Social Work programs expand to meet growing need
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Wendy Bowersox turned a negative year into a positive one by returning to college.
After 20 years in social work, it was time to get a master’s degree after being passed over for a promotion because she lacked a graduate degree, she said.
More importantly, it was time to plot a future where she could make an even wider positive impact on society after the year’s pandemic challenges and economic and social unrest.
“My heart is ending poverty and specifically homelessness. The only way to do this is get involved and the way to get involved is through social work,” said Bowersox, who entered Grand Canyon University’s Master of Social Work program last spring.
A year after MSW’s launch at GCU, the University announced plans recently to add a bachelor’s degree in Social Work in the fall as offerings expand in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to meet increasing demand.
March is Social Work Month in the U.S., and social work is one of the country’s fastest-growing professions. Nearly 800,000 are projected to be employed in the field by 2028, according to the National Association of Social Workers.
The undergraduate degree gives GCU students a continuity in programs should they decide to pursue a graduate degree, said Dr. Kathleen Downey, Director of Social Work.
Downey said the world is rapidly changing and change requires advocates; at the heart of social work is advocacy.
“I think people are recognizing that social workers are not just do-gooders, the way they used to be seen before the profession was elevated with licensing,” she said. “There is a perspective in social work that can make a difference in the life of a person.”
Social work covers a wider swath than individual therapy to include the community, organizations and government policy work.
GCU expanded its faculty last year as the program grew. It’s an important part of a Christian university, Downey said. “Social work was born from Christianity.”
Added CHSS Dean Dr. Sherman Elliott: “There is a growing need for social support in our society that requires a variety of levels of care. Our new social work programs provide entry-level professionals the opportunity to make the teachings of the Gospels actionable in the lives of those in need.”
Bowersox, who works fulltime at Southwest Behavioral and Health Services in Tempe supervising 30 adult individuals with severe mental illness, is studying toward a future in social policy work.
“Every time the social workers are a part of government there have been significant changes, such as in Social Security and labor laws,” she said.
At age 45, the evening classes have helped her refresh her skills and share new ones with her work staff. In a chat room with fellow GCU students, she has been able to share her experience and get different views from younger generations, including a 22-year-old student.
“I think the increased interest (in social work) is coming from the shift from younger generations, who want more equality in this country,” she said.
Students in the MSW program balance work and evening classes but still bring a “fiery passion for helping others and a commitment to serve those in need,” said instructor Dr. Julie Orme.
They are filling roles vital to our culture.
“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for social workers to address systemic inequalities and mental health challenges around the globe has never been more critical,” Orme said.
Sophomore Lena-May Haught isn’t looking at the entire globe right now. Instead, she’s focusing on what she sees in rural Arizona.
Haught, who will continue at GCU in the undergraduate program in the fall, said she saw a lot of difficult family situations and lack of resources or education in the rural areas around Prescott, where her family worked on a ranch.
“I saw that I could be someone who can step into that gap and help the underserved,” she said. “I’m trying to bring my social work background into agriculture.”
Haught said many in the agriculture sector have traditional ways that are positive – working hard to face challenges and appreciating more than just money. But she wants them to better understand people of various lifestyles and backgrounds and not be resistant to change.
For example, older men were resistant to accept her ability as a young girl on a ranch before she proved them wrong.
She hopes to one day start a nonprofit that includes bringing children in foster care into agriculture, perhaps even a group home out in the country.
“I grew up in a community where the entire family works alongside each other; it wasn’t just dad providing for us,” Haught said. “We were out riding and gathering cattle alongside him. That is empowering to know you have the ability to accomplish tasks you had no idea how to do because your livelihood depends on it.”
As such, social work can bring people together of many backgrounds and help them understand each other and grow.
“In social work, instead of being defined by your pain, you are defined by your strengths,” she said. “It’s such a dynamic approach that is not common in the world today but needs to be more common.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.