October 28, 2021

At the School of Social Work, students are increasingly given unique opportunities to help design significant and sustainable models for social change. Take the career-shaping experience of two recent MSW graduates—Reed Klein (MSW ‘21) and Emily Roskey (MSW ’21). 

For 19 months while completing work toward their graduate degrees, Klein and Roskey provided critical research and data analysis that helped lead to the funding and launch of an innovative statewide behavioral health initiative, which brings together higher education institutions, community-based agencies and tribal health centers to address a statewide crisis in mental health care for low-income individuals and families.  

Known as the Washington State Behavioral Health Workforce Development Initiative, the effort was funded by a $24.8 million gift from Ballmer Group based on a proposal developed by School leadership. Launched in 2021, the initiative will expand the number and diversity of highly skilled social workers and mental health counselors by providing graduate students at 13 participating universities across the state with generous two-year grants in return for serving three years in community-based behavioral health agencies. The initiative also links higher education programs with local agencies to help ensure the best fit for the students through mentorship and career placement guidance.

Critical to the proposal development were the contributions of graduate assistants Klein and Roskey. Working under the guidance of a senior member of the School of Social Work’s project development team, they collected data; interviewed community agency staff, social work students and professionals; and helped define the current landscape of the state’s behavioral health community. Their research provided compelling evidence that documented the transformative potential of a workforce development program that involves key stakeholders in the success of students. 

Klein, who grew up in Kirkland, Wash., characterized his role as a “point person” for questions pertaining to community agencies and tribal centers critical to the state’s behavioral health system. Massachusetts native Roskey focused on the educational side of things. Both found their experiences enriching and life-changing.

“The assignment gave me the opportunity to practice some of the skills I was learning in the MSW program,” said Klein, “such as how to address issues of equity or design better program evaluations. I learned how to project manage and coordinate tasks with stakeholders who have conflicting interests. I’m now more confident about translating technical regulations and data for a general audience.”

Expanding diversity within the state’s behavioral health workforce was a central tenet of the School’s proposal and a top priority for the funders. Roskey collected data on students, career trajectories and current workforce diversity, which was not an easy statistic to find. Throughout the research process, she learned the importance of patience and diligence. “On any project, there will be road blocks sapping your energy and motivation,” she said, “but you have to maintain focus. For me, I continually went back to Dean Eddie’s vision to keep me on track.”

Both students received unexpected “bonuses” from their work on WDI. For Roskey, the research opened her eyes to the depths of passion and dedication that exist in the field. “I remember one meeting that I had with mental health counselors,” she said. “I thought to myself: These people are so amazing and dedicated, and they wear so many hats. I was humbled and grateful to be a part of it.” 

Klein discovered how system change actually happens. “I used to think most system change happened at the governmental or policy level,” he said. “While there is no doubt that political and policy changes are needed to address the systemic issues in our society, my WDI research showed me that there is a lot that institutions and providers themselves can do—if they have the right structure and funding.” 

Both students were able to leverage their newly honed research skills after their June 2021 graduation. Roskey’s job with the Highline School District uses “data analysis and research to develop programs,” she said. “I meet with students, provide access to mental health screenings and refer them to treatment. A lot of my day is spent looking at data and seeing how we can better use the findings to serve our students.” 

Klein, who just wrapped up a job as a Native American inquiry researcher with the state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families, knows his WDI experience is a huge asset. “When I started working on the grant program,” said Klein, “I found out I loved working in research and developing community health innovations.”