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A Cadre of Counselors
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A Cadre of Counselors

When Ashley Ulibarri was 14, she remembers a social worker showing up to her house after receiving a call about an abusive situation.

“I remember thinking they were coming to save me, but the social worker didn’t believe me,” says Ulibarri, an FLC senior majoring in Psychology and concurrently working toward her master’s in Social Work. “They walked out of there thinking all I wanted was attention.”

The incident propelled Ulibarri, a first-generation college student, toward a future career in social work. At San Juan College, her professors encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at FLC. During her initial meeting with an FLC academic advisor, she overheard another student discussing an opportunity to pursue an MSW as part of a program designed to help students speed up their education, save a little money, and get to work changing the world.

A partnership between the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and FLC, the Four Corners MSW program is open to juniors majoring in Psychology, Anthropology, Public Health, Gender & Sexuality Studies, or Sociology & Human Services. With three years of undergraduate studies under their belts, they can step into this two-year graduate program at the beginning of their senior year. In five years, the “3-2” program not only awards graduates bachelor’s degrees from FLC but also their master’s in Social Work from DU. The best part? They don’t even have to leave Durango.

“I’ve saved about $20,000,” says Ulibarri. “Being a woman who pays for her own education, this was a game changer.”

This work brought me back home.

While DU has offered the Four Corners MSW program since 2002, the formal FLC and DU partnership launched in 2010, spearheaded by former program director Wanda Ellingson. Fueled by her passion for bringing social work skills and knowledge to the Four Corners region, Ellingson has carved out a legacy that now boasts 196 MSW graduates. Of these, 125 serve in the Four Corners.

“The Four Corners has more social work jobs than it has social workers,” says Megan Wrona, assistant professor of Psychology and faculty liaison for the partnership program. “Whether you’re interested in criminal justice, mental health, integrated health care, medical social work, school social work, or child welfare, getting your master’s in Social Work opens the door to multiple job opportunities.”

During their sophomore or junior years, students work with Wrona to make sure they have the credits they need to start the DU program. The program’s 3-2 cohort model is based on a two-year cycle where new students are only admitted at the beginning of each cycle so students move together through the program as a cohort. Cohorts consist of about 20 students, who meet in person in Durango and virtually with Denver-based faculty, who also visit from Denver two or three times a quarter.

Designed for people who live and work in the Four Corners, the training emphasizes helping social workers to meet  needs of regional and tribal communities. For instance, students can take a 10-day immersion Cultural Connectedness course with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, or Navajo Nation. The deep dive exposes students to macro-level services and policies, like tribal sovereignty, governance, self-determination, criminal justice, health care, and other aspects of working with rural and Indigenous social systems.

“This work brought me back home,” says Four Corners MSW Program Director Janelle Doughty, who is Diné and a Southern Ute tribal member.

A graduate of the program’s first cohort in 2004, Doughty moved back to her home community on the Southern Ute reservation to work with domestic violence cases. In 2008, she collaborated with the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office to develop a partnership between federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies intended to help address domestic violence in Native communities.

“How can I make changes at that level?” Doughty says she asked herself. “Now I ask students, ‘what social issues are you passionate about? What kind of change are you looking for?’”

“So much is about pushing yourself, developing your sense of who you are, and exploring your own power and privilege,” says Wrona.

So much is about pushing yourself, developing your sense of who you are, and exploring your own power and privilege.

“In the work we do, the personal is just as important as the professional,” says Cheyenne Bellarosa (Psychology, ‘18). “I look for community and family wherever I go. Whether it’s therapy or another treatment, relationships are everything. We need that level of support, so we can trust ourselves and our skills. For me, this [program] is what home feels like. There are a lot of us floating around who don’t know who we are, and that’s when turmoil can happen. This program, and its leaders, have helped me return to the fact that identity is what grounds us.”

Bellarosa has family ties on the east coast and in southeast Alaska—her mother is an Ashkenazi Jew and her father, who passed away when Bellarosa was 16, was Yup’ik and Aleut. He inspired her to attend FLC and, eventually, the MSW program. Bellarosa graduated last spring and launched her private practice, Beautiful Rose Counseling, in September with Denver’s High Mountain Counseling & Training Institute.

“All the gems I observed in the Four Corners working with local tribes made me want to bring my work to other displaced Natives who are spliced from their traditional ways and cultures and identities,” says Bellarosa. “The Native representation in this program said a lot to me, and the allies along the way, too, who aren’t Indigenous but deeply care about that journey, supporting those voices, and letting go of power to uplift other students.”

“These professors make you believe you’re more than you were told,” says Ulibarri. “That’s what pushes me. I want to be that person for kids when I get into child welfare. I want them to know they’re not alone and they’re worth so much more. All it takes is one person to say the right thing and it can change your life.”

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