Even with 200 students and thousands of hours of community service, the bachelor’s of social work program at Northern Arizona University enjoys a relatively quiet success. Now a $5 million contract to establish a tuition-for-work pipeline of state employees may raise the program’s profile.

The just-signed five-year deal with the Arizona Department of Economic Security will cover tuition and fees for up to 20 students per year who commit to work for Child Protective Services upon graduation. Funding originates from federal pass-through dollars set aside to train child welfare practitioners.

“The profession helps vulnerable populations, and now we have a way to support students and guarantee them a job,” said Natalie Cawood, NAU assistant professor and social work program coordinator.

Cawood said the new project, expected to begin admitting students in the spring, will establish a field education unit on campus through which students can complete their required 480-hour internships. Students who receive the tuition benefit must work for one to two years with CPS, depending on the level of support.

Associate professor Mary Damskey, who coordinates field education for the social work degree, said a majority of students already ask to work with children and families to meet the in-service requirement, so the new program “will definitely meet that need.”

“What’s really neat about this program is that it’s a win for the state and for the students,” Damskey said. “And it will provide enhanced services for the families and children who are served.”

Social work at NAU has experienced steady enrollment, Cawood said, although this year’s group of 42 juniors “will compose the biggest senior cohort we’ve had in some time.” That cohort, she added, will give over 20,000 hours of service to the community during their field placements. The program has ties to more than 70 agencies in northern Arizona.

The fast-growing social work field is expected to grow by more than 25 percent by 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there are already shortages in the region.

Even so, Cawood said that social work is often discovered by students after arriving at NAU. Every semester, she said, the Introduction to Social Work course generates “converts” who tell her, “I’ve found my calling.” The demands and rewards of social work help explain that conviction.

As Damskey put it, “You just have to have that passion and heart to work with people and that strong desire to work with others to create stronger communities. Students have to have a strong belief in change, and that change can occur with individuals, families and at the community level.”