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A day full circle: Celebrating social work graduates, alumni, faculty and staff

Faculty, staff, family and friends filled Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on May 13, 2023, to celebrate the achievements of the 102nd graduating class of MSW and Ph.D. students from UNC School of Social Work. In total, 135 students received MSW degrees, and three graduates — Daniel James Gibbs, Melissa Renee Jenkins and Quinton LaKeith Smith — completed the Ph.D.

School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson greets the crowd from the stage at UNC's Memorial Hall during the May 13 commencement ceremony.
School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson

That the students all came to the same decision to “live a consequential life” and to make an impact through social work is worthy of celebration, noted Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson. Given the current and extraordinary challenges that so many individuals and families face around the world, including severe economic plight and increasing mental health issues, society has never needed social workers more, she said.

“You are the generation of social workers who will solve some of the most vexing problems in our society,” Denby-Brinson said. “Indeed, you are the generation of social workers we have been waiting for. So, as you begin a new chapter of your life today and take new steps into a society that so desperately needs your talent, your education, and your empathy, I embolden you to embrace the worth and human dignity of all humankind.”

Denby-Brinson also challenged the graduates to cultivate a civil community that values diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and to seek to understand differences. No matter where their next journey leads, every student should also remain confident that they have been well prepared as change agents and as leaders, she added.

“Your social work education here has set you on a professional path of leadership,” she said. “Social workers know how to ensure that everyone feels heard, how to build coalitions, how to effect change by leading bold and courageous conversations. These, my fellow social workers, are actions of leadership, and I cannot wait to see where you lead.”

Defining their own futures

UNC School of Social Work commencement speaker Stedman Graham delivers remarks from the stage at UNC's Memorial Hall.
Commencement speaker Stedman Graham

Stedman Graham, business advisor, educator, speaker, author and social worker, delivered this year’s commencement address, immediately noting that he and the students shared one common goal.

“Our mission is to get people to be the best that they can be,” said Graham, a former adjunct professor at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Business and current chairman and chief executive officer of S. Graham and Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm in Chicago, Illinois.

Reaching his own heights, Graham noted, was a journey of self-discovery. As a youth from Whitesboro, New Jersey – a small Black community neighbored by a predominantly White one — Graham said he was repeatedly bullied because of where he lived and because he had two brothers with disabilities. Labels were tossed at him based on his race and eventually his towering height. As a 6-foot, 6-inch teen, others assumed his talents rest with basketball and pushed him toward the sport. Although he eventually played college ball, including at Ball State University, Graham said he remained angry for years for not knowing himself or what he truly wanted in life.

These challenges and later ones, including being known only as the significant other of media executive, actress, TV producer and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, could have completely consumed him, Graham said. Instead, he refused to let the world define him.

“Whoever you let define you will always define you,” Graham said. “You cannot afford to turn your power over to somebody else.”

Such life lessons eventually helped Graham, who has authored 12 books on leadership, to develop nine specific steps for success, which he encouraged the freshly minted graduates to consider:

  • Check your identity. Who are you and what are you passionate about? “Your ability to take information and education and make it relevant to your heart, to your soul and then to transfer that to your thinking and then transferring that to the global marketplace to create and design your own future — that’s about as close to freedom as I know,” he explained.
  • Create your vision. Without a vision, people perish, Graham said. Learn to self-actualize your dreams.
  • Develop your travel plan. With tens of thousands of thoughts circulating brains daily, learn to steer those thoughts into actions.
  • Master the rules of the road. What principles do you live by? Hard work, honesty, determination and perseverance are values everyone should embrace.
  • Step into the outer limits. Identify your barriers to success and then take small steps daily to overcome them as well as any fears that may be holding you back.
  • Pilot the seasons of change. Having the internal capacity to embrace change can influence your trajectory toward success.
  • Build your dream team. Everyone needs support on the way up. No one can make it alone.
  • Win by a decision. Always invest in yourself; be open to learning new things and seek out opportunities for growth.
  • Commit to your vision. Everyone falls sometimes, but resilience is key, Graham added.

“Social workers, it can be difficult at times, but you’re not a failure when you fall down,” Graham concluded. “You’re only a failure when you don’t get back up. You gotta keep getting back up.”

Distinguished Alumni Award Winners: ‘A Promise Kept’

UNC School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson (middle) poses with Distinguished Alumni Award Winners Charity Watkins (left) and Karen Randolph (right) during the awards reception at the School of Social Work on May 13.
Dean Denby-Brinson, middle, with Distinguished Alumni Award Winners Charity Watkins, left, and Karen Randolph, right.

Prior to the commencement ceremony, family, friends, along with a few faculty and staff, gathered at the School to honor and celebrate this year’s winners of UNC School of Social Work’s Distinguished Alumni Awards: Karen A. Randolph, Ph.D. ’00, professor emerita at Florida State University’s College of Social Work and Charity S. Watkins, MSW ’13, Ph.D. ’19, assistant professor at North Carolina Central.

Alumni selected for this prestigious award are those who have achieved distinction in the social work field, who embody social work values and who carry the School’s mission of service into the world. Watkins was the first to receive the School’s new Distinguished Recent Alumni Award, which also recognizes alums who have graduated within the past 10 years.

Although much of the day is centered around the newest graduates, the School’s alumni and particularly this year’s award winners, are the shining examples of a “promise kept,” said Dean Denby-Brinson.

That promise is really embodied in our honorees’ work,” she noted. “It’s the impact they’re having in multiple communities. It’s the work that they do every day with their students and with fellow faculty. But it’s also the promise that they are keeping in relation to the mission of the School of Social work to advance equity, to transform systems and to improve lives.  

“And so, when I think about our two honorees this year, they have kept that promise that we held in them so many years ago when they got started. And now we’ve come full circle because they’ve made good on that promise to the School of Social Work.”

Honoring Faculty and Staff

Clinical Assistant Professor Mauricio Yabar receives his award for Most Innovative Teaching Faculty during the May 13 commencement ceremony.
Clinical Assistant Professor Mauricio Yabar was awarded Most Innovative Teaching Faculty.

Every year, student members of the School’s Social Work Student Organization honor members of our faculty and staff during the commencement ceremony. The below were honored in the following categories:

  • Most supportive teaching faculty: Laurie Selz-Campbell
  • Most innovative teaching faculty: Mauricio Yabar
  • Most inspirational teaching faculty: Travis Albritton
  • Most overall outstanding teaching faculty: Marilyn Ghezzi
  • Most supportive non-teaching staff: Beth Sauer
  • Most supportive in field education: Robin Sansing






View more photos from UNC School of Social Work’s 2023 Commencement Ceremony.

Photography by York Wilson.