Spring 2011


Pathway to Success

Social Work Offers HSU’s First Online Degree

Teela Robison with Delores Maylassen and her young niece. Teela Robison, manager of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for the Yurok Tribe (right) with Delores Maylassen and her young niece.

HSU IS CHANGING THE way students can earn a degree, thanks to the efforts of the Department of Social Work. Designed to help rural and tribal social workers already on the job, the Title IV-E Pathway Project will offer the University’s first fully online degree.

Social service offices in tribal and rural areas of Humboldt and Del Norte counties are often understaffed because of their geographical isolation. Turnover is high for many social workers from outside the community. Those within the community face hurdles like long commutes to school, full-time jobs and family life.

For students enrolled in the Pathway Project, like Merris Obie, the chance to earn a degree online poses a unique opportunity and challenge. For the past 15 years Obie has been running substance abuse prevention programs, primarily with the Hoopa, Wiyot, Yurok and Karuk tribes.

“I’m a returning student and, after 20 years away, this technology is new to me. I’ve never taken an online class before,” Obie says. “It’s uniquely challenging.”

The new program seeks not only to help people earn degrees, but to also ensure quality service in rural, underserved areas.

Obie, who took time off from school to raise her family, is now in college at the same time as her 23-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter, who is also majoring in Social Work. “I’ve always taught my children that if you’re not part of the solution in your community, you’re part of the problem,” Obie says.

Currently, the California Social Work Education Center at UC Berkeley, the nation’s largest state coalition of social work educators and practitioners, is working with the HSU Social Work Department to move all required classes online. The pilot is funded by grants from the center. Humboldt State, CSU Chico and CSU San Bernardino have teamed up to launch this new program that seeks not only to help people earn degrees, but to also ensure quality service in rural, underserved areas.

“Studies have demonstrated that when we have degree-holding social workers in public child welfare, we have fewer children taken away from their families,” says Pamela Brown, Pathway Project coordinator and professor of Social Work at HSU.

The initial cohort in the project consists of 22 students. Both CSU Chico and San Bernardino have six students each. HSU has 10 students enrolled: five county and five tribal social workers.

Students in the project have their tuition and textbook fees covered and are given tutoring and a mentor for support. In exchange, students agree to work for county Child Welfare or Indian Child Welfare for six months per every 15 units they take.

The program is not just about improving social work in underserved areas, it also aims to build bridges between formal social work education and tribal culture.

Geneva Shaw, assistant director of social services for the Yurok Tribe, earned her master’s in Social Work the traditional way and is keenly aware of the difficulties faced by tribal social workers pursuing degrees. As a mentor for students in the Pathway Project, she helps address the inconsistencies between formal social work and the needs of tribal communities.

“For example, a lot of times our kids are literally in class with other children in our case load,” Shaw says. “This is a relationship in Native communities that formal social work doesn’t consider.”

Shaw says that educating others about the unique, cultural needs of tribal members receiving social services benefits everyone involved—especially tribal members. Cole Cross, an Indian Child Welfare Act advocate, agrees. “Without that understanding of life on the reservation, social workers can actually scare tribal families. A lot of times, our presence can bridge that gap. It can be very spiritual and very cultural.”

Anticipating the success of both the online bachelor’s degree program and the original Pathway Project students, the Department of Social Work is also creating an online master’s degree program, which could launch spring 2012.