MSW & JD Dual Degree
For two GSSW students, social work and law provide a strong foundation for systems change
For University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) students Phoebe Blessing and Mary Kelly, field education internships have given them a chance to see how their social work and law dual degrees will pay off down the road.
Blessing was working in medicine when she became frustrated with inequities in health care access. An MSW/JD dual degree with an MSW concentration in organizational leadership and policy practice will make it possible for her to work toward developing more equitable policies. As an intern on the ACLU of Colorado policy team, Blessing worked on the Colorado Rights Act (HB20-1287). Introduced in February 2020, the bill, which didn’t pass, would have allowed civil lawsuits in state courts against Colorado governments for violations of state Constitutional rights, including free speech.
In the ACLU role, she’s worn both social work and legal hats.
“I spent the first few months doing legal research and drafting language for the bill; then as we were trying to get it introduced, get votes and a hearing, I was reaching out to individuals who have heartbreaking stories and explaining to them how this bill would have helped them,” says Blessing, MSW ’20/JD ’21. “I realized how critical social work education is for recognizing the human impact, being able to communicate that and build community around policy.”
Associate Professor Jennifer Greenfield taught Blessing in her Policy Analysis course.
“Phoebe wrote an excellent brief about the impacts of COVID-19 on people who are incarcerated in Colorado. It exemplifies her ability to combine critical thinking skills and intellectual insight with empathy and care for others,” Greenfield says.
Kelly has also complemented her education with a meaningful internship. As a domestic violence victim’s advocate at the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in El Paso County, she’s part of a team that contacts victims shortly after they’ve experienced trauma. Her outreach is necessarily at a time when some victims navigating the trauma of victimization.
“It’s brief solution-focused therapy, where you have about 30 minutes to get them to a place where they feel okay with what’s happening. We make calls in the morning and then, if victims decide to go to court, we go with them in the afternoon,” says Kelly, MSW/JD’ 23, whose MSW concentration is in organizational leadership and policy practice. “You have to remember they are surviving some of the worst trauma of their lives.”
Kelly says the experience has taught her the intricacies of the criminal justice system, how to best support victims of crime and the ways that our system fails victims. She plans to open a law center for victims, where survivors will be able to access legal, case management and mental health services under one roof.
A driving factor in Kelly’s career choice was her personal history.
“I was an incredibly victimized kid in a lot of ways — sexually, emotionally and physically. I used to play victim advocate with my siblings and peers, so growing up I always knew I wanted to help others,” Kelly says.
Greenfield notes that Kelly’s policy analysis work has focused on ways to better support people seeking safety from intimate partner violence.
“I appreciate Mary’s dual attention on how social workers can work within the existing systems to support survivors and how they can work to improve the existing systems and policies,” Greenfield says.
Blessing and Kelly are among three students pursuing the dual Master of Social Work/Juris Doctor degree offered by the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and Sturm College of Law; two more will start in fall. Currently, 40 students are pursuing MSW dual degrees, and 13 are graduating this spring.
“When social work students graduate and pursue careers within the legal system, they bring empathy, innovation and a critical lens to that work,” Greenfield says. “When they choose advocacy or policy-focused careers, they bring a deeper knowledge of how and why laws are written the way they are. Either way, it’s a powerful combination.”