Social work educators master lessons in diversity
Seventh in a nine-part series spotlighting each GCU college as the fall semester begins.
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
The College of Humanities and Social Sciences has assembled a diverse group of social work educators, and the timing is right.
Grand Canyon University’s new Master of Social Work launched last February, just before the pandemic sent the country into a tailspin.
“What we are doing is building a dream team, really,” said Dr. Kathleen Downey, Director of Social Work. “Each person we add has a little different look to their career path. We are building our team to be diverse in terms of experience, expertise and knowledge.”
Downey, who has 30 years of experience in social work practice and has been at GCU for five years, has helped bring to GCU a team of full-time faculty that includes Warren Terry, Makisha Gunty and Dr. Carlton Huff over the past year. A fifth full-time faculty member is expected to be added in October.
“What we are going through right now, social work is more important than ever,” said Huff, who was hired this summer. “We are faced with things beyond our control, and some of us don’t have the capacity to deal with it. Social workers come into the game, help people understand what they may be going through and help foster understanding so they can deal with what is going on around us.
“It’s not just educating the people who are struggling, it’s educating the public so they can understand why people are struggling.”
GCU launched the MSW to address a growing statewide and national need for licensed social workers.
“Particularly during this time of national crisis, many people are overwhelmed with personal emotional and economic struggles brought on by the pandemic,” said CHSS Dean Dr. Sherman Elliott. “Social workers are change agents that support people through their time of crisis. Our program offers a specific skill set that truly can lend a hand in changing people’s directions.”
Huff comes to GCU from Allentown, Pa., and has nearly 25 years of experience as an educator, researcher and social worker for all ages of clients in hospitals, clinics and other therapeutic settings, at times working three jobs.
“I’ve done that intentionally so I would be able to teach,” he said. “When it comes to getting the most experience, you don’t want to put yourself where you are just working with one population your whole career. We are more generalists.”
The MSW program specializes in an advanced generalist degree, so graduates will be able to work in numerous areas.
“What we teach them translates from setting to setting, population to population to expand our social work into as many settings as possible,” Downey said.
It employs a systems approach.
“It’s not just, a kid is having trouble at school so you only look at the school. It’s asking what was going on at home, at church, in their friend group and what is happening in the community,” she said. “There are all kinds of pieces connected, and the advanced generalist social worker connects to all those different systems and all levels of practice, from individuals to families, groups, organizations and communities.”
The team includes Terry, Field Education Coordinator, who has 13 years of experience in child welfare and seven years in hospital case management.
Gunty arrived in January as an adjunct professor and was hired full-time in March. She has extensive background in integrative care — treating the whole person instead of one aspect, such as only physical or mental. She also has more than 20 years of experience in child welfare, social work administration and behavioral health.
The program’s Christian worldview and generalist specialty were big selling points.
“We all have specializations in different areas, so our skills sets are very complementary to each other,” Gunty said. “There is a really a focus on preparing the graduate for the professional environment they will encounter.”
The program’s versatility drew Iyamide May to GCU as part of the program’s first cohort of students. She knew little of the field, having attained a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising. But after struggling to make a living in New York City and switching to a job helping clients attain services after Hurricane Sandy, she realized “I was more a therapist than making sure the funds were allocated, and after that I wanted to directly help people.”
While later working in the office of the Arizona Attorney General, she interviewed others to find out what field would best help her work with people.
“I had a different perception of what social work was; I didn’t know it was so versatile,” she said. “You have all these different avenues, like public policy or becoming a therapist. I didn’t know they could do that by being a licensed clinical social worker.”
GCU was a perfect fit.
“I love the intention behind the program. Every teacher we’ve had are in a different field of social work,” she said. “I get to see it with each teacher, learning different things and how it applies.”
The program’s growth comes at a time when there is a nationwide surge in college enrollment for social work programs and a projected growth in the number of jobs in the field. GCU’s undergraduate enrollment in social work grew seven-fold in three years, detailed in a GCU Today story last year.
It also comes at a time of social upheaval.
“Social justice has always been an issue, but right now it’s in the forefront,” Downey said. “It gives us the opportunity as social workers to educate communities and not just people who are struggling, but everyone, on what social justice is and how we go about trying to attain social justice for people who are vulnerable.
“As a social worker we don’t take over. Our goal is to teach people to advocate for themselves.”
Huff was drawn by the master’s program, which goes beyond theory to prepare students to hit the field running.
“I’ve always taught this way and trained this way. I want them to be able to use the skills now,” he said. “We want that to happen in the classroom.”
With a background of launching new initiatives, including a ground-breaking program in New York City to allow substance abusers access to services even if they are using, he said GCU is like a “second breath” because it is open to new ideas.
Those new ideas will come in handy in these troubled times.
“I’ve always told my students that we all need support in one way or another,” Huff said. “This world is not set up for us to be a bunch of individuals poking around doing what we think is best. I think there has to be some collaborative ideology on how we perform as human beings, how we perform as neighbors.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
Also in the series:
GCU Today: GCU pledges its allegiance with teachers
GCU Today: CSET programs earn prestigious accreditation
GCU Today: Advocacy and counseling go hand in hand
GCU Today: Counselors face their own pandemic stress