Unique UNCG/N.C. A&T partnership gives grad students best of both campuses

Despite locations four miles apart and being part of the same university system, creating the Joint Master of Social Work Program (JMSW) between North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was no small undertaking.

After years of preparation and continual fine-tuning, students have been able to participate in a diverse learning experience in one of the most unique social work programs in the country for nearly 20 years.

Unlike some master’s programs in which a student might attend Campus A full-time but take some classes at Campus B, students accepted into the JMSW program enjoy full access to programming and facilities on both campuses. Upon completion of the program, graduates earn a diploma bearing the seals of both universities.

Even more unique is the degree program itself, which specializes in a multicultural clinical approach to social work, said JMSW Director Jeffrey Shears.

As it says in the JMSW mission statement, “multicultural clinical practice recognizes the culture, history, and identities of all peoples with emphasis on people who are oppressed, marginalized, and traumatized, as well as contemporary patterns of social, economic, and health inequalities. This knowledge is applied in establishing culturally sensitive therapeutic relationships that promote resiliency.”

“Nationally, we’re the only social work program in the country between an historically black university and an historically white one,” Shears said. “That gives our students a pretty unique experience. They take classes and are integrated into the culture of both campuses.”

Lindsay Reynolds, a recent graduate of the program, said the diverse atmosphere of taking classes on both campuses helps give students practical experience working with different cultures.

“Even when you are job-searching, there’s a huge emphasis on multicultural experience,” she said. “There are endless amounts of different cultures, and you really learn that as part of the JMSW experience.”

Program history

Planning for the JMSW goes back to 1982, when the social work undergraduate faculty from both campuses met to discuss creating the graduate program. At the time, there were no other joint master programs between two UNC campuses, nor were there any joint master of social work programs in the nation to use as blueprints.

Just because both campuses had the same goal in creating the program didn’t mean the transition would be seamless, however. Finding an equilibrium was no easy task, according to Betsy Lindsey, the JMSW admissions coordinator who has been with the program since its inception. Each campus has differences in admission standards, tuition, and fees. Those issues had to be resolved before admitting the first class in August 1997.

Lindsey explained, “Everyone applies to the UNCG graduate school. The faculty makes the decision on admissions, and then we randomly assign the students to N.C. A&T or UNCG. The tuition is equalized – that was something that had to happen.”

Students are randomly assigned to one of the campuses to help in terms of registration, billing and record-keeping, in order to split the work between both universities. But the program is so integrated that in the long run, students show up in both campus systems.

The UNC Board of Governors approved the JMSW program in 1993. In 2000, the JMSW program received accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education, and has been fully accredited ever since.

Student experience

Beyond having an assigned campus, there’s no difference in the student’s experiences. Students take classes at both locations from faculty at each campus.

Jeffrey Shears, director of the JMSW, said the program continues to be refined. For example, he has tried to schedule courses so that students don’t have to commute back and forth between both universities in a single day.

While the program initially started out to prepare advanced generalist social work practitioners, it has since evolved its focus to a multicultural clinical practice. That approach is especially appropriate given that N.C. A&T is was founded as the state’s historical black land-grant university and UNCG began as a women’s college.

Reynolds, who attended Purdue University as an undergraduate, discovered the program after her husband got a job in Winston-Salem.

“There were a lot of benefits, like being able to use the libraries on both campuses,” she said. “There are good teachers at both schools. Both campuses have older and newer buildings. I liked some of the older brick buildings at UNCG, but I also liked some of the newer computer labs at N.C. A&T.”

Through the JMSW program, Reynolds did an internship with the VA hospital in Salisbury.

Though the JMSW program started out as a two-year program, it has since added a one-year program for students who already have advance standing in social work. The JMSW program is currently retooling a three-year master’s degree program designed for part-time students.

Currently, the program has 90 students, making it one of the largest graduate programs at both UNCG and N.C. A&T, according to Shears.

Model of efficiency

Since the creation of the JMSW program, the UNC system has added joint degree programs in other disciplines among its 16 university campuses. UNCG and N.C. A&T have since created a joint school of nanoscience for master’s and doctoral students. UNCG offers the program in nanoscience, while N.C. A&T offers a graduate program in nanoengineering.

With efficiency as a key theme in the Board of Governors’ strategic planning process, joint degree programs give students more options and allows UNC campuses to stretch their resources by working together.

“Of course, efficiency is an important consideration, especially if courses and resources can be shared in a manner that permits positive outcomes for students and the departments,” said Kim Van Noort, vice president for academic programs, faculty and research. “We’re trying to do the most we can with what he have and consistently expanding that, and interuniversity cooperation makes it possible.”

In addition to increased efficiency, Van Noort said joint programs tend to be very high quality, since they offer the best of both campuses.

 “The interactions that are required when you are building a collaborative program, the interactions of faculty from different institutions can be incredibly beneficial overall in that new ideas are generated, people see different ways of doing things,” she said. “ Processes are examined more closely because when you have to take two different business systems and somehow make them work together, you’re going to have improvement no matter what you do, because you have to re-think why you do things a certain way.”

Shears said he talks with other universities across the country who look at his program as a blueprint for joint programs.

“I consult with other joint programs across the country; everybody wants to do it,” he said. “It makes sense to conserve resources. It just makes sense not to have two graduate programs in Greensboro, with the campuses four miles from each other.”