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March 14, 2003


LA CROSSE, Wis.—An answer to the La Crosse area’s regional shortage of professionally trained social workers is in sight with the recent accreditation of the Viterbo University Social Work Program. The program was granted four-year initial accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education in November 2002.

"I’m so pleased that the Council granted our accreditation. Our social work program is not only strong, but it meets a regional need. Part of the reason we developed the program was to meet a defined need for social workers in the southwest corner of Wisconsin," said Deb Daehn-Zellmer, director of the Viterbo Social Work Program.

The accreditation team cited Viterbo University for it’s "impressive" and "extensive" 1997 regional survey that still holds true today. The survey, performed by Daehn Zellmer, explored the need for professionally trained social workers in La Crosse County and the 24 surrounding counties. Among the 384 social service agencies surveyed, 56 percent of the agencies responding found it somewhat or very difficult to fill their growing social work job vacancies—48 percent of which required a bachelor’s degree in social work and certification.

One of the factors contributing to this shortage is the lack of accredited programs in our region. In 1997, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse closed its social work program, which had historically graduated 30 students each spring. Outside of La Crosse, the closest social work programs are at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and Winona State University. Within Wisconsin, the closest social work programs are located in Madison and Eau Claire.

Another contributing factor in the shortage of social workers is the enactment of Wisconsin legislation in 1992 that required individuals applying for certification to have a social work degree from an accredited program or face additional course work to attain certification.

"Add to this, a range of social problems that are prevalent in the region—including an aging population, child abuse and neglect, domestic abuse, and increased marginalization of low-income families caused, in part, by Wisconsin’s welfare reform program—and the need for a regional, accredited social work program becomes obvious," said Daehn Zellmer.

In one of many letters of support for Viterbo University’s new Social Work Program written in 1998 by area agencies, Philip J. Stuart, the administrator of Tomah Memorial Hospital, said, "Many of the communities around La Crosse are rural communities, and as such, they find it more difficult to attract qualified applicants. I believe some of your graduates come from rural areas and would be willing to ‘go home’ to live and work. A quality program that is close to where we live would help provide us with qualified candidates."

The program has 51 students in it and an anticipated fall 2003 class of more than 18. The first two years of the Social Work Program center on general education requirements and preparatory courses in social work, while the last two years concentrate on specialized social work courses including social work practice, theory, policy, and research. Students in their final semester complete 30 hours a week of field experience in a social service agency where they get "hands on" exposure to social work.

Its unique features include small class sizes allowing faculty to personally know each student and place them in internships based on their individual professional development needs. In addition, the program has an extremely strong collaborative relationship with the professional community. Representatives from local agencies serve on the Viterbo’s Social Work Advisory Council, share their expertise in the classroom, and offer job shadowing experiences and internships.

"We hear from agencies that have students from multiple programs that they see our students as being very strong in values and ethics," said Daehn Zellmer, adding, "We actually have agencies calling us and asking to be developed as a field site."

For more information/interviews, contact Deb Daehn Zellmer at 608-796-3728 or

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