martin mcdonell

Dr. Martin McDonell

Dr. Martin McDonell was working as a mental health counselor at a psychiatric hospital when he was first exposed to social workers and the good they did for the clients they served. As he said, “the light came on.”


“I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to impact people’s lives. I wanted to work with them, talk with them, and just help make change,” McDonell said. “I realized there was a job out there where I could help somebody overcome their problems – that was just very rewarding for me.”


Now, 28 years later with a wealth of practical and educational experience under his belt, McDonell wants to inspire University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students in a similar way as head of the newly-created social work program at the university.


McDonell came to UAFS in August 2015 to head the program, which will begin offering courses this fall and will educate students for a social work shortage felt in the greater Fort Smith region. UAFS received approval from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education Coordinating Board last year to add the program to its degree offerings.


“UAFS has a history of creating programs that respond to community needs, and my research has shown that there’s a shortage of social workers in the River Valley,” McDonell said. “This program is a unique opportunity for people in the area to find employment in a rewarding field while also providing local agencies with workers who have degrees in social work.”


A 14-year veteran in social work with a track record of creating successful social work programs at other institutions, McDonell is uniquely qualified to build the program at UAFS, even as the local demand creates pressure for “a great program that creates outstanding social workers.”


His vision for the program is multifaceted but unified by one theme: educate students and instill confidence in their abilities as social workers.


“I want to create a social work program that allows our graduates to feel confident they can enter the field and be competent at any entry-level social work job,” he said. “Or if they want to go to graduate school, they can feel confident that they can compete with any graduate school in the country and be able to get in based on their academic standards here. It’s about building a robust social work program.”


The program will cover the broad spectrum of social work, offering core “practice” courses and courses in the areas of mental health counseling, substance abuse, child welfare, geriatric social work, and research.


The coursework culminates in an internship experience, where students get hands-on experience through a 400-hour internship at a local service agency.


But while social work is a rewarding field, it has its fair share of challenges as well.


“It’s often rewarding, but it can be very emotionally draining. It’s all about helping people overcome their problems and be able to restore or enhance their functioning in life,” McDonell said. “If we can have a part of that and help change the life of a kid or a mom or a dad, it’s all worth it. It’s worth the emotional roller coaster that we’re on. So it takes a unique person who is willing to deal with these problems day after day after day.”


The social work program was the brainchild of Dr. Paul B. Beran, UAFS chancellor, who saw a need for the program after witnessing the impact of the economic downturn during the Great Recession.


“We’re still feeling the effects of the economic crisis from nine years ago, and it’s our responsibility as a university to produce graduates working to make quality of life as good as it can be for our residents, regardless of income level,” Beran said. “We have a fine psychology program, but social work has a more focused approach to handle the issues our community has to face.”


“I’m very pleased with Dr. McDonell’s credentials,” Beran continued. “He’s knowledgeable and personable, which translates to being successful in the classroom and community as he works with local agencies to ensure we’re meeting their particular needs as we produce graduates.”


McDonell agreed.


“I can take my work experience, pair it with theory from the classroom, and be able to see the light come on for students,” McDonell said. “That’s why I love creating programs like this. I want to do a great job so our students can do a great job to the people of community.”


For more information about the Social Work program, contact McDonell at 479-788-7556 or


Article by John Post, Director of Public Information
Photo Credits: 
Photo by Rachel Putman, Photographer, Marketing and Communications Office
Date Posted: 
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
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