Accreditation gives social work boost

When the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point social work program received official notice in June that it had been granted accreditation, there was no popping of champagne bottles, no boisterous celebration on the fourth floor of the Collins Classroom Center.
“We’re all so scattered during the summer,” said program director Amy Boelk.
Don’t mistake the lack of a party for a lack of excitement: accreditation is a big deal. The culmination of four years of hard work by a wide-ranging group of faculty and staff, accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) places a prominent stamp of approval on a program training workers for a     fast-growing career field.
“Our whole department played a role in it,” said Boelk. “The department made a commitment to develop this social work program many years ago and to work collaboratively on it. We wanted to fill a unique niche in this region.”
Social work at UW-Stevens Point  started in 1992 with a Native American and Rural Social Work minor spearheaded by professor Sonny Smart. In 2010, the department formally began working to earn accreditation.
The process involved documentation, curriculum and policy changes, site visits from CSWE representatives and an expansion of the program’s field work requirements.  Faculty, staff and administrators from across campus were involved, as were social service professionals from the local community.
This hard work will yield immediate dividends for graduates of the program. “It has a lot of benefits for our graduates,” said Boelk. “When they come from an accredited school of social work, they can more easily get licensed or certified as social workers, so it makes them more employable. Also, students can obtain their master’s degree in social work in one year, more quickly than they would with a different undergraduate degree.”
The social work curriculum did not need a dramatic overhaul to meet CSWE accreditation standards. The Native American and Rural Social Work Minor was initially designed with accreditation in mind, so curriculum changes were limited to the addition of one class and expansion of the field experience requirement to 400 hours.
Students are placed in a variety of organizations, such as  Big Brothers Big Sisters, Portage County Health and Human Services, Community Care of Central Wisconsin, and area health care providers and nursing homes. They are placed in programs that serve a wide variety of client populations including children and families, youth, people with mental health issues, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, older adults and veterans.
“It’s important for this line of work that you get out there and have mentoring and supervision before you have a job on your own,” said Boelk.
To coordinate the field education program, Jess Bowers has been hired as a third social work faculty member. Bowers brings field experience to the position, having worked most recently in child protection for the Marathon County Department of Social Services.
“I really believe social work is a superior profession,” said Bowers, a Stevens Point native and UW-Stevens Point alumna. “Being able to prepare that next generation of workers to enter the field is what excites me most about this position.”
Demand for that next generation of workers is being driven by societal development: an aging population, a slow economic recovery, trends in substance abuse and domestic violence. Bowers has seen it firsthand.
“I think we’re going to find some social work shortages in the area, especially with the aging population and also in the areas of substance abuse and mental health,” Bowers said. “Since starting this position I’ve gotten numerous emails from area employers who are looking for social workers, asking me to pass their information along to graduating students.”
According to Boelk, student interest in the social work program has steadily increased in recent years as it moved closer to accreditation. This trend applies not just to current UW-Stevens Point students, but high school students interested in attending UW-Stevens Point specifically for its social work program. Those who complete the program     will be joining a profession Bowers considers vital.
“The true measure of how we assist communities and societies is how we take care of those that are most vulnerable,” she said. “Social work field work takes what we learn about human beings and living with one another and advocating for those who need a voice. Good candidates have that drive and that passion, they want to see that social justice piece.”