From the moment she entered the School of Social Work’s MSW program, Olivia Bass was determined to equip herself with the knowledge and skills needed to advocate on behalf of low-income women of color.
However, according to School faculty and student peers, Bass’ efforts over the last three years to support female students of color as well as working mothers on campus prove that she is already a leader in the field.
UNC administrators agree. Bass was among four women honored by the University on March 7 with the 2017 Award for the Advancement of Women.
“She represents UNC with an unwavering compassion and desire for social justice…,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt said of Bass during a ceremony at the Campus Y.
The Award for the Advancement of Women was created in 2006 and honors individuals — one faculty member, one staff member and two students —who have mentored or supported women on campus, elevated the status of women or improved campus policies for them, promoted women’s recruitment and retention or promoted professional development for women (See previous winners).
In addition to Bass, this year’s recipients are: Susan Girdler, professor of psychiatry and psychology in the Department of Psychiatry; Beatriz Riefkohl Muñiz, associate director, director of undergraduate study at the Institute for the Study of the Americas; and Kaylee Llewellyn, an undergraduate student majoring in computer science. The winners will receive a monetary award ($5,000 for faculty and staff winners and $2,500 for the undergraduate and graduate student winners).
Bass, who will graduate in May from the Triangle Distance Education Program, credited the overwhelming support she has received throughout her academic career for giving her the needed strength to pursue her own goals and to seek justice for others.
“Everyone made a way for me so that now I can make a way for other women,” she said.
Bass, who received a BA in psychology from Carolina, began making her mark during her undergraduate career. Among other activities, she worked as a peer facilitator for weekly discussions on issues such as time management and academic support for students on academic probation. She also served as a community educator at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, where, as a survivor of sexual assault herself, she worked to educate the community on intimate partner violence.
Since returning to campus as an MSW student, Bass has continued to work tirelessly, including through a field placement with the UNC Women’s Center, to advance women by advocating for a parental space on campus and for violence prevention; researching, identifying and writing a campus grant to help parents succeed; and working as a case manager for women trying to balance being both a student and a parent.
Her passion for mothers and children is personal. As an undergrad, Bass became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Carson. A year later, Carson was diagnosed with “1q21.1 microdeletion,” a rare genetic disorder in which an individual’s cells are missing small pieces of DNA building blocks. Ensuring her son had access to appropriate services and resources became a full-time job in addition to working diligently to stay on top of her academic studies.
Yet, all of these personal experiences, she concluded, fueled her desire to speak up for others, including for parents with children with special needs. They also helped to inform her on-campus work and interest in research on interpersonal violence from a woman of color’s perspective.
“It informed my decision to go into social work so that I could help these populations immediately and disrupt a few systems with my presence, my resilience, and my fierce determination,” she said.