Lori Messinger, MSW ’96, Ph.D. ’99, professor and dean of the University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Social Work, and Nora El-Khouri Spencer, MSW ’17, the founder and CEO of Hope Renovations in Carrboro, N.C., have been selected to receive UNC School of Social Work’s 2022 Distinguished Alumni Awards.
Each year, the School chooses to recognize alumni who have achieved distinction in the social work field, who embody social work values and who carry our mission of service into the world. Alumni can be nominated by peers, faculty members, staff, fellow alumni or students and are chosen by a committee.
The School and social work community take pride in the achievements of our 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, noted Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson.
“Lori Messinger and Nora Spencer epitomize what it means to lead in a consequential manner,” she said. “A significant part of Lori’s legacy is the opportunity she has created for thousands of social workers to receive the education and preparation needed to serve their communities. Likewise, she has enabled the careers of social work educators and scholars and in doing so, elevated the standing of our profession.”
Spencer’s work is equally impressive, Denby-Brinson said.
“When I think about what Nora has done to elevate women and increase their economic standing, one word comes to mind, transformational,” she said. “Nora’s leadership has not only changed the lives of the women she is helping, but it has set into motion the economic uplift of those women’s families and communities for generations to come.”
Messinger has devoted her career to social justice and the development of social work programs and students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. When she was named professor and dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee Knoxville in 2019, she brought more than 15 years of progressive leadership in both research and comprehensive public universities to her new role.
Her previous professional experience includes serving as BSW program director and School of Social Work director at the University of Kansas; associate vice chancellor for community engagement and senior fellow for diversity initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington; and as a faculty member at the University of Alabama and North Carolina State University.
Messinger’s well-regarded scholarship focuses on cultural competence in social work education and practice, including with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations, and organizational change processes, especially in higher education institutions. Throughout her professional journey, Messinger has shown an unwavering commitment to social justice advocacy and to connecting social work programs with local communities, while achieving a career of distinction that honors her alma mater.
Nora El-Khouri Spencer
Spencer is founder and CEO of Hope Renovations in Carrboro, N.C. After earning a degree in journalism, she spent the first 15 years of her career in human resources and recruiting for the private sector. Spencer enrolled in the MSW program at UNC School of Social Work after deciding to combine her workforce recruiting skills and her passion for home renovation with the goal of helping women enter the construction trades.
As a student working through the School’s Social Innovations and Entrepreneurship Lab, Spencer continued to hone the idea of a training program that would empower underemployed women to make inroads into the construction industry, where they could earn living wages on a sustainable career path. After becoming familiar with the concept of aging-in-place, she recognized the opportunity for these women to practice their newfound skills while carrying out needed repairs and renovations for older adults in the community.
Soon after, the model for Hope Renovations was born. Spencer is now a licensed general contractor and the leader of a growing nonprofit with its own full-time operations team and construction crew. Over the past five years, Hope Renovations has garnered national recognition for its efforts to empower women and lift communities.
Through her work with Hope Renovations, Spencer exemplifies the values of her alma mater while carrying the School’s mission of service into her community and beyond.
Messinger and Spencer will be recognized and receive their awards during UNC School of Social Work’s graduation ceremony on May 7 at Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.