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Doctoral student earns Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholarship

Doctoral student Annie Francis has been selected by a national leadership development program as a 2017 Health Policy Research Scholar. Francis, a second year Ph.D. student at UNC’s School of Social Work, is one of 40 graduate students across the country tapped for the prestigious program, which is led by George Washington University and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Selected scholars are awarded $120,000 in academic support, which includes an annual stipend of $30,000 for up to four years of study, as well as access to professional coaching, mentoring and networking. The highly selective scholarship program began last year and targets doctoral students who have demonstrated that their research has the potential to impact health and well-being.

“That someone is willing to invest a little over a tenth of a million dollars not only in me but in my potential to help and serve others and that someone else believes in my capacity to facilitate change–that’s a big investment, and it’s a huge honor,” said Francis, who earned a dual master’s degree in social work and public administration from Carolina in 2011.

The scholarship program intentionally supports students from underrepresented populations and disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those whose ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability and other factors enable them to bring unique and diverse perspectives to their research. The goal is to train doctoral students to use their discipline-based research training to “build a culture of health” that ensures that all individuals are afforded the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives.

As a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe and as a former foster care social worker in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, Francis has long been interested in experiences of inequality and injustice. Her decision to pursue a Ph.D. was influenced largely by a deep desire to address what she observed as critical gaps within the child welfare system.

“My experience as a frontline social worker led me to research because although I could support a family one-on-one, I felt the magnitude of support that was provided needed to be enhanced across all levels,” Francis said. “I learned quickly that it’s harder to influence policy trickling up. That’s why I felt led to pursue my Ph.D. to obtain more tools  to help generate change on the system-level.”

Since enrolling in the School’s Ph.D. program, Francis has focused her research on children in foster care, especially American Indian children. Her goal: to examine how the involvement of these children in the child welfare system influences their lifelong development.

Francis is particularly interested in analyzing how the federal Indian Child Welfare Act has been implemented in North Carolina. The law established standards for the placement of American Indian children in foster and adoptive homes. The law was designed to prevent bias against American Indian families, but Francis suspects the policy is applied inconsistently.

“I’m interested in helping to develop a good baseline for how North Carolina is actually measuring up against this policy that is designed to have an impact on well-being,” she said. “I think that data is necessary for ongoing program improvement and to assess how compliance has influenced outcomes for children in the system.”

Matthew Howard, associate dean for doctoral education and Francis’ mentor, praised her selection as a health policy scholar and Francis’ commitment to the social work profession.

“Annie is one of the most motivated, dedicated, and creative students I have worked with, and I believe she will do important social justice work in her career,” Howard said. “She has maximized her educational experience at the UNC School of Social Work and is a wonderful example of how much students can achieve if they are wholly committed to their personal and career goals.”