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School of Social Work Ph.D. graduates enjoy pre-commencement celebration 

by Chris Hilburn-Trenkle

(All photos courtesy Jafar Fallahi/Jafar Fallahi Photography)

On the eve of commencement, members of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work doctoral program gathered to commemorate the end of their academic journey at UNC.  

Faculty, staff and students took part in the festivities on Friday, May 10, in the fifth-floor lounge of the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building to socialize, celebrate and present the doctoral student awards to this year’s Ph.D. graduates. 

“The doctoral graduates this year come from three different cohorts including the first cohort I admitted (as associate dean in 2019) and two from our ‘covid’ class,” said Associate Dean for Doctoral Education Mimi Chapman. “All of them have had to be particularly tenacious through their doctoral studies each for different reasons and at different times. They finished the race they set out to run and I am filled with admiration. They are doing important, cutting-edge work, that will impact social work practice and policy. They are heading out to wonderful schools — Bryn Mawr College, University of Connecticut, New York University, and University of Colorado Boulder — and I know they will be amazing ambassadors for our doctoral program and the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work.” 

As the five students arrived at the celebration, surrounded by friends and family, they were greeted with corsages and a slideshow that featured a generation of the School’s doctoral students.  

Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson addressed the assembled guests, sharing her memories of the graduates and congratulating them on becoming the latest group of alumni within the doctoral program. 

Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson speaks during the Ph.D. reception.

After Chapman handed out the outstanding doctoral student awards, each of the five students received a toast, introduced their friends and family and shared stories about their research as their dissertation chairs looked on. 

The 2023-2024 recipients of the Outstanding Doctoral Student of the Year awards were Hayden Dawes and Sarah Godoy. The annual award recognizes doctoral students who demonstrate exemplary teaching, scholarship, service, leadership and collegial support of fellow students. 

“I feel really seen, I feel really noticed, for the heart and dedication that I’ve put in,” Dawes said. “It means a lot coming from my peers to be represented and honored that way and lifted up as someone that not only just provides great scholarship but also provides a lot of passion and helps form connection and community. I want everyone to feel like they have a place and that they belong and that their work matters and their humanity matters, alongside the wonderful contributions that they provide to social research and science.” 

“It’s a beautiful feeling, unexpected,” Godoy said. “I think when you’re in the program you become so focused on the milestones and what’s next in your own personal journey and you don’t realize the impact you can have on other people while you’re doing this important work. It was such an honor, it just felt beautiful to have your peers believe in you and recognize you for just existing and trying to support them and do the best you can.” 

The graduates expressed a sense of relief at completing this chapter, albeit mixed with some nostalgia, as they prepare to venture off to different parts of the country as mentors to the next generation of doctoral students.  

“It feels like I can finally rest, and I’m ready to rest,” Godoy said. “It was only four years, but it feels much longer than that. And so being done, it feels so good, it feels so celebratory and so wonderful to be around the people who helped bring you along the way.” 

Dissertation Defenses 

  • Stefani Baca-Atlas’ dissertation defense is titled, “Exploring Structural Racism as a Determinant of Violence Against Women.” Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor of Social Work Trenette Clark Goings is Baca-Atlas’ dissertation chair. 
  • Hayden Dawes’ dissertation defense is titled, “Liberating Ourselves with Radical Permission: A Mixed-Methods Intervention Study of People in Digital Community.” Associate Professor William Hall is Dawes’ dissertation chair. 
  • Alexandria Forte’s dissertation defense is titled, “Defining food security and exploring its association with mental health among Black adolescents.” Associate Professor Rainier Masa is Forte’s dissertation chair. 
  • Sarah Godoy’s dissertation defense is titled, “Exploring Sexual Exploitation Initiated During Preadolescence in the United States.” Associate Dean for Doctoral Education Mimi Chapman is Godoy’s dissertation chair. 
  • Claire R. McNellan’s dissertation defense is titled, “Using Unsupervised Machine Learning to Advance Understanding of Child Maltreatment Report Dispositions.” John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need Emily Putnam-Hornstein is McNellan’s dissertation chair. 

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