It wasn’t difficult for Professor of Social Work Darlene Lynch, Ph.D., who is the new director of the Division of Social Work (DSW) at Indiana University Northwest, to find good reasons to take on leadership of what is widely considered the most challenging graduate program at IU’s Gary campus.
After all, the Master of Social Work (MSW) program is the only one in northern Indiana, and it serves a region with a terrific need for social workers with advanced skills. Renowned for its commitment to community service and partnership, DSW also has a track record of placing students in rewarding internship assignments that often result in permanent employment offers. DSW faculty members bring extensive practical experience to the classroom, and their unrivaled commitment to their students – and their graduates’ resultant success -- has given DSW at IU Northwest a sterling reputation in Northwest Indiana and throughout the state.
“The faculty members are very committed to the program,” Lynch said. “They are very invested in the students, and they give a lot of themselves. I was very impressed with that. You don’t see that everywhere. I think that makes a big difference in terms of students being successful and completing what really is a pretty challenging program.”
Lynch came to IU Northwest from Ball State University, where she was director of that school’s undergraduate social work program. Prior to that, she spent 15 years at Aurora University’s School of Social Work. She earned her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lynch, who has a background of nearly 40 years of social work practice, was raised near Chicago and did her undergraduate work at the former women’s school Mundelein College. After working for years in Aurora and then Muncie, Lynch said, she wanted to return to the metropolitan area.
Lynch takes over the division from former interim director and Associate Professor of Social Work Frank Caucci, Ph.D., who led the program last academic year after longtime director and Assistant Professor of Social Work Denise Travis, Ph.D., stepped down to return to the classroom.
“There are lots of opportunities here, which is very exciting,” Lynch said. “There is a great need for social workers in this area. We really provide a vital service. The next closest graduate program is at the IUPUI campus. So there’s nothing else in northern Indiana in terms of a graduate program.”
The only other public Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program in northern Indiana, at least for now, is at Ball State. A top priority for Lynch will be to shepherd IU Northwest’s proposed BSW program from the development stage to fruition. The proposed undergraduate program is expected to have strong appeal for local students and should serve as a feeder system for the MSW program.
“Part of what the BSW program will do is grow the MSW program,” said Lynch, who is hopeful the BSW major can get underway within the next one to two years. “There will be some students who will go right into the graduate program. It will bring more students to campus.”
Another goal Lynch has for DSW, one that she said is shared by the profession in general, is the recruitment of more male students. Social work has traditionally been a majority-female profession, she said, and, although IU Northwest does regularly graduate a number of men from the MSW program – eight of 35 graduates in 2008 were men – the impending retirement of many social workers from the Baby Boomer generation means the field will lose many of its current male practitioners.
“The founders of the (social work) profession very much were women,” Lynch explained. “I think women are more naturally drawn to care-giving of one sort or another. Social work, nursing, teaching … they tend to be predominated by women.
“There was a big shift in the 1960s, when many men got degrees in social work,” she continued, adding that concerns about the Vietnam draft likely contributed to many men’s heightened interest in the field. “That group is now retiring. So one of the challenges of the profession is how to recruit more males (and) have the kinds of initiatives that nursing has had. Nursing has been very active in recruiting males.”
Lynch’s practice background includes work in school, community and healthcare settings. She has worked with mental-health clients, HIV/AIDS patients, and members of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community, among others. Social work, Lynch said, is a field that allows its practitioners to diversify their careers and pursue a variety of interests. The constant influx of new challenges explains part of social work’s appeal to traditional and non-traditional students, she said.
“What I like about social work is that I always had so many opportunities,” Lynch said. “I never got bored. You can always find another job. There are always new problems and new challenges. Certainly, throughout the course of my professional career, there have been social problems (develop) that didn’t even exist when I was a student. There are always new things.
“People are so fascinating. They are so complex,” she continued. “We know so little about human behavior. There is always an opportunity to continue to learn and understand what it means to be a human being, and how people interact in their families and their communities and their organizations. It’s just fascinating to me. It’s been a very good career for me, and I get excited about showing those opportunities to students and getting them turned on to what social work practice actually is today.”
Having worked as director of the Ball State program, Lynch was already familiar with the Division of Social Work as an IU system school when she applied for the IU Northwest position. The school’s reputation for academic excellence and community engagement, along with the challenges that come with serving an area like Northwest Indiana that has a critical need for social workers, sold her on the job, she said.
“A lot of our faculty serve on boards and help local agencies develop (their resources) so they can serve more people. You don’t always see that,” Lynch said. “There are just a lot of opportunities here to be creative, to come up with joint community partnerships with the Division of Social Work, and to provide more experiences for our students and more jobs for them when they graduate.
“There are also a lot of opportunities with the Division of Social Work being housed in the College of Health and Human Services,” she added. “That allows for a lot more interdisciplinary work between the groups. I am sure that we’re going to be looking at all kinds of possibilities.”