It was quite an undertaking when the University of Denver decided to open a master’s program for social work in Durango.
And no one saw that more intimately than Wanda Ellingson, the Durango-based director, who has been there guiding it from an experiment through a growth that saw the program celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2012.
Ninety-six students have received their master’s degrees to date, with another 23 scheduled to graduate this spring.
Along the way, it has broken ground in providing rural long-distance graduate learning, including a partnership for Fort Lewis College students. Forty percent of the students come from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, including 13 Native American tribes. The program has developed one-of-a-kind crosscultural classes and a Native Peoples Advisory Council to meet the special needs of people in the Four Corners.
Which led to an adventure for Ellingson, who had been corresponding via email with Australian Catholic University on its social work curriculum for aboriginal peoples. When considering what do for her sabbatical, Ellingson decided some real crosscultural experience seeing what her counterparts in Oz were doing was the ticket, and off she went.
It was quite an adventure from beginning to end.
She lectured and studied at the Brisbane Campus, was the keynote speaker at the end-of-year aboriginal student gathering and had a chance to meet numerous elders. Overall, she was struck by how the school made the study of the First Peoples, as they call them, the foundation of their curriculum.
And she toured, toured, toured. First up in the Brisbane area, visiting the Lync Haven Rainforest Retreat, then off to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and, everywhere she went, aboriginal research and cultural centers galore.
Then it was down to Sydney for more interaction at the university’s Strathfield Campus.
Ellingson’s trip also proved the adage that it matters who you know. She finished the Australian leg of her adventure in Melbourne, where her childhood best friend from Decorah, Iowa, Debra McDougall, now manages the box office at the Melbourne Theatre Arts Center.
People from all over the world were traveling to the city for Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the demanding four epic opera cycle.
It’s a massive undertaking for a company to stage all four – “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” – at the same time. The most famous place where that happens is Wagner’s own Bayreuth Festival in Germany. (Seeing it there, all four nights and 15 hours, is on my bucket list.)
McDougall’s connections meant that Ellingson not only had tickets to all four operas, she had backstage access, tickets to dress rehearsals and an all-round epic experience of her own. Melbourne was “Ring crazy,” she said, and it’s clear Ellingson caught the fever.
She also enjoyed the William Rickets Sanctuary, with art dedicated to the First Peoples.
Then she was off to Oahu, Hawaii, to catch up with an alumna of the DU Four Corners program.
Curielle Duffy was a social worker at Mercy Regional Medical Center when she earned her master’s degree, and now she’s using it to do what she dreamed of when she began her studies – working with veterans who are dealing with psychiatric and social issues as they return from war. The DU program is adding a class on just that subject to its curriculum this semester, and Duffy will be Skyped in to share her experiences.
Patti Ellisor held the reins here in Durango while Ellingson was on her sabbatical, then immediately retired upon her return. The retirement celebration took place Monday at Eno’s.
Ellingson’s Australian experience isn’t over. Aboriginal elders are working with social work professors to rewrite the curriculum for all the schools of social work in Australia, and Ellingson has been asked to review it.
It was sabbaticals all around for the household in 2013. Ellingson’s husband, John Condie, who is a professor of biology at Fort Lewis College, spent his spring sabbatical at DU studying neurobiology – perhaps not as exotic, but I’m sure it adds to the classroom experience for his students.
It’s easy to take for granted how talented people in Durango are, and how unique many things here are, but this is one program and one woman that demonstrate that in spades.
Cancelling their birthday trips to warmer climes (because who needs them?) are Savannah Safran, Linda West, Lyn Hanson, Kris Coleman, Doug Miller, Brooklyn Moore, Kaitlyn Duffy, Darren Wales, Samuel Kidd, Trudy Mickel, Thomas Boness, Marsh Bull and Marlene Gebhardt.
When the members of Chapter FX of the Philanthropic Educational Organization sold 1,300 poinsettias for the holidays, it meant only one thing. More money for scholarships!
The group gave its fall semester scholarship to Rachel Alber, who coincidentally is earning her master’s degree from the University of Denver’s Four Corners Graduate School of Social Work in June. (It’s amazing to me sometimes how stories often work out like that within a single column.)
Chapter members Ann Widmer and Marcie Bray presented the check at the club’s December holiday gathering.
Women can qualify for loans, grants and scholarships from the organization, which has four chapters in Durango – BR, CS and IT in addition to FX. At least a couple of chapters give scholarships to recipients of GED diplomas from the Durango Education Center, and others help students attend Fort Lewis College and Southwest Colorado Community College.
P.E.O. International has awarded $235 million to women in support of their educational endeavors since its founding in 1869. It also supports its own junior college, Cottey College, in Missouri.
Our local chapters have contributed their fair share to that total, raising the money the hard way by holding bridge parties, selling nuts and poinsettias and organizing a world class rummage sale, among other activities.
It’s work that goes mostly unheralded and unnoticed, but it has made a real difference in a lot of women’s lives.
So consider this a heralding – thanks for all you do, P.E.O. sisterhood.
Enjoying drinks with little umbrellas in them for their balmy January anniversaries are Stephen and Donna Bowles and Shep and Sarah Shepherd.
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An earlier version of this story contained several errors that have been fixed.