The Impact of the Pioneering Title IV-E Program on One Social Worker’s Life

Donna Thoreson, CalSWEC's Workforce Development Coordinator, Shares Her Story as CalSWEC Celebrates 25 Years

RELATED:CalSWEC celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Donna Thoreson knows first-hand the difficulty of arduous physical labor and frequent relocations. Growing up in a migrant farm family, CalSWEC’s Workforce Development Coordinator recalls working alongside her parents and siblings picking green beans in Oregon, and watching her parents pick apples in Washington and cotton in California’s Central Valley. She says, “I vividly remember my mom dragging a potato sack and picking potatoes from the ground.”

Her mother encouraged Donna to read and learn, and Donna loved school, even though her father told her that college was not for girls. From her young life’s experiences, she says, “I realized that I wanted to have a job where I could help children learn and dream about having a better life.”

Going to College, Then Finding Her Calling
The only one of the five children to go to college, Donna graduated from Chico State University with a B.A. in Speech and Drama. She then spent five years in personnel work in Butte County, until downsizing left her looking for other county options. Openings for child welfare social workers caught her attention, and Donna decided to apply. “I did not have an MSW and my BA was in something not related to social work,” she recalls, “but I went for the interview and got the job.”

Donna found the work challenging and fulfilling on every level. Following marriage and the couple’s move to the Bay Area, she continued to work in child welfare, this time for Contra Costa County. Always hardworking and compassionate, she poured herself into her work for four more years, but then found herself feeling the sting of “burnout.” Thinking perhaps that she needed to switch careers, Donna took some vocational tests, but the results always pointed her back to social work.

She’d read that one risk factor for burnout was not having an advanced degree. “It was a light bulb moment for me,” she remembers. Coincidentally a few short weeks later, “Someone came into a staff meeting and told us about the new IV-E program,” she says. Her husband was supportive, and Donna applied to UC Berkeley.

RELATED: CalSWEC's History

Entering the Title IV-E Program at UC Berkeley
Donna was nervous about returning to school after 20 years and being among many younger classmates. Nevertheless, she says, “Being accepted to the UC Berkeley Title IV-E MSW Stipend Program was an amazing moment for me."  Hers was the last cohort during which Dr. Harry Specht was Dean.

Dr. Specht taught a course my first semester on being a professional social worker that really resonated and inspired me. Other faculty, Dr. Bart Grossman, Dr. Mike Austin, Anne Ageson, and Dr. Leonard Miller, took extra time with me. They respected me as a social worker with experience in the field,” says Donna. “That made me confident that I had made a good choice to return to school and that I could make a difference in the lives of children and families when I returned to work.” 

Positive Impact
Being a graduate of the IV-E program “had a tremendous impact,” says Donna, who returned to Contra Costa after her graduation in 1996. She credits that experience for much of her future career growth and success.  “A year after I graduated, I was promoted,” she notes.

As a supervisor, she developed, managed, and supervised a group intern model as a recruiting strategy. She also developed and managed an intern program for employees who wanted to obtain their MSW in a part-time employee-based program, which had the support of John Cullen, Danna Fabella, and Lois Rutten. “Some co-workers decided to go back to school through IV-E, and I am proud of my part in encouraging them,” Donna says. For over 12 years, she also served as the Field Instructor for more than 95 Title IV-E interns.

RELATED: Read other CalSWEC Graduate and Alumni Stories

Long-lasting Influence
On a deeper level, Donna describes how being a IV-E, grad affected her work: “I felt that the program gave me the chance to step back and look at what I was doing with children and families, and  why, and figure out how to do it more effectively. Graduate school taught me about institutional racism, discrimination, poverty, and psychopathology. Learning about and recognizing these barriers helped me in moving forward with helping children and families.”

The impact of the IV-E, program did not stop there. “It helped me realize another dream,” says Donna. Besides working with the interns in the field agency, she was invited to teach social work courses at CSU, East Bay, “which I loved.” Finally, she says, “Retiring after 31 years in county work and then coming to CalSWEC Central would not have happened without that early IV-E, program.”

Donna says of her various social work positions, “I have enjoyed them all. My favorite is still working directly as a Field Instructor for the MSW students.” In her position at CalSWEC, Donna says, “I love reaching out to our current IV-E, students each spring, meeting upcoming grads, and talking to them about jobs in county child welfare. This job combines my background in county personnel and child welfare, and it’s exciting to see them grow from new students to professional social workers. I still see many of them who are now supervisors, and I am proud of my small part in their professional development.”

About Donna Thoreson
Donna Thoreson, M.S.W., has 20 years of experience as a child welfare worker and supervisor in Contra Costa County. As a field instructor for the Intern Unit, she  trained over 95 IV-E MSW graduates from various Bay Area universities. Prior to Contra Costa, Ms. Thoreson spent 11 years in Butte County as an Employment and Training Specialist and as a child welfare social worker. A 1996 Title IV-E MSW graduate of UC Berkeley, she taught many graduate social work courses and worked as a part-time Field Liaison at CSU, East Bay between 2004 and 2014. Ms. Thoreson has been the Workforce Development Coordinator for CalSWEC since November 2010.