The heart of a generation fills CHSS social work

The number of Generation Z students who want to be social workers is increasing at GCU.

Sixth in a nine-part series on GCU academics

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

The purpose is to help others.

For the leading edge of Generation Z, it's no trite motto. They are spurring a growth in the number of students studying to be social workers in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University.

“I believe our generation is more about mental stability and being aware of who you are,” said Laura Leon Morales, a senior pursuing a degree in Sociology with an Emphasis in Social Work, which has grown from 40 ground students three years ago to more than 275 this fall. “On social media, people are always asking if you are OK. Our generation is one that depends on each other. I also believe our generation wants to do the right thing.”

For Morales, the “right thing” is “being witness to the injustices in my (Hispanic) community. Many people in my community are disadvantaged and don’t have a voice. I want to be part of that voice that supports them.”

There are several types of social work – child and family, health care, immigration and mental health social work. The needs are great today, and Generation Z, a group that demographers typically peg as born between 1995 through the following 15 to 20 years, are particularly primed for the task.

“I think our growth speaks to this generation wanting to connect with people in the community and to give back,” said Dr. Kathleen Downey, Director of Social Work in CHSS. “This age group is so connected to technology that they are disconnecting from people, so they are searching for ways to connect. They are hungry to connect.”

On a national level, the Council on Social Work Education’s university survey shows an enrollment increase of 16 percent from 2013 to 2017, though a detailed analysis of the year-over-year numbers is forthcoming this year.

Make no mistake, other generations have valued giving to those in need, said Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of CHSS. “With this generation, however, we are seeing a passion at early ages and with deeper commitments to improving the lives of others and society overall.”

They want a job with deep purpose. In a Heartland Monitor Poll, 25 percent of younger people’s priority in their first job is “making a difference,” compared to 11 percent for older generations. And 60 percent of those ages 16-19 in a Sparks and Honey survey in 2015 wanted jobs that “impact the world.”

There are many ways to do that in social work jobs, projected to grow by 16 percent through 2026 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“With all the violence and the issues in our society, social work is on the rise as a job outlook because there are so many ways to deal with it,” Downey said. “Really, social work is about advocacy. It’s about working with vulnerable populations and populations that are marginalized and helping those populations find their voice – not doing it for them, but helping with skills to advocate for themselves if they are able.”

Karolina Dyduch, a GCU senior, said the desire to be a social worker stems from taking care of her five siblings as the oldest.

“I have the gift of advocacy for people -- to get resources to people,” she said. “I like the idea of walking through life with someone. It’s something we all need.”

Downey said enrollment growth at GCU is also related to the University’s Christian foundations.

“The foundation of social work is Christianity. Students interested in social work get that foundation as a part of the curriculum. It’s just a natural fit.”

Dr. Kathleen Downey, GCU Director of Social Work

Another strength of GCU’s program is going beyond the “micro-level one-on-one focus,” Downey said.

“Social work is about more than that, it’s about policy -- knowing what is going on in the world in social justice and injustice and addressing policy issues that impact social justice.”

Students attend state legislature sessions to observe policy discussions.

“Then one of the ways we want to do it differently is to turn it into application," she said. "Yeah, we know about the policy, but how can we change situations that are based on policies that don’t work or policies that need to be developed?”

Social work was a natural fit for some GCU students.

“People are always spilling out their life stories to me. You go with your gifts,” said Ashton Rogers, a GCU senior. “Some of us will be giving up security but might be more gratified because of who we are on the job.”

Rogers is talking about the reality of social work: It’s not the highest paying job. The median income in 2018 for a social worker in the U.S. was $49,420 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I started out in business. It was all about the money,” said Brendan Selby, a senior. “I felt like I wanted to do something more helpful and fulfilling. People my parents or grandparents age are more about stability. It seems like this generation is more about you don’t have to be stable but just make enough money to pursue what you want. It seems like a fulfilling path.”

Downey has noticed the same with many in Generation Z.

“They are not interested in cars. They are not interested in material things,” she said. “Their phones? Yes. Their electronics? Yes. But not really anything else. They are not contributing to the financial dysfunction that exists in our country.”

Johnathon Wistuber doesn’t want to discourage others from social work with salary talk. He graduated from GCU in 2018, quickly landed a social worker job and said you can rise in the ranks with hard work.

But it’s still the heart of his work that counts most to him. He remembers the exact moment he decided he wanted to become a social worker. He was in a class two years ago and was handed a bracelet that read, “Imagine A World Without Hate.”

He was abused as a child, he said.

“It’s what I went through, that hate,” he said. “I thought I could do something. Society is calling for it. The world needs help right now.”

He has worn that bracelet ever since, even as he investigated child abuse with the Arizona Department of Child Safety, where he has seen tragic situations.

“I don’t look at it as this horrible thing but this good thing instead,” he said. “If I hadn’t gone out to that house, that child would still be getting abused.

“(Social work) pays in another way.

“It pays in soul.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: How Jesse Dalla Riva became a guiding light

GCU Today: On the job: GCU focused on career-friendly degrees

GCU Today: Mental health awareness just in time for finals


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