2023 Alumni Honors: Don Schmid
Former director of North Dakota Children and Family Services serves as “conductor,” bringing specialties together to improve opportunities for families across the state, region and nation.
When Don Schmid, ’61, was a junior studying social work at the University of North Dakota, he took a UND internship with the Benson County Social Service office. Part of that internship was spending time on the Spirit Lake Reservation.
That summer, Don said, “I grew up. I learned so much about poverty, injustice, and the lack of services, the lack of good medical care, and the problems of justice systems. These things shaped my whole career.” This experience, Don said, solidified his mission to improve the lives of others, especially Native Americans.
My career began with UND, and I have a responsibility to give back and support students who are seeking a master’s degree.
After earning a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in New York, Don served over three decades in the North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 12 as director of Children and Family Services. He has been an integral part in shaping the way social services are carried out and funded in North Dakota.
“I looked at my job almost like an orchestra leader. I would say, ‘OK, you have this specialty, so I need you to get a little louder, please, and partner with us to be part of the solution.’”
As “conductor,” he brought together other state and private agencies specializing in education, social services, juvenile services, and mental and behavioral health. He provided leadership in starting many programs in North Dakota to help strengthen and support families, influencing federal laws and a series of best practices modeled by other states.
One example started in 1984, when he and Dr. Kenneth Dawes, then chair of the UND Department of Social Work, jumpstarted the UND Children & Family Services Training Center for child welfare service providers, including social workers and foster and adoptive families. This university/state partnership has been duplicated in over 30 states. The current UND director, Amy Oehlke, was a recipient of the Don Schmid Child Welfare Leadership Scholarship established by the Schmids 25 years ago.
“My career began with UND, and I have a responsibility to give back and support students who are seeking a master's degree,” Don said about his scholarship. He and Sylvia recently established another for students from a Midwest Indian tribe seeking a graduate degree through the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines.
After retiring from HHS in 1997, Don started a consulting business to help states develop and improve children’s service programs, and uncover and maximize unspent funding. In every one of the 29 states, 9 universities and nearly 60 Native tribes where he’s consulted, Don has taught best practices from North Dakota.
For anyone working in children’s services, there is risk of burnout. What’s kept Don going is his wife, Sylvia, an orchestra conductor in her own right. “She’s the rock. She’s the one who connects everything together,” he said.
Optimism has also helped. “The hope that things can change, things can get better. Sometimes it takes a long time, but then you can reflect on what’s changed.”
Throughout his career, Don has kept UND at the forefront and vice versa. This spring, Don was asked to speak at the CNPD Master of Social Work hooding ceremony, recently named the Don Schmid MSW Hooding Ceremony. After learning he is also a recipient of the Sioux Award for Distinguished Achievement & Leadership, Don said he felt honored, appreciative and surprised.
“How lucky can a person get?” Don said of both his awards. “UND means everything to me. It gave me these opportunities. If I wouldn’t have gone to UND…my career probably would have gone a different route.”