University of Pikeville addresses addiction issues with help from the Presbyterian Foundation

February 6, 2023 by Robyn Davis Sekula

Addiction issues have been challenging rural America for years, notes Burton Webb, President of the University of Pikeville.

Burton J. Webb, Ph.D.

Now, as a person with deep family ties to eastern Kentucky, he's in the position to help.

Webb became president of UPIKE, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related university, in 2016. While Pikeville itself is doing fairly well for a rural city, Webb says the more remote areas around Pikeville have struggled as the coal economy has collapsed. Opioid addiction also challenged these communities.

“When you lose hope, you're much more susceptible to addiction,” Webb says. “This isn't a unique problem. We just came up with a unique solution.”

That's why Webb embraced and supported the idea of adding a Master of Social Work program to UPIKE – and found support in the form of a low-interest loan at the Presbyterian Foundation.

UPIKE borrowed $500,000 from the Presbyterian Foundation at a low interest rate and repaid the loan within a matter of months as the program experienced a surge in enrollment. The loan was part of the Foundation's portfolio of creative engagements, which loans funds to organizations, many non-profit or educational, to help further their mission. Loans are given at a below-market interest rate.

“The loan provided to UPIKE is exactly the kind of program we love funding,” says Tom Taylor, President and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation. “This directly addresses a huge human need and is designed to alleviate suffering and addiction. We're grateful for UPIKE's commitment to their community and far beyond. The rapid success of the program demonstrates the great need for it, and we're so pleased to have played a part.”

Building the program

The first students started the program in 2019, and the first graduates came out of the program in 2021, says Dr. Genesia Kilgore-Bowling, Chair of the School of Social Work at the University of Pikeville.

Kilgore-Bowling had always dreamed of starting such a program, and when Webb was hired as President of UPIKE, he invited her to make her case for the program, and she did. Following a careful market analysis, they discovered that there was plenty of need for MSW graduates in the area, and beyond. Additionally, the MSW program graduates would be paid good wages.

“There was never a question of whether or not it was a good idea,” Kilgore-Bowling says. “It was a perfect fit.”

When UPIKE was creating the program in 2019, they decided to make it an online program, which was fortuitous considering the global COVID-19 pandemic was right around the corner, forcing colleges and universities to switch to online classes. This has also brought them some online students who aren't local to Eastern Kentucky but who are welcome to participate in the MSW program.

Students have two paths in the program. For those who already have a Bachelor's degree in social work, they can take an advanced standing track that allows them to graduate with an MSW with only 30 additional course hours. UPIKE requires those without an undergraduate social work degree to complete 60 hours of coursework.

The first ten graduates of the program were all advanced standing students, finishing in 2021, Kilgore-Bowling says. “All had jobs immediately,” she says. “Some were already working those jobs and were hired while they were doing their practicum or right after it was completed.”

Employers benefit

Employers are excited to hire the graduates. Kimberly Calhoun of Appalachian Community Care, LLC, a mental health agency, says she's grateful to UPIKE for starting the program. Even before COVID, it was tough to find qualified MSW graduates to serve as counselors. The agency has a waiting list of clients and hopes to hire more UPIKE graduates in the future.

This new program is good for the community, Calhoun says. “It gives local people an opportunity at a higher education without having to leave their homes and travel to schools for their education,” Calhoun says. “I am happy Pikeville graduates are able to offer good quality services to our vulnerable population needing mental health services.”

Webb notes that UPIKE has been able to offer this education nearly tuition free for around 30 students through Health Resources and Services Administration grants.

Kilgore-Bowling says the jobs that MSW graduates are taking pay a good wage for their educational experience. One student in the program was a single mom who told her, “I never thought I'd be worth this much.”

Pauline Sturgill, Executive Director of the Housing Authority for the City of Williamson, W.Va., says she's tried to hire UPIKE MSW graduates but hasn't been successful yet. But she's been pleased with the interns from UPIKE's MSW program. “Every student placed with us has been energetic, enthusiastic, and incredibly professional,” Sturgill says. “They've assisted with programming, grant writing, service delivery, and service projects. I'm not sure how we managed before this partnership, but we would be at a loss without it.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. She is a ruling elder and member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. She can be reached at