The founding director of Durango’s University of Denver School of Social Work campus, Wanda Ellingson, is retiring after 16 years.
Before she started as director, Ellingson helped develop the master’s degree program that was designed to meet the need for highly trained social workers in the area.
“The program has thrived under her leadership,” said Dean Amanda Moore McBride in a news release.
Since the school was founded in 2002, 172 students have graduated from the program and many now work in leadership positions across the region, Ellingson said.
“That’s exactly what we wanted to have happen,” she said.
For example, one graduate just became the director of social work for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and another is running for Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, she said.
Other former students also now work for Durango School District 9-R, Mercy Regional Medical Center and San Juan Regional Medical Center, among other institutions, she said.
The program was the vision of the former dean of DU’s social work school, Catherine Alter, and former DU trustee and chairman and editor of The Durango Herald, Morley Ballantine. Durango’s program served as a model for another school of social work in Glenwood Springs, Ellingson said.
In the early 2000s, the program started developing curriculum specific to Native American history, policy and culture at the request of students.
“We took that very seriously,” she said.
The program has developed three courses to prepare students to work with Native American tribes under the direction of the Native People’s Advisory Council, which includes representatives from area tribes. The most recent class is a 10-day immersion course led by former graduates of the school held on the Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute and Navajo reservations.
“It’s an in-depth look at business and culture,” she said.
Ellingson also developed a partnership with Fort Lewis College that allows students studying psychology, sociology, public health, anthropology and women and gender studies to earn their social work degree in five years.
The school now has additional space to host events and classes for professionals because it moved this year from the third floor of the Commons Building on Camino del Rio to the second floor, a space formerly occupied by Pueblo Community College. The program doubled its floor space, adding a classroom, student lounge and offices.
In addition to leading the social work school in Durango, Ellingson served on the national board of directors of the National Association of Social Workers from 2013 to 2016, representing 10 states and Guam, and advocated for national policy changes, such as higher pay for social workers working in nursing homes.
When she retires at the end of the school year, Ellingson expects to stay involved with the association and continue advocating for the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Ellingson and her husband also plan to join Peace Corps Response, a program that matches former Peace Corps volunteers with international assignments that fit their professional skills. The two served in Nicaragua for two years in the 1970s.
A search committee will select Ellingson’s replacement, a process that will seek input from the community. The social work school will hold an open house from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 26 at 701 Camino del Rio, Suite 217, in which people can offer input about new leadership for the college.
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story misidentified the tribal office that a former student was seeking with the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe. The student was running for tribal council, not tribal chairman.