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Donna Bliss Interview

Division of Social Work | College of Health Sciences

Think Imaginatively…Act Boldly


donnaThe Division of Social Work is pleased to announce the arrival of its new Director, Donna Leigh Bliss.  Dr. Bliss comes to us from the University of Georgia, where she has been an active faculty member and administrative leader for the Georgia School of Social Work since 2005.  Wanting to get to know a little more about our new Director, we interviewed Dr. Bliss upon her arrival last week.  She is proving herself to be a very interesting, multi-layered person with a wide variety of interests and hobbies.  Please read on to learn more about this dynamic new personality on campus.


One of the most intriguing things we learned about Dr. Bliss during the interview process was her love of motorcycles, her own Harley in particular, and her love of the outdoors.


SOWK:  Tell us about your motorcycle.
DB:  I may have a Harley, but I’m actually very nerdy.  I first got a motorcycle in the 1970s when I was a teenager.  My uncle had a country store, and he sold things like lawn tractors and minibikes. Throughout high school, I had Yamaha motorcycles.  I traded in for a car when I graduated from high school; I never thought they were practical.  Fast forward 30 years—2003—all of a sudden I had all these feelings about getting a motorcycle. It was crazy, but I finally stopped arguing with myself, checked them out and here I was, a doctoral student, buying a little Yamaha motorcycle.  In 2005, I see this amazing motorcycle at the Harley dealer just talking to me.  I’d always wanted a Harley, was in a financial position to get it, and I said, “I don’t want to be 80 years old and regret that I didn’t get a Harley when I could.”

SOWK:  What model is it?
DB:  It was a 2003 Heritage Softail Classic—that’s important because it was a 100th anniversary edition.


SOWK:  We would like to know what intrigues you about life in Wyoming so far.
DB:  I think for me, growing up on the east coast, living out west intrigues me.  It’s a very different culture. I’ve traveled out west—it’s beautiful out here.  A few years ago I was out in Wyoming.  That whole thing—the lifestyle, the climate, the history—it’s a very different culture.  I’m learning more about that.  I did a road trip: Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, all that.  I came back diagonally down the state and remember going past Laramie.  There are a couple of things that strike me about Wyoming.  First, it’s so vast but geologically so different.  How do you go from Yellowstone and its geothermal features to the Tetons that rise up out of nowhere?  Second is the beauty and the varied terrain.  It’s one of the things that made me want to come here.

SOWK:  And we do have the best of every climate.
DB:  Yes, it’s much more varied.  To me, this is a grand adventure.  Wyoming is just a cool state.  It seems to have this identity that’s different from others.  You feel that vibe about it.  I’m not disrespecting neighboring states, but it’s pretty cool.


SOWK:  So now that you have moved here, is there a new activity that you plan to pursue or learn?
DB:  Oh, snowmobiling! How could I have a motorcycle and not want to snowmobile, especially with over a hundred miles of trails up in the Snowies?

SOWK:  Do you have an avalanche beacon?
DB:  Ah—so that they can pull out my frozen body? [laughs]  Well, no, but I’ve never done it and it is quite intriguing.  I think I would love it.

SOWK:  OK, let’s shift gears a little. What class have you most enjoyed teaching in your career?
DB:  Probably the class I enjoyed the most is an elective I created called “Clinical Practice with Addictive Disorders.”  My practice background was working in substance abuse—I was a counselor, then I was a supervisor, and I ended up actually planning the treatment programs.  The class was not a “Drugs and Alcohol 101” course, it was very much a practice class in how you actually work with people like that.  I like being able to educate and inspire students on how to work with that population.  Quite frankly, if you’re going to become a social worker that means you’re going to be involved in substance abuse.  It’s implicated in every practice and area.  That class has the most meaning to me.  I enjoy more hands-on courses like that.  I tend to think as a practitioner: here’s information, and here’s what you do with it. I am also a big fan of service learning courses.


SOWK:  Are you currently engaged in any research? 
DB:  The research I’ve always been interested in is in improving substance abuse treatment outcomes.  My last few years in Georgia, I had a lot more administrative responsibility and so I haven’t been able to work on that.  That’s an area I want to pursue, and another area is the development of social work practice models.  I’ve had several publications on that.


SOWK:  Have you heard much about the meth situation in Wyoming?
DB:  Well, if it’s anything like the situation in other rural parts of the country, it’s a plague.  Meth is not new.  Back in the 70s and 80s, it was called “poor man’s cocaine,” and the primary problem with meth is that it can be manufactured from ingredients that are not that hard to get now.  People can make it, it’s very lucrative, and it’s hit rural areas more because there is the space for people to set up labs and not be discovered.  It’s an incredibly addictive drug, and what it does to families and communities is devastating.  And, we have this double scourge with pain medication prescription abuse.  When you look at the flow of this, it started out west but it’s definitely expanded and is not just in rural areas.  It’s enormously difficult.  There is not an easy way to treat meth addiction, and I think social work is perfectly placed to take a leadership role, but there’s not a lot of political support for treating alcoholics and drug addicts.

SOWK:  Nobody wants to admit there’s a problem.
DB:  Yes, so we don’t fund it, but we pay an enormous price.  Our jails and prisons are filled with nonviolent drug abusers.  Go to an emergency room, and the ER doctors will tell you that primarily their patients are people with alcohol problems.  So, to not fund treatment is actually not cost effective.  You default to prisons and emergency rooms for primary care and that doesn’t make sense.  I would like to see social work taking more of a leadership role in forming public policy and helping to improve treatment.  I think when you look at places like Wyoming, which is much more rural and doesn’t have the same resources that many other Americans have, then you need to prepare practitioners who can address those issues from a practice, research, and policy and advocacy perspective.  Again, the challenge of preparing people to be able to go out and do that is one of the reasons I wanted to come here.


SOWK:  Given that many of our graduates go on to service within the state, what do you think you can add to the educational experience students receive at UW, and how will that improve the quality of life in Wyoming?
DB:  Well, I think it would be premature for me to talk about improving the quality of education here in less than a week [laughs].


SOWK:  But, you probably have ideas.
DB:  My ideas about what excellent education is revolve around what I call a global leadership model.  What that really entails is that, even though a lot of our students envision being clinicians, in today’s world you need to be able to seamlessly transition along a continuum of three domains: first is micro to macro, which means they need to work with individuals, families, communities, whatever.  The second dimension is in terms of what I mentioned before:  practice, research, policy and advocacy.  It’s not enough to say, “I want to be a clinician and just do psychotherapy with individuals.”  You need to be able to seamlessly transition as circumstances dictate.  There’s also the third axis to this, and that is local to global.  If you’re working in a small community, that certainly is a more localized focus, but you need to be able to transition to inform those four [practice, research, policy and advocacy] to a state, national and even global level.


In today’s job market, more and more [social work] students are going to need to step into leadership roles, whether they want to or not.  There used to be days when you were just going to be a clinician and not have to worry about where the funding is coming from, but those days are over.  Social work education has to reinvent itself.  One of the things I hope to do here at Wyoming is examine our curriculum to see how we prepare students.  I have a pretty strong agenda.  I’m not interested in being just the director here—I want to make a difference.  I’d like Wyoming to be—throughout social work education—taking a really strong leadership role.  There are so many gaps in what funding provides that you need practitioners who can seamlessly transition along those three dimensions.  A well-prepared social worker doesn’t blink when somebody says, “OK, you’re doing case management, now I need you to write a grant and go talk to the town council so we can get this funding.”  That person is already thinking about how to put that together.  That’s what I’d like us to be able to teach students to do.  That’s my agenda.  My philosophy is “think imaginatively and act boldly.”


I came into education later in life and had to find ways to get things done with limited resources.  So, I am adamant that we prepare students for this.  I know how to do this because I had to do it.  You know, there’s nothing better than having a graduate come to you later and say, “Well, I thought I was going to hate Policy—I just wanted to be a private practitioner—but I am so glad you taught me how to do this!  When I got my first job, they were thrilled that I could write a grant application or a policy paper, and nobody else could.”  Social workers need to be seen as the go-to people.  That’s what I want for our students.


The Division’s faculty and staff have been looking forward to Dr. Bliss’ arrival with a great deal of anticipation.  Having come from a more urban environment and a larger school, she brings a new dynamic and fresh perspective to our group.  She has exciting ideas and plans for our students to enhance their learning at UW and is eager to get started.  While she will maintain her office in the College of Health Sciences, she is looking forward to getting out across the state to see our students and communities, and gain a better understanding of what they need from us as educators and professional partners.


Welcome to Wyoming, Dr. Bliss!

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