me realize the limited access to interventions I had, especially when teaching a class of 40 kindergarteners.”

Kari Gray

Equipped with a master’s degree in education and her previous experiences, Gray realized she needed additional training to make a difference in students’ lives. She decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work at DU, in part because of the research output she saw from faculty members.

“Before I was even accepted, I contacted Professor Anthony Fulginiti because I was interested in his research on suicidality,” Gray says. As it turned out, the connection was kismet — last year, she worked as his research assistant on a project that seeks to decrease suicide risk by strategically using social networks.

In addition to being involved in a variety of research projects, Gray has been able to experience the world of school social work firsthand through two different internships, first at Strive Prep Smart and then at Vertical Skills Academy. Her time at both schools has served her well as she pursues GSSW’s new school social work certificate.

“This year I got to start the school social work program at Vertical Skills Academy, a nonprofit private school for kids with dyslexia,” Gray says. “They’ve never had a mental health professional, so it’s been a wonderful experience because I got to present them with the benefits of having someone in my role.”

Because the school has a small student population, Gray has enjoyed getting to know everyone, from students, to teachers and even parents. “Some students I meet with every week and others I meet with every month, but I also work with the whole school a couple of times each week in small groups,” she says.

“I’ve been able to take a systems approach by having involvement in all aspects of the school, and I feel like I’ve made a difference for this group of folks,” she adds. Gray also conducted a research project before, during and after her internship to see how well she met the expectations of students, parents and teachers as their school social worker.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that Gray has a long list of ideas for what might come next. “I have a lot of interests, and I would really like to be able to combine my experiences and skills, so I think being involved in schools will be part of my future,” she says.

"That's what I love about social work — it’s honing in on a skill set but also having that systems mindset and approach. It’s really the best of both worlds.”

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