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School honors graduating MSW and Ph.D. students with virtual celebrations

UNC School of Social Work’s Class of 2020 hasn’t held its formal commencement ceremony. There have been no pride-filled processionals on campus, no decorated mortarboards, no long-awaited walks across the stage and hugs from friends and favorite professors — not yet. These beloved traditions have all been postponed.

Faced with a worldwide pandemic and an immediate need to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus and protect lives, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill closed campus buildings and sent students home in March, midway through the spring semester. Our professors and students learned to use the Zoom application as a way to connect for classes; our field education instructors worked with students to offer alternative field experiences that could be completed remotely. Career Day, the Bobby Boyd Leadership Lecture and other spring traditions were canceled. Within a few weeks, we learned that our spring commencement ceremony had become another casualty of the pandemic.

Still, our Master of Social Work and Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work graduates wanted and needed a way to celebrate their accomplishments and experience a sense of closure as they completed the requirements for their degrees. Our faculty and staff were determined to provide a meaningful opportunity that would allow us to recognize our graduates for their hard work and commemorate their experiences as students.

Through a series of online events, our School honored the Class of 2020 with speakers, memories and even an online toast for doctoral graduates.

Celebrating our MSW graduates

“Enjoy this, a special virtual celebration in your honor!” Dean Gary Bowen welcomed MSW graduates and their special guests — parents, partners and other loved ones — to the School’s Zoom celebration for MSW graduates on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

Bowen also thanked a group of graduates, led by Julia Springer, who had prepared a video tribute for the School’s faculty and staff: “It really touched my heart.”

One of the School’s most beloved professors, Iris Carlton-LaNey, was a featured speaker during the event. She told the graduates, “Celebrate mightily! You deserve to celebrate.”

Emphasizing the role of social workers as “essential professionals on the front line,” Carlton-LaNey reminded the students that they walked with power and determination, ready to succeed in a job that could be both daunting and demanding. She added that the graduates would always be in her thoughts: “When you’re wondering where I am, just know that I am somewhere cheering for you.”

Lisa de Saxe Zerden, senior associate dean for MSW education, reminded the graduates, “Milestones offer all of us the opportunity to be self-reflective … today, you join the cadre of social work professionals who have come before you.”

As a special acknowledgment of the Class of 2020 and the extraordinary circumstances they faced during their final semester, our School’s faculty and staff recorded personal messages of congratulations, thanks and encouragement for the new graduates. Staff member Thaddaeus Edwards compiled these messages into a video tribute, which also featured congratulations from UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, commentaries from several MSW students and an informal musical performance by graduate Stephanie Wallace that drew praise from her classmates and professors. (You can watch this video tribute on YouTube.)

Before and after the structured program, a private Zoom gathering provided a more intimate and casual atmosphere for classmates to share favorite memories and to create new memories of a truly unique graduation event.

One by one, the graduates added to the event’s meaning by telling their own stories of how they were celebrating — wearing a grandmother’s bracelet, sitting in a chair that was a family heirloom, showing objects that had helped them thrive during their graduate studies (the items included photographs, books, meditation chimes, a gratitude tree and a French press for coffee). Several faculty members honored the graduates by wearing their academic regalia for the occasion.

Celebrating our Ph.D. graduates

On Friday, May 8, 2020, our School hosted an online reception to honor the four doctoral students who have completed their Ph.D. studies this year. Professors, family members and classmates joined this Zoom event.

Mimi Chapman, associate dean for doctoral education, complimented the new graduates on their academic commitment and excellence in the midst of the pandemic.

“Writing abstracts for SSWR [the annual Society for Social Work and Research conference, where many doctoral students present their research findings], applying for fellowships — the work of our students has not stopped,” Chapman said. “It’s been inspirational to watch.”

Dean Gary Bowen also recognized the new graduates for their accomplishments.

“I had the pleasure of having all of these in my classroom,” Bowen noted. “They are all very competent social work scholars.

“Our [doctoral] program is generally regarded as one of the top programs in the nation, and our four graduates are testament to that,” he added.

UNC-Chapel Hill is awarding the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D.) degree to Erum Agha, Joseph Frey, Sarah Rabiner and Joy Stewart. The professors who chaired each graduate’s dissertation committee — Gary Cuddeback (Agha), Paul Lanier (Frey), David Ansong (Rabiner) and Dean Duncan (Stewart) spoke briefly about the graduates’ academic achievements while at our School.

In addition, Chapman presented continuing doctoral student Lauren “LB” Klein with the Distinguished Doctoral Student Award, recognizing Klein’s excellence in teaching, service and research.

Scheduling a commencement ceremony

UNC-Chapel Hill plans to schedule the traditional live, on-campus commencement for the Class of 2020 when conditions allow and mass gatherings are once again permitted in North Carolina. Many of our new graduates will have accepted new jobs and moved away from Chapel Hill by that time, so these virtual events offered these graduates an opportunity to celebrate with family, friends and professors.

Although we do not know when a formal commencement can be scheduled, we hope that all of our graduates will return for commencement when it is scheduled, and we extend our best wishes to all of our graduates as they begin the next steps of their career journeys.