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MSW Alumna Lana Dalton Wins U’s 2019 Distinguished Young Alumni Award



On Tuesday, February 26, MSW alumna Lana Dalton was presented with the 2019 Distinguished Young Alumni Award during the University of Utah’s annual Founders Day celebration.  The award recognizes outstanding alumni who have graduated within the last 15 years and who have excelled professionally, served the local and national communities, and supported the University in its mission.  The Distinguished Alumni Awards are among the highest honors awarded by the University of Utah. 

Prior to the formal evening Founders Day celebration, Ms. Dalton was invited to a luncheon hosted by the Student Alumni Board.  She was asked to share with the student attendees how her time at the U prepared her for her career success.  Ms. Dalton delivered the following.


It’s so meaningful to be here with you, and such an honor to receive the Founder’s Day Award from the University of Utah.  I never thought my name would be on any list alongside such distinguished members of the community.

When Brynn approached me about doing this speech about my time as a student, how it prepared me for where I am today and my career journey, I of course went where everyone else does to look for anything—the internet.  I Googled “best TED talks of all time” and “best speeches of all time.”  (I am sure you all know where this is going.)

lana-dalton-speakingWhat I discovered was—even though I am a social worker—I am not Brené Brown, nor am I any of the other highly recognized, popular folks on the computer screen.  I had to remove myself from that rabbit hold of comparison because I was not getting anywhere.  Then I thought to myself, at one point in some of those folks’ lives, I am sure they had a similar thought.  I think it’s important to keep in mind that many of the people that we look up to began their path with a quality education.  This provides the foundation that can be built upon with a willingness to work hard and remain open to opportunity.

Now, that is not to say I am going to deliver you a TED talk, but I hope you can at least get a few takeaways from what I have to say, and I will attempt to answer your questions to the best of my ability. 

As they stated, I am a licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW.  What that means is I will never be rich, and I work with people in the world that many others instinctively avoid.  I say that jokingly, but there is quite a bit of truth to that.  The work I do is hard, the stories I hear can be painful, and the reason I do it is because of my story. 

I do not have a tragic or terrible story to tell you which led me down the path I am on today; but rather, my story is one of always wanting more, never giving up and persistent dissatisfaction with the status quo. 

For you to get the full picture, I feel that it makes sense for me to take you back to what even lead me to the U in the first place. 

I graduated with my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point in May of 2006.  I have a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Wellness with a Corporate Wellness emphasis (again, another money maker!).  My first “real” job out of college was working for a health coaching company called “health solutions.”  I sat at a desk 40+ hours a week on the telephone, calling individuals all over the nation to talk about their blood pressure, cholesterol, how over weight they were, what they were eating.  The purpose behind this was for me to “coach” these folks on how to get “healthy.”  However, there were stark differences between what I heard versus what I thought I would hear. 

I was mostly met with stories of poverty, untreated complex medical issues, addiction, and mental illness.  These folks did not need me to tell them to eat vegetables—they needed someone who could assist them with their basic human needs.  Over time, it became frustrating, as I did not have the tools to give these people what they needed—and it was evident that my employer was not looking for any additional solutions.  So, I left. 

I went to another employer, then another, hoping each would try to look outside of the box and seek out better solutions, but nonetheless, it felt all too similar.

During this frustrating time, my girlfriends and I decided to take a trip to see one of our friends in southern Utah where she was doing an Americorps project.  We came out to Las Vegas, saw the Grand Canyon, explored the St. George area and I was introduced to some individuals who were employed by a wilderness therapy company. 

Wilderness therapy is typically for adolescents that have behavioral issues, addiction issues, some minor mental health issues.  These programs take kids out to the wilderness where there is no access to any sort of electronics and they backpack in groups, learn primitive skills, and engage in therapy for one to six months. 

This was my introduction to working in the field of mental health, and I was intrigued.  At this point anything was better than sitting behind a desk, doing something that was not working, with people that needed more than I had to offer.  So, I went back home, did some more research, applied for an “interview” in Utah, packed all of my belongings and drove across the country to St. George with the hope that at the end of this week-long “interview” in the woods, that: one, I could hack it, and two, the company would choose me.

Luckily, the company did choose me, and I got to pursue this work.  I never thought in a million years this is what I would be doing.  It was quite an eye-opening experience.  I learned a ton, really enjoyed the work and moved up in the company—however, I still felt like my role as a lead guide was not enough.  I wanted to do more for these individuals than I was.  Plus, after two winters in the Utah high-desert, I was ready to come back inside—to a bed, electricity, heat, and a shower.

During my time in the wilderness, I learned the natural progression for a student coming out of wilderness therapy was to go to some form of residential facility.  This work also intrigued me—so, I applied and accepted a job at a therapeutic boarding school in Oakley, Utah, and moved up to the Salt Lake area. 

While I was there, I had the opportunity to have more interaction with an interdisciplinary treatment team (comprised of educators, a social worker, a physician, a nurse, recreational staff, and housing staff).  I really liked this comprehensive model of care and felt like it was of great benefit to the people we were serving.  While here, I also moved into a supervisory role, and once again, still wanted to be doing more.  Thus, I decided to apply to the Master of Social Work Program here at the U. 

I applied to the U and remember thinking this was it—this is truly my next step!  I felt good about my application, my references were on point.  I was ready. 

Then I got the letter in the mail.  I had been waitlisted—in other words not accepted into the program that year. 

I was devastated—I went through all portions of the application process in my head, repeatedly.  What happened?  I did not take “no” (or “not right now”) for an answer and went up to the University myself.  I took my packet, went to the admissions office at the College and asked for feedback on my application.  I ended up speaking to the director of the program at the time, which was Dr. Brad Lundahl.  He was gracious and took pity on me… and let me in.  If it was not for Dr. Lundahl, I would not be here today. 

lana-dalton-brad-lundahlI started my MSW program here in the fall of 2011.  I came to class and remember thinking to myself, “Oh!  This is why I was waitlisted.”

Most of the people that I spoke with had significant experience working in this field.  They had bachelor’s in social work, knew the networks of Salt Lake, many had worked for the same agencies for YEARS.  I was intimidated, out of my lane, and was unsure how to correct. 

The truth is, I did not have to because the College of Social Work really gave me the foundation needed to be just as successful as everyone else.  While I loved a lot about my experience at the U, today I want to emphasize some pieces from that time that really stuck with me.

Number one, the experience I had trying to get into the College taught me, if you hear “no,” ask why. I am sure parents out there are probably cringing….  “Please do not tell my kids to question everything!”  But I am saying, “Yes, do!”  When I was waitlisted, I asked why, not only because I wanted feedback, but I wanted to realize my goal!  I wanted the feedback to understand what the next steps were to get an acceptance letter.

In my experience, if you are told “no” about something that you are passionate about and want to pursue and you do not ask why, you may have missed an opportunity to grow.  And you may also need to ask yourself, “If I am not willing to ask the questions or engage in difficult conversations to get what I want, is this truly something I want to spend my time on?”

Number two, my experience at the College of Social Work taught me the necessity of “staying curious.”  I remember sitting in a class with Dr. Brad Lundahl.  We ended up getting off topic in the class and started talking about what it takes to stay in the social work profession.  I will never forget him saying, “You must stay curious.”  Everyone looked at each other, like what the H* does that mean?!  He went on to explain that if you do not continuously learn, engage, and question, you will lose interest in whatever it is you decide to do and ultimately be unfulfilled. 

This rang so true to me because when I looked back at all of my other jobs that I had, it was not my loss of interest that had led me to move on—it was the need for something more, which lead me to be curious about the next step, and into social work as a profession in the first place. 

If you think about these two words, “stay curious,” they do not only work as a driver for your profession, but also for your life.  If you or I were not curious about the people that surround us, we would not have any sort of relationships, and without relationships, there is no community, and without community… what is there, really?

Number three, get uncomfortable, and stay there.  As I stated earlier, there were many times while at the College of Social Work where I really felt “unqualified” to be there.  My peers had many experiences I did not—including doing practical skills like performing assessments on individuals; working one-on-one with individuals on difficult, vulnerable topics; and co-facilitating group therapy sessions. 

Of course, as part of the school’s curriculum, you had to practice these skills in school.  HOWEVER, what they did not tell me prior to enrolling is that you had to practice these skills while videotaping yourself or being watched and evaluated by your peers through a glass wall.  NO THANK YOU. 

If I would have known about this prior to signing up for this program, I do not think I would have applied.  To me, this was absolutely terrifying.  HOWEVER, it is also where I learned the most and received some of the best feedback.

What I mean by this is, this is not where I learned to become the best therapist on the planet.  But it gave me the opportunity to sit in something that was very uncomfortable for me, learn that I was able, and capable of sitting in the discomfort, all while coming out the other side better for it.

In order to grow as a professional and a person, you must put yourself in the most uncomfortable situations and work through them.  If I did not continuously do things that make me extremely uncomfortable, I would not have accomplished what I am speaking to you about today.      

Number four, work hard, and yes, your hard work will always pay off—it just may not pay off when you want it to.  My family will need to correct me if I am wrong, but I did not have to learn how to work hard while in graduate school.  That was instilled in me from a very young age.  However, I had a bit of an eye-opening experience while in my final year of the program and at my practicum. 

Let me back up.  In the College of Social Work, in order to complete the program successfully, you must complete two practical experiences in the community.  My first year was at the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), assisting teens that were aging out of foster care transition out on their own. 

My second year, I was working with a criminal justice-involved population at a great agency with great people and I wanted to be hired on once my experience was over.  I really liked it!

So, I did what I do, and I worked my tail off.  I worked extra hours, assisted with additional projects—one of which was the opportunity to work with the State Division of Substance Use and Mental Health on a grant for $1.2 million.  I did all the research for the grant, helped summarize and write the thing, and the state received the award.  My practicum placement nominated me, and I won the 2013 College of Social Work Practicum Student of the Year for this project.  I even received a verbal agreement from my supervisor’s supervisor that I would be kept on past my practicum experience.  I felt good about all of it.   

Approximately three weeks prior to my graduation from school, I found out from a co-worker, that the other practicum student at this agency just accepted a full-time offer at this very agency.  Now, I was a bit confused, because I was told there was only one full-time position available.   But with my knowing that there were additional grant funds coming through, I thought maybe they decided to make an additional position and keep both of us?  So, I asked for a meeting with my supervisor and her supervisor to find out what was going on. 

What I found out was they decided they were not going to retain me. 

I was upset, confused, and hurt because for one of the first times in my life, I felt like all my hard work did not pay off.  However, looking back, that was the best thing that that agency could have done for me. 

At the end of my conversation with the supervisors, they told me that I did not need to worry —there are several places that would hire me in a heartbeat.  And to mark her words, “Lana, you will be in a management position within two years of graduating.”  And, as much as I wanted to punch both of those women in the face at the time, I have to say, today—they were right. 

Since graduating from the College of Social Work in May of 2016, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great people, on a lot of different projects that are very meaningful to me.  

My first job out of graduate school was at a non-profit substance use disorder treatment facility for men, called First Step House.  It was here that I did my 4,000 hours of additional training post-graduation to obtain my clinical license.  I learned how to take the theory from the classroom and institute it, day in and day out, with individuals who suffered from mental health and substance use disorder diagnoses.   

This position really prepared me for my journey with the Salt Lake City Police Department, where I became the first program manager of the first social work program embedded in a police agency in the state of Utah.  This position was a challenging, fulfilling, exhausting, and wonderful all at the same time. 

On my first day with the Police Department, I was given a laptop and a cubicle and told, “Okay, build a program.”  I had no idea what I was getting into.  

I started researching—which I probably should have done prior to taking this position, because what I found was there were only two other departments in the United States that had social workers embedded in their police departments, and those departments had very different focuses than what the Salt Lake City Police Department had expressed to me. 

The reason the city council decided to embed social workers into the Police Department was because of the large homeless issue they were facing in the Rio Grande area.  With the culmination of JRI (the Justice Reinvestment Act), where drug possession charges were changed from a felony to a misdemeanor, and the jail not having enough capacity to take individuals with less than a felony, it became a perfect storm and things got out of control. 

Officers did not have the tools to restore order in the area because as soon as someone was taken to the jail for a low-level offense (e.g. trespassing, public intoxication, drug possession, drug paraphernalia, simple assault, etc.), they would most likely be released within hours due to jail overcrowding. 

This was extremely frustrating to officers, and thus many were throwing their hands up because people could consistently break the law and the only thing the officer had the ability to do was give them an infraction, which consisted of a piece of paper.  This piece of paper landed on the ground and five minutes later, they would be back doing whatever they were doing before.  This happened because, believe it or not, someone high on drugs or someone that has a mental illness does not care about an infraction ticket.

So, the solution that the city council proposed was to place social workers in that area to help get these people the services that they need, rather than continuously arresting these folks repeatedly. 

The caveat to this was, as soon as I was hired, the following occurred: 

  • A new administration began.
  • The budget was frozen (which froze and cut the ability to hire all the people that were supposed to work under and with me).
  • About 90 percent of the officers in the department hated the idea of having a social worker (me) in the police department.
  • I continually heard the word “no,” over and over—with not a lot of rational behind why I was hearing no.
  • I worked to stay curious about the culture of law enforcement and how I could be of best assistance to their needs.
  • I stayed uncomfortable because I felt like I was alone on an island trying to teach 500 officers about what social workers do, all while working at least 65+ hours a week.

Needless to say, I was off to a good start. 

And I can also say it never got easier.  I had to fight my way through the development, implementation, and evaluation of this program the entire time I was there. 

This is not to say I did not gain the trust of many of the officers, police administration, fire administration, and city administration, as well as get the dedicated positions back into the budget—plus several others—however, that did not come without resistance. 

Out of all of this, what was created was the Community Connection Center.  This facility was smack dab in the middle of the Rio Grande and was comprised of three teams.  The Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST) officers; the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers; and the social workers.  Our mission was to provide a safe environment for people to access individualized care, support, and appropriate community resources. 

As we were preparing to open our doors, I heard constantly, “No one is going to come to the police station to get services!” “This is absurd—why are we spending money on this?” As well as many other comments I cannot share with you today.

However, I remained undeterred—I continued to plug away at the concept and was ready to adjust as necessary.  On July 19, 2016, we opened the doors to the Community Connection Center (CCC) and from that day forward, the community needs were so great that we could not serve the number of people that lined up at the police station daily to get help. 

Everyone was flabbergasted.  The service providers, the police officers, the public—people did not get it.  We were trying to serve so many people that we ended up having to expand and move locations to triple the size of our facility, and still we could not meet the demand.  We were seeing up to 150 people come through our doors in a five-hour period on any given day.  It was a recipe for disaster.  I was burning my staff out—we could not keep up and people were not getting their needs met, and when I am saying people, I mean both officers and clients. 

The Rio Grande area was getting worse, and there were two homicides in front of my office window within a two-week time span.  These homicides triggered what is known today as Operation Rio Grande.  This is a three-phase approach to making the area safer and more accessible for those in need.  The amazing part of Operation Rio Grande was the rapid deployment and collaboration between cross-system entities.  It is not often you have the state government, county government, and local government all collaborate on one issue in an expedited manner.

The SLCPD’s Community Connection Center had a large role in this Operation.  The CCC became the social services hub, which was amazing.  This gave us the necessary tools to serve the individuals that came through our door, because at any given time we had up to 10 additional social service agencies that offered a plethora of services, all in one place.  This was the first time something like this was done to this caliber and this quickly. 

It was my job to make sure everything was in place to make that happen.  Down to the last extension cord, I ensured all parties had what they needed to serve the people that wanted it.  In one month alone, I worked an additional 187 hours of overtime.

And you know what—it was all worth it.  Because finally, for the first time in my career, my fight to serve the people in the best way possible, with all the necessary tools, became a reality.  This project gave voices to those without one, and a hand to individuals who could not help themselves.  I am not saying this Operation was perfect; but it assisted with creating a safer environment for those who are most vulnerable and in need. 

I am proud to say the Community Connection Center continues today, and it has received many accolades throughout the short time it has been around.  The program, myself, and the employees have been repeatedly recognized for the work that has been done.  They continue to receive national recognition and are looked to as a model for other police departments to implement.  To this day, I am still asked to consult with other jurisdictions regarding this model.         

During the time I was at the SLCPD, I was approached by the County Mayor, Mayor Ben McAdams at the time, to see if I wanted to work with him in his office.  When a mayor asks for your assistance in serving the community, I feel like that is a difficult thing to say no to, thus I left the SLCPD and have been given the opportunity to serve in the Mayor’s Office at Salt Lake County (SLCo). 

In my current capacity at Salt Lake County, I work in the Criminal Justice Advisory Council as a programs manager.  I get to pilot out new initiatives aimed at improving public safety, individual and system-wide outcomes.  Some of the outcomes that we are aiming for include increasing system efficiency, reducing recidivism, providing alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, and lowering the cost of the criminal justice system to county tax payers by investing in programs that achieve these desired outcomes.  In the projects I manage, they all have a criminal justice nexus, and typically intersect with the homeless service system and behavioral health system. 

An example of one of the programs I run would be the Sober Living Voucher Program.  This was birthed out of the gap for service we found for individuals who were trying to leave a treatment facility or jail treatment facility and there was no safe, sober housing for them to exit to at the time that they were ready.  Thus, individuals would either be kept in a facility longer than necessary, until something could be found, or released to the streets, usually to find themselves start the cycle all over again.  If you do not reside in a safe, clean, sober environment, the chances of relapse go up exponentially. 

Thus, SLCo received $300,000 of seed funding to try something different.  We wanted to see if we contracted with Licensed Recovery Residences, also known as sober living homes, and provided a subsidy for up to six months upon discharge from the program they were coming from, would we be able to save money?  And would we be able to increase success?

The answer to both of those questions is “yes.”  Since January of 2018, we have helped over 320 participants move into a sober living facility at the time that they were ready.  By doing so, we have saved $1.8 million dollars in public treatment costs—a stay at a residential treatment facility is approximately $125 a day and sober living is $12- $27 dollars a day.  We have had an 82 percent success rate with folks remaining housed or successfully transitioning out of the program. 

With those results, the governor, put this program into his proposed budget as a $1.2 million ongoing line item.  Once this happens, we will find a permanent home for this program at Salt Lake County and I get to continue my other current projects, as well as move on to others. 

lana-dalton-with-awardI am essentially an incubator that gets to pilot out concepts, see if they work, and if they do, then work toward getting them to scale.  With change, many times comes resistance—and thus “no” has just became an expected answer.  So, I still ask why, but I have changed my thought process and have started to think about, “What are some concerns that they would have about what I am trying to do, and how can I address some of those out of the gate?”  This, on average, has led to a more efficient path to “yes,” or others getting more comfortable with “Okay, fine.  Try it.” 

I rarely must remind myself to “stay curious” these days because I am constantly inundated with new ideas and system gaps that need to be adjusted.  I could spend my lifetime doing this job and still not accomplish all that needs to happen.

If you haven’t noticed, I am still uncomfortable.  I don’t think I have been comfortable since I started working at the SLCPD.  Speaking in forums like this, having to talk to police chiefs, legislators, mayors, people at the White House is extremely uncomfortable to me.  It is becoming less foreign—however, still uncomfortable. 

I am a “come to work, do the best job possible, and do that daily” kind of gal.  However, what I have realized is that being recognized is not only an honor; it provides another outlet to promote the work I do for the folks that are in need.  Thus, when I get to the point to where I feel like I cannot do something, I remind myself of that purpose and forge forward. 

Lastly, I continue to work hard—and yes, it pays off… just not when I may want it to.  Some of the feedback I have received over the years is that you can’t push the system this fast, it does not work that way.  My response gets to be, “I would not be here if things were working,” which always has a glowing response from the person reminding me of the status quo.

In the beginning, I stated that my story is not one of tragedy, but one of always wanting more, persistent dissatisfaction with the status quo, and never giving up.  I must thank the University of Utah for giving me the tools:

  1. To learn how to ask “why,” when someone tells me “no”;
  2. To remain curious;
  3. To get and stay uncomfortable; and
  4. To work hard, despite it not paying off when you would like it to.

Out of these principles, I have been lucky enough to have a career that pushes limits, questions the unquestionable, and creates change.  With that, there is not much more could I ask for.


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Last Updated: 12/12/23