In her duplex on the outskirts of Winterset, Iowa, Morgan Newman sits on her couch with her laptop in front of her.
Curled up at Newman’s side is her 10-year-old Dachshund, Sassy. Resting on a chair nearby is a Flexitouch, a medical device that helps her combat the effects of lymphedema—a condition that causes painful buildup of fluid in her lower body.
Newman is a cervical cancer survivor. While the cancer is gone, several aftereffects remain: Numerous radiation treatments caused her to develop lymphedema, back pain, and stomach issues. But Newman’s experience with cancer also left her with a desire to help others navigate issues related to treatment and recovery as a medical social worker.
“I have a passion for oncology because of being a cancer patient,” Newman says. “I see a lot of areas that can be improved. I hope I can bring my voice to the table and put into play things that can make things easier for patients.”
But the full-time dental assistant and social worker-by-appointment for Madison County Memorial Hospital found that her medical conditions made sitting in a classroom for long periods of time difficult and placed a hurdle in front of her obtaining a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.
The University of Iowa School of Social Work offered a solution. In fall 2018, the school launched an Online Master of Social Work program, allowing Newman to pursue her degree from the comfort of her home and while working full-time.
“I don’t have to worry about sitting in a classroom,” she says.
The School of Social Work has made its MSW program available to Iowans for more than 50 years, starting with the Des Moines MSW program in 1967 and later adding programs in the Quad Cities and Sioux City. But Julia Kleinschmit, MSW program director and a clinical associate professor based in Sioux City, Iowa, says there remained a demand to add distance learning programs in other parts of Iowa.
“We know MSW programs are hard to find, especially in non-metro parts of our state,” Kleinschmit says.
Kleinschmit says advancements in technology were key when the school decided to launch a fully online program, which is limited to students from Iowa and surrounding states.
The first online cohort of 27 students includes 21 from Iowa and six others from neighboring states. It is truly a statewide program, with students logging on from communities such as Sioux City, Burlington, Cherokee, Emerson, Montour, and Waterloo.
“I’m excited that we’re reaching people out there in a much broader area,” says Stephen Cummings, distance education administrator and clinical assistant professor in the School of Social Work. “We produce some of the strongest, most engaged, and most prepared social workers in the field. It’s a really big deal that we can continue to do that and help nurture the university’s reputation in new areas of the state.”
The three-year, part-time program is taught by instructors in the School of Social Work, which is in the top 20 percent of social work grad programs in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“It’s the same quality as our in-person program,” Cummings says. “It’s the same professors. It’s the same instructors. It’s the same everything. We’re not bringing in a third party.”
The online program also is equally as rigorous as the in-person program, Kleinschmit says.
“Sometimes there is this impression that an online program is going to be easier than in person,” she says. “That’s not the case. This is challenging, just like our in-person classes are. It’s scheduled differently so it’s more convenient, but it’s just as hard.”
The interactive Thursday evening classes use Zoom video conferencing. When Kleinschmit logs on to teach, she can see all of the students and the students can see her.
“I love it,” she says. “I can see their reactions and they can see mine. We can get guest speakers. We can share and build documents in class.”
The program even allows instructors to divide the class into smaller online group; the group members in turn conference with each other to collaborate on projects.
The program isn’t entirely online, however. Kleinschmit says students in the online MSW program are arranged in geographically distributed learning communities. Those communities meet in person once per semester to go over coursework, share resources, provide support, and help build a “geographically focused professional network,” Kleinschmit says. Each group also is assigned a UI-educated social worker who serves as a mentor.
In addition, students travel to Iowa City for a few days in August to participate in a summer institute. The institute not only serves as an orientation and opportunity to provide cultural competency training for the students, but as a way for students to meet each other and their instructors.
Cummings says the summer institute helps the students feel like they are truly Hawkeyes, even if they aren’t taking courses on campus.
“By midway through the first semester, they’ve got the University of Iowa gear,” he says. “That’s impressive to me. They’re excited to be representing the University of Iowa.”
Samantha Magpie, a case manager and Indian Child Welfare Act coordinator with Meskwaki Family Services on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama, Iowa, says she appreciates that the online program allows her to continue to work while also furthering her education.
“It’s a lot easier,” Magpie, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, says. “I don’t have to worry about taking time off work and being at class. I can work at my own pace.”
Magpie, whose husband is Meskwaki, says she hopes to join the Bureau of Indian Affairs after graduation. She says the online MSW program is preparing her for that career.
“I’m really appreciative of the fact that I’m able to do my schooling online,” she says. “I think it accommodates working people. Everyone has to make a living. I don’t think I would be able to take time off every single week to go to class.”
For her part, Newman says the online program not only helps her learn and study comfortably as she copes with the effects of her cancer treatment, but allows her to continue work and live in western Iowa.
“I have the flexibility to work up until I need to log into class,” says Newman. “I don’t need to be stuck in a vehicle traveling to class. If there’s inclement weather, I’m able to be home and focusing on my studies.”