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Kendal Carswell figured he would live somewhere warmer by this point in his life, maybe Florida.
But time and again he’s been drawn back to his western Kansas roots, because of his daughter, job opportunities or, now, his grandkids.
“I’ve tried to leave four times,” Carswell said, “and then I’ve ended up back in western Kansas. I know this is where I am going to stay.”
The trouble is, that’s not the case for very many western Kansans who, like Carswell, become licensed social workers. Of about 4,000 licensed social workers in the state, fewer than 200 work in the state’s western half, according to figures collected by the Kansas University School of Social Welfare in 2010.
That’s the big reason the KU school this month launched a new yearlong Master of Social Work program based in western Kansas, the state’s first such program west of Wichita. It's a “blended” program that mixes online materials with occasional classroom time, an educational model that KU leaders say is one major plank of their strategy for online learning. And it will also aim to correct the state’s east-west imbalance, producing highly trained social workers for an area that needs them.
“We’re hoping to do a good thing for Kansas,” said Mary Ellen Kondrat, dean of the KU social welfare school.
Over time, graduates of the program could bring help to elderly residents, children who’ve been maltreated or need assistance in school, people fighting drug addiction and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, among others.
“There won’t be a glut of social workers anytime soon,” Carswell said, “but we will eventually start meeting the needs of the agencies.”
KU hired Carswell, a faculty member at Fort Hays State University, to be coordinator for the program. He grew up near Hays and has worked for years as a therapist, counselor and supervisor around western Kansas. He already knew most of the 18 students in the program’s first class before they enrolled, having taught them or worked with some of the same clients.
Over the years, he said, he’s watched many people go to Wichita, Lawrence or Kansas City to earn a Master of Social Work degree, which is generally required to be a social worker at a mental health center, in a school or in some medical facilities. Once they’ve headed east, he says, they often find a job near their school, or maybe get married out there.
“And they just don’t return,” Carswell said.
He can recall several of his students who followed that path, some of whom could even speak fluent Spanish, an invaluable skill in some of the southwest Kansas towns that Carswell says may be in the most need. But once they had to leave to get that MSW, they didn’t come back.
Meanwhile, in western Kansas cities such as Liberal, Carswell has watched social-work jobs sit unfilled for a year or longer.
The hope is that people can get that degree while still working and living at home, they’ll stay. And that’s where the “blended” nature of the KU program comes in.
The KU social welfare school has already offered blended MSW programs based in Lawrence and Overland Park since 2009, said associate dean Steve Kapp. Students do much of their learning online, meeting in person perhaps every other weekend.
“People that are going to school have really busy, full lives, and full-time jobs, and kids and families,” Kapp said. “And a blended program gives them an opportunity to get an education that they don’t have in a traditional setting.”
Instructors for the western Kansas program will be experienced social workers from the area, with Kapp and other KU faculty setting the curriculum and providing training.
Students go to class every other weekend at either FHSU or Garden City Community College, KU’s two partners on the project. The two classrooms are connected by a video feed.
The first class of students is a mix of experienced social workers seeking the additional credential of a master’s degree and fresh Bachelor of Social Work graduates. Many want to become therapists, one plans to provide counseling for people leaving prison, and another plans to help a hospital in Goodland open a new dialysis clinic that will save people with failing kidneys from driving to Hays several times a week for treatment.
For future classes, KU will also look for people with degrees in other fields looking to switch to social work as a profession. Carswell, based in Hays, is spending much of his time on the road looking for those potential students right now.
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little visited Garden City and Hays on June 22 for celebrations of the program’s kickoff.