Dr. Sheri Boyle talks with social work student Allisyn Herre, of Brownsville, Pa., in Duda Hall about her class schedule and future opportunities.

A four-year, $1.9 million grant-funded project will prepare Cal U students to serve rural communities in southwestern Pennsylvania as school counselors, mental health counselors and social work practitioners.

Dr. Elizabeth Gruber, a professor in the Counselor Education Department, and Dr. Sheri Boyle, chair of the Social Work Department, will lead the four-year project funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant includes $300,000 annually, or $1.2 million in all, to provide $10,000 stipends for 30 Cal U graduate students each year as they complete the lengthy field placements required to earn a master’s degree.

A 600-hour field placement, or internship, is required for students in Cal U’s accredited counselor education program. The accredited social work program requires students to complete 660 hours in their advanced practicum. 

About the project

The project focuses on medically underserved areas in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Cal U draws its students primarily from this five-county region, the project directors note, and many of them struggle to afford the cost of an advanced degree.

“Our graduate students already are out working in rural settings, but their internships have been unpaid,” Gruber said. “These stipends will benefit our students and relieve the additional financial burden of field placements, such as lost income, childcare and transportation costs.”

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 hope that our students will continue to work here when the graduate,” Gruber said.

In addition to preparing future counselors and social workers, the grant supports training for Cal U students and their field-placement supervisors, University faculty and community-based professionals.

In addition, the project will:

  • Create at least two new field placement sites in medically underserved communities, providing children, veterans and older adults with access to behavioral/mental health counseling.
  • Create new coursework focused on this vulnerable population and provide interdisciplinary training for Cal U students and faculty, as well as the region’s human services providers and community residents.
  • Recruit new students for Cal U’s school counseling, mental health counseling and social work programs, expanding the pool of quality behavioral health professionals for the region’s workforce. 

The HRSA program’s first cohort will consist of current Cal U students chosen during the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 semesters. In subsequent years, those interested in working with the target population will be selected through an application process.

Relevant programs

The Department of Counselor Education offers two CACREP-accredited master’s degree programs:

The department also offers school counselor certification and an online certificate in sport counseling.

Cal U’s Department of Social Work offers undergraduate and graduate programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE):

For information about these programs or the HRSA project, contact counselor education professor Dr. Elizabeth Gruber at or social work professor Dr. Sheri Boyle at