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Degree in empathy: New master of social work aimed at helping a region in need

In fall 2021, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Weber State University will offer a new Master of Social Work program. The program comes as a response to an increasingly-urgent lack of qualified social workers in the region.

Social Work Student Appreciation Event. April, 16, 2019
Utah has a pressing need for social workers to care for communities. Photo credit: Courtesy of

Some factors that make the need for social workers in Utah a pressing issue include a sudden and exponential rise in population, a growing Latinx community with specific social needs, an opioid crisis and more general problems of frantic modern life.

Utah State University and Utah Valley University also created similar programs in recent years, which got the attention of Mark Bigler, professor and chair of the department of social work and gerontology at WSU.

Bigler said a report by the Medical Education Council from 2016 really got their attention.

“It showed that social services and all the things that social workers do professionally, especially at the master’s graduate level, those needs were rapidly outpacing the number of new social work graduates,” Bigler said.

The report also showed that Utah only has 209 mental health providers per 100,000 people — the national average is 311.

Bigler had also heard similar concerns from community partners who take interns from WSU’s existing social work program.

“They had positions that were open but couldn’t fill them because there weren’t people who had the right training,” Bigler said. “Particularly in the areas of mental health and substance abuse treatment. They just couldn’t meet those needs.”

Bigler also noticed that, while students could choose to go to elsewhere in Utah to pursue a master’s program, many enter this field specifically because they want to stay near and care for a community they have always known.

“What we began to understand is that students were saying, ‘this is my home, this is my community, I want to put my roots down deeper here,’” Bigler said.

For some students, having the program in Ogden isn’t just a matter of convenience; it’s a matter of dedication to the town they love.

While social work students care deeply for their own communities, Bigler said it also takes a global perspective. He said this work takes concern and empathy for society.

Many students are drawn toward social work degrees due to their caring natures and find a greater sense of purpose.

“I do get personal fulfillment from what I do,” said Eduardo Franco, a recent graduate of Weber’s social work bachelor’s program and now a TRIO Talent Search advisor at Ben Lomond High School.

Talent Search, one of eight federal TRIO programs, aims to increase the number of disadvantaged teens who complete high school and helps prepare them to enroll and succeed in postsecondary education.

Franco explained that since he’s working with and helping students, he knows the struggles and stressors of making these decisions.

“Being able to help them with that gives me hope,” he said.

Students who wish to join the program for fall 2021 may apply through WSU’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences by Dec. 1.

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