It was just a few weeks before Sunday’s Walla Walla Community College graduation, but no one in Curtis Phillips’ classroom at the school showed signs of study fatigue.
Instead, the men and women listening to their professor leaned slightly forward in their chairs, many nodding their heads.
The topic for the day was ethical boundaries, and Phillips was intent on creating an understanding why ethics matter so deeply in the field of social work.
He peppered the discussion with examples anyone in Walla Walla can relate to: It’s a small town — social workers might have to case-manage someone they grew up with. Church is a big influence here, and what if a service needed by a client conflicts with your own religious beliefs? And what happens if your decision isn’t based in religion, but based on race?
What, then, is the ethical choice in such situations? the educator asked his 20 or so students, several raising hands before Phillips could finish his questions.
Phillips is heading WWCC’s debut Associate of Applied Science in Human & Social Services program, launched last fall to help solve the growing need for social service workers.
A year from now, the students in Phillips’ class will don cap and gown, ready for a diploma in human services and an entry-level job.
There’s plenty of room for the eventual graduates, WWCC and Walla Walla County officials say.
“We had been hearing of this need from folks working in, around and out of human services,” said Jessica Gilmore, dean of business, entrepreneurial and extended learning programs at the community college.
Turnover at such jobs is chronically high, and training qualified replacements expensive and time consuming.
“Human and social services is not for everyone. It takes a special person,” she said.
Even better, Gilmore added, is when applicants for those jobs have had exposure to the field through specialized schooling.
The need for social services here and everywhere is rising quickly, Phillips said, and agencies are finding it more advantageous to hire people who can work as generalists in multiple areas.
Historically, jobs in children’s services, juvenile or adult corrections, government welfare agencies, and nonprofits that provide support services have been filled by people who have earned master’s degrees, completed an internship, and passed state licensing requirements.
Not only does that eat up six to eight years, but it takes an “incredible amount of money,” Phillips said.
Not every piece of human services requires a master’s degree, however.
Human services is a far broader umbrella than counseling or therapeutic work — which certainly does require higher education, he noted.
“So it’s not apples to apples.”
As Phillips was creating curriculum for the brand-new program, he researched different agencies to find out local needs.
“In Walla Walla I heard we needed case management,” he said. “That’s an organized way of providing care, usually involving some type of review of the case and client. Then you create a plan to get better and achieve self-sufficiency, make some goals.
“Like what your mom did for you in junior high.”
A human services case manager is often a traffic director of sorts, aligning clients with other resources to make sure all the areas of need are met, Phillips added.
“It’s extremely important for the client, but in terms if time management, you don’t need a master’s level to do that.”
It’s a standard that will spread, he predicts.
“Agencies are thin. To think you can fill every spot with master’s-prepared workers is not realistic.”
Phillips said he cultivated and designed a curriculum to instill many of the tenets of a master’s program into the two-year associate’s degree. He looked to numerous accrediting organizations, such as the National Organization of Human Services, and studied established university programs.
Yuvelki Knipe said she appreciates the challenge of the curriculum mixed with the feedback of other students with different backgrounds.
The 30-year-old is a U.S. Army veteran. Raised in the Bronx in New York City, Knipe came here with her husband, Richard, a native Walla Wallan. Together the couple shepherds four children from ages 3 to 14 in their busy household.
Knipe said she was initially attracted to the WWCC program as a way to help other veterans.
Leaving the Army was “a punch to the face. And when my husband got out, it was a double punch,” she said. “In the military, when you get out, people say ‘You leave here, you’re going to regret it.’”
It was Knipe’s first experience in needing supportive social services and opened her eyes to veterans issues, she recalled.
One year in, however, Knipe finds herself strongly leaning toward helping troubled adolescents upon her graduation.
It fits with the Knipes’ mission to be immersed in and serve their chosen community, Yuvelki added.
Once students have completed the WWCC course, they’ll be able to find jobs at places like Blue Mountain Action Council, Serenity Point Counseling, Lincoln High School and elsewhere, Phillips said.
The scope of their skills will include helping with food assistance, mental health, homelessness and crisis, he added.
The program will average out to about $11,000 for tuition and books for the two years. The jobs students will be eligible for traditionally start at about $25,000 a year in salary, moving on up to $40,000 with experience.
“We’ve got lots of folks saying ‘We can’t wait.’ They are ready to hire our graduates,” Gilmore said.
That’s the one real drawback to this program, Phillips predicted.
“We won’t even be able to produce enough graduates just to meet the regional demand, and that doesn’t even count filling retirement vacancies.”
The program has attracted newcomers to the college and others who originally sought other degrees. Phillips said much of the credit goes to local organizations, such as the Walla Walla School District, which partnered with the college to breathe life into the program.
Guiding this first batch students is a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly, Phillips added.
“It keeps me plugging away at all hours,” he said. “You find yourself responding to the students and the community ... this is setting the stage. This has been something I’ve been working on for a long, long time.”