Texas Border Business
By Victoria Brito Morales
LAREDO, TEXAS – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and The University of Texas System Education and Research Center at Laredo (UT Center at Laredo) have announced an expansion of a collaboration to offer degrees in social work.
UTRGV and the UT System established a Memorandum of Understanding to expand UTRGV’s social work program both at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the UT Center Laredo.
Dr. Janna Arney, UTRGV provost and executive vice president, and Adriana Nunemaker, director of the UT Center at Laredo, met April 28 in Laredo for a ceremonial signing of the MOU. The ceremony formally announced the partnership, which officially took effect March 15.
Arney said UTRGV is proud to be represented at the UT Center at Laredo.
“To help support Laredo’s need for quality and affordable education in this high-demand field, we have done what we really do best,” she said. “We come together, and we work together. We collaborate with our local and state partners to create opportunities for advancement.”
She said Laredo is seeing a need for more social workers at a critical time.
“As we prepare for our post-pandemic world, the need for more emphatic, compassionate and competent social workers is greater than ever,” Arney said.
Nunemaker, too, said the region is tremendously under-served in healthcare, and especially needs social work support.
“The value UTRGV brings to our community is substantial, and its prestigious School of Social Work is second to none,” Nunemaker said. “We are always in desperate need of more healthcare workers, and I am happy to say that our students will be receiving the most valuable education from this wonderful university.”
Nunemaker said the partnership was made possible by the vision of Sen. Judith Zaffirini, Texas state senator for District 21, and UT System Chancellor J.B. Milliken. Zaffirini sponsored the bill that established the center.
The 87th Texas Legislature in 2021 approved the establishment and operation of a multi-institution center in Laredo to host educational activities, engage in community outreach, and conduct and facilitate research in the health professions, including social work.
The program stipulated in the MOU is funded for two years, with the option to renew. Each year $350,000 is allocated for the program to hire faculty and staff for the program.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
Since 2009, UTRGV and Laredo College have had a partnership to allow students to attain a bachelor’s degree in social work. The partnership initially was established through UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American, and has continued under UTRGV. With the new MOU between UTRGV and the UT Center at Laredo, students now will report to the UT Center at Laredo for classes.
UTRGV’s partnership with Laredo College will continue, as the students from Laredo College are the primary pipeline. Students will complete their first 30 credit hours at Laredo Community College, and then can seamlessly transition to UTRGV to finish their bachelor’s degree in social work while at the UT Center at Laredo.
“The UT Center at Laredo has committed the space to accommodate our faculty and staff,” said Dr. Luis R. Torres-Hostos, professor and founding dean of the UTRGV School of Social Work.
“We have realistic growth projections to expand the in-person bachelor’s degree in Social Work, expanding our accelerated online program for master’s degrees in the next two years,” he said. “We plan to offer the master’s degree in-person here, as well. The opportunities are tremendous, as the program continues to grow and fill a gap in service in Laredo.”
Fifty-two students from Laredo have completed the BSW degree, and 57 have graduated from the graduate program since 2009. Graduate students in Laredo take UTRGV courses via ITV at Laredo College. Currently, there are 10 undergraduate students and 13 graduate students in the program located in Laredo. The goal is to double enrollment numbers in the next five years.
“The idea is to have our graduate program in Laredo be a cohort model, which means that the group is admitted together and go through the program together,” Torres-Hostos said. “This makes sense logistically, when considering scheduling classes and efficiently allocating other resources like advising and field education. And it’s also beneficial for the students because they’re going through this experience as a group, with built-in support.”
Dr. Denise Longoria, associate professor and director of Online Programs and Distance Learning in the UTRGV School of Social Work, agrees support is essential when one considers that many students are nontraditional and not full-time students.
“The cohort model allows them to support each other,” Longoria said. “Obtaining a master’s degree is often a huge undertaking because they work and have families, and they are still expected to meet the demands of a graduate education.”
The growth of these social work programs is expected to create a need to establish partnerships within the community that can provide an enriching learning practicum experience to achieve graduation goals.
“Even though we’ve graduated a good number of both bachelor’s- and master’s-level students, many agencies still don’t have social workers,” Longoria said. “I think part of that is that people still don’t always understand what a social worker is or does. We are finally starting to see agencies recognizing the importance of hiring a licensed social worker.”
For more information on the UTRGV School of Social Work, visit utrgv.edu/socialwork.