Editor’s note: When Walter Kisthardt, Ph.D., Professor of Social Work at Park University, acknowledged the resilience of his Master of Social Work students during the COVID-19 pandemic on a social media post, we asked him to expand on his thoughts. Dr. Kisthardt, who will retire at the end of this academic year, offered the following words.
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated changes on many levels, not the least of which has been shifting our teaching from face-to-face to online distance learning mid-way through the semester. Our faculty and students did an excellent job of transitioning, especially with utilizing Zoom meetings for synchronous gathering and learning. But, the hardest part for our students was adjusting their experience in their Field Practicum Agency. The students were in the process of developing their capstone project, where they are expected to develop an intervention, deliver the intervention, evaluate the impact of the intervention, and write a paper where they demonstrate an understanding and ability to apply the nine competencies of social work practice.
Many of our students were no longer able to go to the agency. This, quite naturally, created much worry and concern about how this crisis would impact their capstone experience. Students did their best to maintain communication with their Field Instructor, with people with whom they had been working, with their course instructors, all the while attending to many other responsibilities including work and family demands. They also needed to be sure they completed the minimum number of field hours as required by accreditation. Many of the students completed additional learning modules online, writing additional reflection papers, and engaging in other creative alternatives. The graduating students transcended their sadness and disappointment regarding cancellation of May graduation and adjusted and adapted in a professional manner.
Having taught at three universities over a span of 35 years, I can truly say that Park’s students are very special. Our students are driven. They are often the first in their family to earn a college degree. They are proud, they are hardworking, and they are loyal. Between 2006 and 2014, many of our Bachelor of Social Work graduates stated that they would have preferred to remain at Park to pursue their Master of Social Work (MSW). Many actually waited until we developed our program to come back to Park to earn their MSW. I often thanked that first graduating MSW class of 2015 for taking the “leap of faith” on us. Full accreditation could not be awarded until we had a graduating class where we could assess their attainment of the nine competencies of social work practice.
The social work profession provides graduates with the opportunity to pursue their passion to help others in many diverse ways; as behavioral health clinicians, supervisors, administrators, working with diverse populations as well as working to inform and influence the development of social welfare policies that are inclusive, and which promote social, economic and environmental justice. Our social work graduates at Park University have gone on to make a significant difference in the lives of individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
Over the years, I have experienced many invigorating challenges and gratifying rewards at Park. I developed and submitted a proposal to offer a Master of Social Work degree, and after seven years of proposing the MSW, the proposal was approved. I served as the founding Director of the Center for Research and Training in Integrative Behavioral Health, which was established in collaboration with Truman Behavioral Health, to provide training for persons with the lived experience of mental illness, assess the impact of this training on quality of life and provide continuing education workshops for community behavioral health partners. I served as co-chair of the President’s Commission on Shared Governance. I was honored to serve as a faculty representative on the Presidential Search Committee. Fortunately for Park, an outstanding candidate—Dr. Greg Gunderson—accepted the position.
I leave the University with so many wonderful memories, so many special friendships, and with such affirming feelings. Over the years, I have been driven by my love of social work as a profession and my love of teaching and learning from students. I am blessed to have had supportive family, friends and mentors who have contributed, each in their own way, to all I have experienced and all I have accomplished.