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Western Kansas social workers granted access to master's program




Skilar Winder knew she wanted to be a social worker. From the time she was in a car accident, lost her job due to the injuries and experienced a violent relationship, she knew.

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Skilar Winder knew she wanted to be a social worker. From the time she was in a car accident, lost her job due to the injuries and experienced a violent relationship, she knew.

But, being from Osborne, she didn't have many opportunities to pursue her passion.

"Osborne is a town of 1,500," she said. "There wasn't really much to offer. I applied to Washburn in Topeka for my master's, but then realized it was a three-hour drive each way."

Fort Hays State University began the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare Advanced Standing Program in June 2013 in order to provide western Kansas with a master's of social work program.

"I was really fortunate to have this program fall into my life," Winder said. "I really think I've been given the gift to have the basic skills of caring and advocacy, and wanting equality and justice in the world. A lot of the challenges I have faced have really created understanding and empathy within myself."

The program, which allows students to graduate with their master's degree in one year, graduated its first 15 students in May.

"The program was made possible through an agreement with FHSU, KU and Garden City Community College," said Kendal Carswell, director of the KU Western Kansas MSW Program and assistant professor of social work at FHSU. "It allows individuals in western Kansas to complete their MSW without having to leave western Kansas."

The degree is awarded by the University of Kansas but taught on the campuses of FHSU and Garden City. Classes are designed in a blended format, so students take the majority online with seven face-to-face classes per semester. These classes are taught Saturdays.

The accelerated program is only available to those with an undergraduate degree in social work, and a traditional two-year degree also is available. The upcoming fall semester will be the first for the traditional MSW on the FHSU campus.

According to 2010 data from the Behavioral Services Regulatory Board of Kansas, out of the approximately 4,000 social workers in the state of Kansas, less than 200 live west of Salina.

There are only four programs in the state of Kansas -- KU, Washburn University, Newman University and Wichita State University.

"There aren't enough licensed professionals to fill all the needs," Carswell said. "They have to either recruit people from eastern Kansas or other states. Then those folks get to western Kansas to get experience and then go back home. Western Kansas is a culture shock to them, and then they leave. These agencies invest a lot of time, money and energy into training these folks. If we can educate them here, grow our own, there's a greater likelihood they will stay in western Kansas."

Seven counties were represented in the graduating class, the majority nontraditional students.

"There's such a lack of access in western Kansas," Carswell said. "Often (the students) are in the field before deciding to go on for their master's, with the expectation to drive a couple hundred miles each way, going weekly if it's not in a blended format. This new program makes it more accessible, affordable and helps with workforce development."

Mindy Greene, Goodland, has been in the workforce for several years prior to beginning the program.

"I had wanted to get my master's degree for a while, but there really weren't any opportunities unless you wanted to pay pretty heavy money to do completely online," Greene said. "I needed to get my master's for work, so just by coincidence, they offered this program in perfect timing for me."

As a mother of three and full-time employee at Goodland Regional Medical Center, she said the journey was difficult.

"We had to change things up to survive," Greene said. "I learned I don't need to do everything myself. It's a good reminder I'm part of my own family. We're doing this together."

Krysten Watkins, Larned, also needed her master's to advance in her career at Larned State Hospital.

"It was a very difficult program and took a lot of people to help get me through it," she said. "I'm very appreciative of KU for giving western Kansas a chance."

Carswell said KU alumni in western Kansas have been supportive and provide funds for the program.

"I'm very thankful for this program," said Jessica Sherfick, Hays. "I enjoy helping others and giving ... back to the community. It's a great feeling to help others and see their smiling faces when you do something for them or empower them to do something for themselves."