MRU unveils Bachelor of Social Work Degree as Albertans cope with pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed cracks in our society as vulnerable populations face profound challenges involving health, grief, loss, finances, housing and child care.

In the midst of this upheaval, Mount Royal University is excited to announce that the Government of Alberta has approved a four-year Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). The degree has also been awarded pre-accreditation status from the Canadian Association for Social Work Education.

Social work challenges structural systems that contribute to discrimination and marginalization while helping people develop skills and resources for better lives. As the world marks Social Work Month in March, this year’s theme is especially relevant: Social workers are essential to community well-being.

"Social workers are essential workers and this pandemic above all else has demonstrated that social workers are positioned to help develop and strengthen connections between people. The BSW is something our employment community and our students have all asked for," says Dr. Yasmin Dean, PhD, chair of the Department of Child Studies and Social Work at MRU.

Mount Royal has been providing social work education for more than 60 years with its popular two-year Social Work Diploma, which will also continue to be available to students.

"There is a great need around the world for more social workers," Dean says.

Community partners have shown they agree, stepping up to provide practicums to MRU social work students and recommending focuses within the degree to make sure it meets the needs of vulnerable people and communities.

Unique program to address community needs

The new Bachelor of Social Work was built in consultation with government, non-government organizations, a program advisory committee, alumni and students. Courses in social work practice, theory, policy and research are grounded within contemporary theoretical frameworks, including decolonization, Indigenous ways of knowing, anti-oppressive practice, and strengths perspectives. The BSW, which allows students to participate in practical learning right away, will prepare students for practice with individuals, children and families, groups and communities in complex social settings. The degree reflects current practice and education standards at the provincial and national level including the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Calls to Action.

"The Faculty of Health, Community and Education encompasses a wide range of disciplines, but at the heart of them all is a desire to help people, families and communities," says Dr. Stephen Price, PhD and the faculty’s dean. "Social work embodies this and it’s why we are so proud to bring this degree opportunity to our students and have our graduates work with and in communities where they can help."

MRU’s BSW is unique in that it permits direct entry to a four-year degree program, an option that does not currently exist in Alberta. It will also be the first program in Alberta to offer a child intervention concentration, joining B.C. and Ontario, which have similar specializations.

"Thousands of families a year are involved with child intervention in Alberta. Having social workers who are specifically trained to support this population, facing some of the most difficult challenges families can face, is a unique pathway and it’s one we know for which there is a significant and ongoing need " says Dr. Peter Choate, PhD, program co-ordinator for social work at MRU.

"We will be the only program in Alberta offering a four-year degree that allows students to specialize in one of the most demanding and important areas in the lives of Albertans."

In Fall 2021, the BSW will admit 35 students into the first year, along with 25 students into the post-diploma program. High school applicants and mature applicants will be considered. Graduates from accredited social work diploma programs in Alberta can apply to the third year of the BSW. The program will build over four years to admit 60 students annually. Demand is high. Between 2015 and 2019, there were an average of 6.5 applicants for every one seat in the diploma program. Upon graduation, students  will be eligible for registration with the Alberta College of Social Workers.

What drives social workers?

Young woman using laptop with students watching and smiling.

Mount Royal is known for having instructors with practical experience in the areas they teach.

The purpose of the BSW at MRU is to transform, change and meet the needs of all Albertans. That work is captured in the program’s mission statement: Transformative education for exceptional social work practice.

"There is an opportunity for social work to bring attention to the experiences of individuals and communities and support the need for change," says Dr. Gaye Warthe, PhD, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Health, Community and Education.

That voice highlights injustice, oppression and pressing social issues. Despite Alberta’s privilege and wealth, representation from diverse populations remains elusive, as do opportunities for diverse and non-traditional learners.

"Alberta’s always been this unusual mix of advantage and disadvantage and social work has some unique opportunities and obligations in this province. Having another perspective, the Mount Royal BSW perspective in social work education is a tremendous accomplishment," Warthe says.

"Mount Royal attracts so many non-traditional learners because of our small class sizes and our unique style of personalized learning. The learners we attract should have the opportunity to complete their education at Mount Royal where they started. MRU is really an opportunity for those learners who would never get an opportunity elsewhere."

For Dean, the option to pursue a social work degree directly as an undergraduate student is of great benefit.

"I wanted to be a social worker from the time I was about 16 and when I went to university I was so frustrated that I couldn’t start right away into the social work program. When I look back at my time as a university student, knowing what I know now as an educator, I am envious of our students in the diploma program because they are able to jump right in first year and learn to be practice-ready."

Similarly, students coming into the first year of the BSW can determine how they feel about social work and what fields they want to concentrate on so they can focus their planning and understand the connection between courses they are taking as an undergraduate student and the kind of work they want to do.

"Suddenly geography becomes a whole lot more interesting when you start understanding that as social workers we can look at where disasters are happening around the world and what the risks are of them happening again. We can be much better positioned to help individuals and communities," Dean says.

'Social work picks you'

Krista Andrews began working as an administrative assistant for a social services organization after high school. It was there she was exposed to the important role social workers play and was inspired to go into the career herself. She graduated from MRU in 2008 with the Social Work Diploma and now supervises and provides support and leadership to a team of social workers.

"There is a saying amongst social workers that you don’t pick social work, social work picks you. I believe this is true for me," Andrews says. "When I was working as a secretary for social workers I thought I had an idea about what they do. After going to school, what I realized was that on the surface I knew what they did, I just had no idea why they did it. I now recognize that is key to truly understanding how it is done. I learned that words matter, that policies can help or hinder, that social justice, social action and community development are the foundation of what we do, and that advocacy is sometimes the toughest and most fulfilling part of the role."

MRU is known for having instructors with practical experience in the areas they teach.

"This is invaluable to social work and will go a long way in ensuring (social work students) receive the highest quality education," Andrews says.

Tim Hilton, a current MRU social work student, says many of the attributes of MRU as a whole also make it an excellent place to study social work.

"At MRU, the faculty know who you are," Hilton says, who hopes to enroll in the BSW himself, pursue a master’s degree and work as a forensic social worker for a few years before teaching in a university setting. "You’re not a number and you’re not another unfamiliar face. They believe in you, in your education and in your future. That’s not only true for the social work faculty, but for every faculty member I’ve had the pleasure of being in a classroom with. I can say without a doubt that MRU and the social work program has changed my life in the most beautiful way."

Social work cuts across demographics and reaches into every corner of our society.

"There is no family or person in Alberta who will not at some point be touched by meeting a social worker," Choate stresses, "whether that’s at the hospital when their baby is born, whether that’s in an old-age home when a parent needs care, in school because their child is struggling with relationships, in the mental health system, in the criminal justice system. There is no part of the community that social work is not involved with."

March 16, 2021 ― Peter Glenn

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