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$1.9 million federal grant awarded to Cal U; will help grad students, neighboring communities

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

People living in medically underserved communities in southwestern Pennsylvania could benefit from a federal grant awarded to California University of Pennsylvania to help prepare its students for jobs as school and mental health counselors and social workers — and hopefully help to keep them in the region after graduation.

Annual stipends of $10,000 will be available to 30 Cal U graduate students through a four-year, $1.9 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. The money will help students complete field placements or internships required to earn a master's degree, while increasing the amount of services provided to schools and communities in medically underserved areas in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, said Elizabeth Gruber, a professor in Cal U's counselor education department.

“One of the main focuses of the grant is to increase the workforce in rural Pennsylvania areas with underserved populations,” Gruber said. “We hope that our students will continue to work here when they graduate.”

Gruber and Sheri Boyle, chair of Cal U's social work department, will lead the project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency.

“It will bring some financial stability to our students who sacrifice quite a bit to come to graduate school. Oftentimes, they have to drop from full-time to part-time work or leave work all together in order to fulfill the practicum requirements,” Boyle said.

Graduate students have to log 600 hours in the counselor education program or 660 hours for the advanced practicum in the social work program. Students in the accredited programs are not paid for their internships or field work, the professors said,

The $10,000 grant became available to students this month. More than 60 percent of students in the programs likely will be able to get the stipend, Boyle said. It will provide a total of $1.2 million to the students over the next four years.

The grant will help remove barriers for students who want to make social work a career, said Paul Meiss of California, a social work graduate student doing an internship with the transitional care team at Uniontown Hospital.

Meiss, 46, a former West Mifflin School District teacher, said he has strung together two or three part-time jobs while in graduate school in the hopes of being a medical social worker with a hospice program. He plans to graduate in the spring.

The project also can be used to recruit new students for Cal U's school counseling, mental health counseling and social work programs, which in turn, expands the pool of behavioral health professionals for the region. That could help veterans who don't have a lot of places to turn for their care, Gruber said, as well as access to mental health services for older adults.

“There is such a huge need in the area. We felt if we could get this grant, it would be so amazing for our communities,” said Ashley Hull, 23, of Canonsburg, who is studying school counseling and helped to do research for the grant application.

Hull, who is doing a practicum in the Canon-McMillan School District, plans to graduate in the spring and wants to further her education as a licensed professional counselor and obtain her doctorate.

The five-county region's high poverty rate and the prevalence of alcohol and opioid abuse, among other factors, have created a need for more behavioral and mental health care practitioners to work with residents at all stages of life.

“We wanted to focus on that because that is a big need,” Hull said.

The heroin epidemic and its associated death rate in the five-county region were much higher than the rest of the state, Hull said.

The project also is designed to create at least two new field placement sites — which Gruber said have yet to be determined — in medically underserved communities, providing children, veterans and older adults with access to behavioral and mental health counseling. Cal U graduate students already have placements in sites at the Centerville Clinic, Monongahela Valley Hospital, Gateway Rehabilitation, Brownsville School District and Clairton School District.

“We hope to bring the community together in terms of training and networking so that we all can be a resource for each other,” Boyle said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or

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