Interview with Katherine Van Blair, MSW, Ph.D. - Director of the School of Social Work at St. Ambrose University

About Katherine Van Blair, MSW, Ph.D.: Katherine Van Blair is the Director of the School of Social Work at St. Ambrose University. As Director, she oversees program development, student advising, and administration for the School of Social Work. As a practicing family therapist since 1998, and a social work educator since 2001, she has taught across the social work curriculum at the School of Social Work, and most recently has taught courses on the foundations of social work practice, feminist social work, couples and family therapy, ethical decision making in field practicum, and empowerment social work in mental health. Dr. Van Blair has been instrumental in the development of the BSW, MSW and now online Advanced Standing MSW Program at St. Ambrose University.

Dr. Van Blair earned her BA in Psychology and Sociology, her MSW from St. Ambrose University, and her Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University. She focuses on social work ethics and social work family therapy practice in her teaching and scholarship.

Interview Questions

[] St. Ambrose University’s School of Social Work was the first in the nation to create a Master of Social Work program with an empowerment specialization. Could you describe the history and mission statement of the School of Social Work at St. Ambrose University, and how it led to the development of such a unique graduate program? On a related note, when was the School of Social Work instated, and what has been its legacy thus far in spearheading social work education and best practices?

[Dr. Van Blair] Everything we do in the School of Social Work is guided by Empowerment social work practice. We value individual and community strengths as well as focusing on skills that build upon those and support us all. The mission of the School of Social Work and of the MSW and BSW Programs was built from the multi-level intervention framework that is inherent in Empowerment Social Work. The Empowerment Specialization is the focus for the 2nd year of our MSW Program (which is the year that Advanced Standing students join).

The Empowerment Method entails leveraging a community or system’s available strengths, resources, and resilience to produce positive change for individuals, groups, and communities. It is focused on strength, empowerment, and a dynamic approach to the process of empowerment. In other words, empowerment is not static, but is continually in development and as such needs to be maintained and constantly cultivated. While this method was not invented at St. Ambrose University, we were the first institution to offer a Specialization in Empowerment Practice.

[] May we have an overview of St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students for a wide variety of advanced social work roles?

[Dr. Van Blair] The Online Advanced Standing Program at St. Ambrose builds from students’ educational experience in their BSW programs and takes their education to the Empowerment Specialization level. Students gain advanced training in Empowerment Social Work that is relevant to all fields of practice. This model is embedded in all Specialization level courses, which is the level where the Advanced Standing program is focused. So, if you are taking a Mental Health course, it will have an Empowerment Framework to the diagnosis and treatment of all mental health diagnoses included in the DSM-V. While students learn and become competent in the DSM-V mental health assessment and treatment processes, they do so through a lens of strength and resilience for our clients.

Individuals who are often marginalized and experience levels of systemic oppression need mental health professionals with a focus on health and strength. Though the program has one specialization in Empowerment Social Work, students can individually choose their electives to reflect their interests and desired fields of practice. Our graduates secure jobs in in military social work, addictions, trauma, and adult and youth mental health, to name a few, and have taken the courses that lead them in those directions. The Empowerment Social Work Method would suggest that individuals should work at multiple levels, always, so students learn skills in individual, family, group, community, and organizational intervention.

[] What online technologies does St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work use to facilitate interactions between students and faculty, as well as between classmates in and outside of courses?

[Dr. Van Blair] This program uses Blackboard LMS and WebEx technology, and is mostly asynchronous in nature. However, at times faculty might ask for synchronous meetings in order to best impact the students’ learning experience. While there is no on-campus meeting requirement, there is a 16-hour per week field education requirement. Each course will vary based on the learning competencies outlined that are the focus of the course. Faculty will likely have a range of synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences available to students. Using an empowerment lens, faculty are available to students through many different methods such as through office hours, telephone, WebEx meetings, etc.

[] All students of St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work must complete an advanced field practicum. What does this advanced field practicum require, and how does the field placement process work for each? What kinds of faculty/peer support do students receive during their completion of their field education requirement?

[Dr. Van Blair] Students are supported in securing a field placement in or around their home community by our Director of Field Education, Jennifer Boedeker. They will work closely with Ms. Boedeker to ascertain their professional interests and find a placement that meets those interests. Students work at sites that serve individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health services, hospital and hospice social work, and school social work to name a few. Students are not alone in securing this field placement, which is a unique (empowerment based) way that this program supports students in getting a strong educational experience. Students utilize a learning activity log and are evaluated upon completion of the activities that they have articulated. Faculty Field Liaisons and Field Instructors assist the student in developing appropriate activities for the placement.

[] How do the faculty members of St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work degree program mentor and support students during their enrollment? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities? Outside of faculty advising, what other support structures are in place for students? 

[Dr. Van Blair] Students in the St. Ambrose Online Advanced Standing MSW Program are assigned a faculty advisor upon admission to the program. They will work closely with their faculty member to ensure that their educational choices and experiences set them up to secure the social work position that they desire after graduation. Faculty and staff will be available via WebEx, Google Hangouts, or other options as agreed upon by the student and faculty member.

[] For students who are interested in St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Van Blair] Students applying to the Online Advanced Standing MSW Program at St. Ambrose should focus on fully answering the questions posed in the personal statement and be sure that this statement also reflects their writing/communication abilities. Students should choose references that know them well and can speak to all the areas of assessment included in the reference form. Additionally, students should be sure to fully explain how their experiences in field or in social work practice encourage them to pursue the Online Advanced Standing MSW. Students currently in a BSW Program can feel comfortable in applying as long as the graduation date is before the beginning of the Program in the Summer.

[] What makes St. Ambrose University’s Online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in social work practice, research, and leadership?

[Dr. Van Blair] Empowerment social work guides our graduates to use a strength-based, collaborative practice model in order to be effective at intervening at every level of an organization. This unique multi-level intervention skill set guides graduates, not in specializing at one level, but rather in knowing that Empowerment exists when interventions at every level from individual to global are in sync and respect and include consideration for each level. The empowerment social worker does an evaluation that includes all levels of intervention so they can co-create interventions at each level with clients.

For example, empowerment social workers in a school setting would talk with a child and help them build social/emotional skills, visit and explore structural changes that could be made in the classroom, look into resources for teachers/schools for children dealing with trauma, and advocate at a federal level for adequate funding for school feeding programs so that the children do not have to try to learn while hungry. So in this example, you can see that the social worker must work at multiple levels.

[] St. Ambrose University also offers a full-time campus MSW program and a part-time hybrid MSW program. May we have more information on these two programs, and the courses that students take? Furthermore, for the hybrid MSW program, how much of the coursework is online versus on campus?

[Dr. Van Blair] The Full-time and Part-time hybrid MSW Programs are in their 22nd year and include Advanced Standing on-ground options as well. The curriculum for these is articulated on the website. The Hybrid Program is approximately 50/50 on ground and online.

Thank you, Dr. Van Blair, for your excellent insight into St. Ambrose University’s online Advanced Standing Master of Social Work program!