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UGA to award first dual master’s degrees in social work, public health

Social Work and public health dual degree graduates group-h
(From left:) Ciera Schoonover

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia is awarding its first dual master’s degrees in social work and public health at commencement ceremonies Dec. 13 in Stegeman Coliseum.

The social work and public health dual degree program, established in 2011 through a partnership between the School of Social Work and the College of Public Health, is the first of its kind in Georgia.

Five students are receiving the degrees: Alethea Chiappone of Marietta, Rebecca Dallas of Decatur, Ilana Olin of Atlanta, Matthew Ottenweller of Baton Rouge, La., and Ciera Schoonover of Charleston, W.Va.

The dual degree program is designed to prepare health professionals who can bridge the gap between intervention at the individual level and prevention for entire populations. Those with the degree have the skills to lead health promotion efforts in fields such as HIV/AIDS, child welfare, and gerontology.

Fewer than 40 social work and public health dual degree programs are offered nationwide, while demand for integrative health and social work training continues to rise. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 34 percent employment growth by 2020 for healthcare social workers-which is faster than the average growth for all occupations.

The dual degree is offered to graduate students accepted into both the full-time clinical concentration at the School of Social Work and the health promotion and behavior concentration at the College of Public Health. Students in the UGA program take courses in both disciplines at the same time, unlike students in dual degree programs elsewhere, and can fulfill their social work and public health field placement requirements, known as field practicums, at the same agency.

The integrated approach “helps students see how the two disciplines can work hand-in-hand,” said Trina Salm Ward, the program’s first joint-appointment faculty member. Ward, who splits her responsibilities between the School of Social Work and the College of Public Health, will oversee the program beginning in 2014.

For their field practicums, the graduating cohort served with organizations that deal with sexual assault, cancer, trauma, late-life depression and child maltreatment, among others. The practicums provide direct experience in developing the interpersonal skills needed for social work and the analytical, “big picture” skills useful in public health careers, said Trisha Reeves, the associate professor of social work who has directed the UGA program since 2011.

At the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression in Atlanta, for example, Olin assisted psychiatric nurses during intake interviews and created and evaluated a walking club and chair yoga program for elderly residents living in an independent living facility in Atlanta. She also co-facilitated an early memory loss support group which served individuals diagnosed with a variety of dementias including Alzheimer’s disease.

“My social work education aided me in working with older adults with cognitive impairments, while my public health training was useful in educating these individuals on proactive activities to slow the progression of memory loss,” said Olin.

Other students provided counseling assistance to individuals and families and assessed the health and social service delivery systems of the organizations for which they worked. At Families First, an Atlanta area non-profit devoted to families and vulnerable children, Ottenweller provided psychotherapeutic services to individuals and families and also examined the effectiveness of the programs that Families First offers.

“The classes I took on epidemiology and biostatistics provided a helpful foundation for the program evaluation work I’ve done at my internship,” said Ottenweller. “I’ve been able to conduct more rigorous and meaningful analyses than I would have otherwise. Those have translated into more informative feedback for program management and increased funding opportunities for the organization.”

The new graduates, said Reeves, will be able to address both individual and societal concerns with a high level of competence. “Over and over, I hear from my faculty colleagues in public health that our students are among the best in their classes and that they help to raise the bar,” Reeves said. “We are very proud of them.”

For more information about the social work and public health dual degree program, see