Interview with Kalea Benner, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW - Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs for the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky

About Kalea Benner, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW: Kalea Benner is the Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at the University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work (COSW). As Associate Dean, she oversees program development for the COSW, manages curriculum development, hires and supports faculty, and oversees student advising, recruitment, and admissions. In addition to her role as Associate Dean, Dr. Benner is the Director of Graduate Studies for the COSW.

In her scholarly work, Dr. Benner’s research interests include developing social work practitioners who are prepared for the complexity of SUD prevention, intervention and recovery. Her work emphasizes inter-professional education and program efficacy, particularly as they relate to student learning, reflecting her value of multi-disciplinary perspectives on student success. Before entering academia, Dr. Benner practiced clinical social work, specializing in the intersection of mental health, family dynamics, and child abuse and neglect, and ran her own private practice for several years.

Interview Questions

[] Can you tell us about your academic and professional background?

[Dr. Benner] I’m a licensed clinical social worker with my practice experience squarely centered on child welfare, namely at the intersection of mental health and child abuse and/or neglect. I’ve loved the versatility of my MSW because, as my family grew, it allowed me to transition to positions that helped support my work-life balance. At one point, I opened my own counseling agency, which operated for several years before I accepted a position as a school social worker. Experiences in that position made me realize that the more I learned, it seemed the less I knew, so I made a decision to get my Ph.D. Working in higher education has allowed me to continue my passion for social work by helping to educate the next generation of social workers. My current role as Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at the University of Kentucky (UK) really embodies that passion. I’m able to work with students, with future practitioners, while at the same time, I’m ensuring the curriculum prepares those future practitioners to best meet their clients’ needs. I’m privileged to be in this role.

[] Can you describe the University of Kentucky’s Master of Social Work program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students for a wide variety of social work roles in settings ranging from integrated behavioral health care to military and gerontological settings?

[Dr. Benner] The MSW program at UK prepares practitioners who are uniquely poised to address client needs across all spectrums. The advanced generalist curriculum encourages students to have a bifocal approach to client needs–to be able to see the immediate, personal needs of clients, but also the more distant, but just as impactful, larger environmental influences. This approach is essential to truly effect change. Students also appreciate the program’s flexibility, which allows them to craft a practice niche, whether it’s clinical practice, integrated behavioral health, substance misuse, child welfare, school social work, or military behavioral health.

Finally, the MSW program licensure preparation initiative is unique to UK and certainly appeals to many prospective students. We are committed to our students, not just in terms of delivering a strong academic program, but also through ensuring student readiness for the next professional step: licensure. The pass rate for our graduates leads the state and is among the highest in the nation.

[] The University of Kentucky offers its MSW program in several modalities, including an online format. Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that this program uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty? What technologies and structures are in place to support online student learning both in and outside of the classroom?

[Dr. Benner] We appreciate that our students choose UK for the path to their future. Our faculty and staff have been deliberate in crafting a program that engages students throughout the MSW program. I love that so many of our faculty instructors are licensed social workers and have practice experience. That helps bring the content to life for our students. Our program is available to students with any degree, with the advanced standing program for those who have a BSW and meet GPA criteria, and the regular standing program that is available to students regardless of the discipline for their undergraduate degree. The online program is 100% online and completely asynchronous so that students can take UK home, wherever that may be.

[] Students of the University of Kentucky’s online MSW program may also complete certificates in Clinical Social Work Practice or Substance Use Disorders, to further specialize in their desired area of advanced social work. How do these certificates prepare students optimally for advanced roles in Clinical Social Work and Substance Use Disorders treatment?

[Dr. Benner] Our students have a variety of reasons as to why they chose social work (or for some, why social work chose them). Many students express interest in clinical social work, which can take a variety of forms, including counseling and mental health, integrative behavioral health, substance misuse, etc. The University of Kentucky MSW program is designed to have flexibility so that students can build an in-depth knowledge base to fuel that passion and subsequently apply that learning in a practicum setting. The certificates are designed for that very purpose, allowing a depth of content related to the student’s specific interests that also comes with an academic credential on their transcript.

[] All students of the University of Kentucky’s MSW program must complete at least two practicum courses. What do the Foundational and Advanced Practicums require, and how does the field placement process work for each? What kinds of faculty/peer support do students receive during the completion of their field education requirement?

[Dr. Benner] All students must complete a practicum in the MSW program. The practicum helps students apply and integrate their learning so that the requisite knowledge and skills are developed in the program. Each student will have field advising that prepares, and supports, them through the process of identifying an agency appropriate to their learning needs and career goals. Students in the regular standing program will have nine credit hours of fieldwork for a total of 900 hours in a practicum setting, while students in advanced standing will have six credit hours for a total of 600 hours in a practicum setting. Social workers are ethically bound to be competent in their practice, and practicums are an excellent way to build that competence through the integration of practice and knowledge.

[] How do faculty members of the University of Kentucky’s Master of Social Work mentor students throughout their enrollment? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities, and outside of faculty advising what other support structures are in place to help students?

[Dr. Benner] An important aspect of any graduate program is engaging with faculty. Our faculty have a wide spectrum of social work interests from suicidology to counseling to policy implications to rural wellbeing. In addition, we are the only College of Social Work in the country to host the breadth and depth of specialized learning through our centers and labs. Engaging students not just in content but also with faculty who are fiercely determined to address urgent and emergent social needs is key to career preparation that fuels your passion. Our commitment to our students is grounded within the context of meeting the needs of their future clients, so we must provide every opportunity for our students to be successful. Always, in all ways.

[] For students interested in the University of Kentucky’s MSW program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Benner] In order to apply to UK’s MSW program, our prospective applicants will submit an essay identifying the goodness of fit with social work. Writing is important in graduate school, so students should be sure to edit and consider reading the application aloud to ensure the structure and content is as the student intends. The student is also asked for a writing sample regarding an ethical dilemma that the student has experienced. Finally, I would also recommend students choose references that reflect the student’s ability to succeed in graduate school. Applicants should avoid friends or long-standing personal relationships and I should note that an academic reference is required if a degree has been completed in the last five years. Other good sources for a reference might be supervisors, employers, or someone who would have professional knowledge of the applicant.

[] What makes the University of Kentucky’s Master of Social Work program unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Benner] UK is a great home for a social work degree. Each of our faculty and staff is invested in engaging students in the curriculum and ensuring our alumni are appropriately equipped to become efficacious social work practitioners. From the first point of contact to graduation, we are committed to our students’ success. I would encourage all who are interested to check us out.

Thank you, Dr. Kalea Benner, for your excellent insight into the University of Kentucky’s Master of Social Work program!