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Demand up for licensed social workers; UND provides distance learning

Chart: social work students

DEVILS LAKE -- When Dennis Meier decided to pursue his master's degree in social work in 2007, he enrolled in the distance-learning program offered by UND's Department of Social Work.

Earning a master's degree this past May, he now serves as regional supervisor of child protective services the Lake Region Human Services Center in Devils Lake.

And he did it online, while working full-time most of the time.

"Everything was online. I'd go to UND Chester Fritz Library to get articles and books for the papers I had to do. But the majority of the learning process was online."

UND was the first fully accredited online master's-degree social work programs in the nation.

The demand for licensed social workers is growing both nationally and regionally, as more and more people qualify for public assistance, especially in rural areas.

"We really see ourselves in large degree as a rural program. Our mission is to serve the rural areas," said Thomasine Heitkamp, professor and social work department chairwoman.

UND now enrolls 105 students in its social work master's degree program. The students live in 19 different states, as well as the District of Columbia and Canada. The program has two divisions:

- Foundation program, for graduate students without undergraduate degrees in social work.

- Concentration program, an advanced generalist master's program that features specialized content for students with undergraduate degrees in social work.

UND also has about 180 students in its bachelor of science social work program.

"Our advanced generalist program is conducive to rural practice," Heitkamp said. They learn how to look at budgets, to work with families, from womb to tomb, as we like to say. They also learn the importance of being creative in how you work with the resources they have."

The North Dakota Human Services Department funds a child welfare stipend program that encourages students to practice in rural areas.

Heitkamp said the program is working. One master's graduate recently moved back home to Hettinger County to work. Other recent grads have gone to Barnes and Traill counties, where they grew up.

UND program leaders work with county social service directors all over the state, trying to match graduates with their needs.

"I'm very direct. I encourage students to think about rural practice," Heitkamp said.

She said there's a growing demand for social workers in the oil patch of western North Dakota, especially in the Williston and surrounding area. The majority of social workers there are nearing retirement age, so there's a challenge of replacing them, along with meeting the needs of a growing population.

In Devils Lake, the Lake Region Human Services Center serves six counties -- Benson, Cavalier, Eddy, Ramsey, Rolette and Towner counties, as well as the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations. It serves about 2,200 people annually in that 6,756-square-mile area that has a population of about 43,000.

Meier, the Devils Lake native, said he was skeptical of the online, distance-learning education.

"I think it's always best to be in a classroom, for interaction," he said. "But I found it was real conducive to learning."

Through the computer screen at his home or office, he could interact with instructors at UND, as well as with students from all over the country at the same time.

"The instructors at UND made the difference," he said. "They have good instructors that promoted classroom discussion. They had the skills to teach online."

He originally was a criminology graduate at UND. Later, he earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Minot State University before pursuing his master's degree from UND.

"I just realized that criminology was not the field I wanted to be in," he said. "Criminology is correctional. It wasn't what I was best suited for. Social work, to me, is helping people building on their own strengths and advocating for people who need a hand."