Beyond City Limits

Rural Colorado’s challenges call for creative solutions and collaboration

For years now, Colorado’s media commentariat has lamented the growth of an “urban-rural divide,” illustrated by more than a distinctly patchy political map. Cities along the I-25 and I-70 corridors are growing, thanks in part to high-speed internet, better health care and stronger economies. Meanwhile, despite providing the bulk of the state’s food and water, less-populated areas are shrinking.

In the face of this chasm, experts at the University of Denver and alumni across the state are building bridges to address inequities and forge solutions to persistent problems—among them, a demographic shift that has caused talented workers to leave the communities in which they grew up.

 “There’s that whole ‘brain drain’ phenomenon where someone seeks out opportunities or a job in a more urban context or out of state,” says Rachel Forbes, an associate professor of the practice at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work. “They might have good intentions of coming back home, but life gets in the way.”

Since 2013, as director of the Western Colorado MSW program, Forbes has been training residents from Breckenridge to Montrose, equipping them to serve the unique needs of their communities and, hopefully, increasing their chances of staying put.

After successfully launching a master’s program in Colorado’s Four Corners region, GSSW expanded its reach. Two brick-and-mortar buildings in Glenwood Springs are a hub for aspiring social workers as well as those looking to sharpen the skills needed for a wide range of human services.

To create a relevant curriculum, Forbes and GSSW consult with the community. A local advisory board steers the program to meet the region’s distinct needs. In an integrated behavioral health class, students acquire and refine the skills to support local mental health professionals. An immigration policies and services class equips them to serve a large Spanish-speaking population.

“The curriculum is definitely designed to be responsive to needs here. It’s not something you would be able to access in Denver,” Forbes says. “I’m really proud that the community asked us to be here and we were able to meet that need. I don’t know if I would feel as comfortable leading this program if DU was the one to approach the community and say: ‘You need this. Let us be your solution.’”

While the state’s regional differences are distinct, Tracy Vozar has noticed that, these days, a global pandemic has leveled the playing field.

“We’ve all experienced a lack of access to resources and social support, the connections you can have from living in a more urban setting,” says Vozar, a clinical assistant professor at DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology. “We’ve all been more isolated from friends and family and the supports that we might be able to count on. Figuring out how to better connect seems really important, and technology has proven to be a method of facilitating that connection.”


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