Alverno Social Work Professor Crystal Aschenbrener

Aschenbrener Leads Social Work Program

Visit Crystal Aschenbrener’s office in Corona Hall, and you’ll immediately spot one of her most prized possessions — a star quilt from the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota. The quilt honors the mentorship program that Aschenbrener has spent the past decade building between the college students she teaches and the Native American youth that the college students mentor.

“The colors were chosen because they’re bright, and this project is bright. The flowers symbolize growth, because this project is growing. The colors are coming out from the center, symbolizing that the project is moving forward,” she says of the quilt’s design.

A licensed social worker with 10 years of university teaching experience, Aschenbrener has cultivated strong ties with Native and rural communities in South Dakota and northern Wisconsin. She joined Alverno’s faculty last year to develop and launch the College’s new undergraduate Social Work major.

“Alverno already has a lot of social work philosophy ingrained in our mission and our curriculum,” she says. “This will make our students more competent and knowledgeable and will help them develop a higher professional value system, all of which are important to social work.”

The new major is one of Alverno’s strategic initiatives, adopted to ensure graduates are equipped to serve growing community needs. “Social workers are in demand in Wisconsin,” says Aschenbrener, citing state data that forecasts approximately 9 percent growth in the field between 2014 and 2024.

Unlike other states, Wisconsin requires providers of a wide range of social services to be licensed social workers. County agencies need qualified providers, she says, especially to confront growing crises like human trafficking and opioid addiction.

There is a significant need for social services in Native American communities, which experience mental and behavioral health issues at higher rates than all other races. In Wisconsin, 21 percent of Native American adults were diagnosed with depression and 39 percent of Native households experience substance abuse, compared with 17 percent of non-Native adults and 27 percent of non-Native households.

Aschenbrener sees working with Native populations as a way to make a difference. This year marks the 10th (the first for Alverno) that Aschenbrener’s Today and Beyond mentorship program will introduce college students to tribal culture, traditions and strengths as well as the historical trauma and social problems that Native Americans have faced and continue to face.

The culmination of the research, service learning and travel course is an 11-day trip this May to Tiospa Zina Tribal School in South Dakota. There, the Alverno students will build relationships with junior high students and help prepare them for high school, college and careers.

There’s ample opportunity for Aschenbrener and her students to make an impact. Nearly 72 percent of Native American or Alaska Native students graduated from high school in 2016, compared with 88.3 percent of white students, 76.4 percent of Black students and 79.3 percent of Hispanic students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In South Dakota, the Native American graduation rate was just 47 percent — the lowest of any U.S. state.

While the heart of the Today and Beyond program is the mentorship component, the Alverno students will also get to experience the tribe’s cultural traditions.

“The college students learn just as much as the youth,” she says. “I hope they’re empowered with that.”

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