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School of Social Work Tar Heels celebrate 2024 commencement

by Matthew Smith

(All photos courtesy Jafar Fallahi/Jafar Fallahi Photography)

Tassels, flowing gowns and a chorus of cheers filled the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on Saturday afternoon for the School of Social Work’s 103rd annual spring commencement ceremony.

Cheered on by their family, peers, faculty and staff members, future colleagues, and friends, more than 140 students — including 138 master’s and five doctoral graduates — were recognized and had the opportunity to reflect on their time in their programs, while looking forward to their bright futures.

More than 140 graduates were recognized a the 2024 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work commencement ceremony
More than 140 graduates were recognized a the 2024 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work commencement ceremony. (Photos by Jafar Fallahi)

“I’m just so overwhelmed and happy,” said Tsedenia Aboste, a 12-month advance standing program graduate. “A lot of hard work went into this. I appreciate what I’ve learned at the School of Social Work. It’s helped me achieve my goals.

“Being here today means a lot. I was looking forward to seeing everyone in my cohort. I just want to celebrate.”

Students were welcomed by Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, who said she admired the graduates’ dedication to their work.

“I am in awe of your unwavering commitment to the field of social work and applaud the demanding work you have put in to gain the knowledge and skills that will help you make a difference in this world,” Denby-Brinson said.

“You see, this moment is about our graduates. Thank you for filling this room with love, joy and the desire to recognize our graduates who are so deserving of celebration.”

Thompson shares advice

Commencement speaker Jennifer Thompson, founder of Healing Justice and the 2016 North Carolinian of the Year, remarked on the role community would play in the years to come for the graduates.

Thompson is a sexual assault survivor who also endured the added trauma of seeing the wrong person convicted of the crime.

The friendship she eventually built with the wrongfully convicted man led to the pair speaking about injustice and criminal justice reform, and she later founded Healing Justice in 2015. The organization is a leading force in addressing the harm caused to all impacted by wrongful convictions and preventing future harm.

Thompson was welcomed to campus on Friday night as the guest of honor at the School’s annual speaker welcome dinner hosted by Associate Dean of Advancement Kandace Farrar. The dinner was part of a host of pre-commencement festivities that included a reception for the School’s doctoral graduates; a reception for its MSW graduates; and a distinguished alumni awards breakfast on Saturday.

While addressing the larger crowd, Thompson gave graduates five major pieces of advice, reminding them:

  • To lighten their burden when needed;
  • To live in the present and do not straddle the past and future;
  • To find your team;
  • To love yourself; and
  • To choose to have hope.

“Your community will never ask you to fit into something that is not you, they will not ask you to cut off parts of yourself in order to be accepted,” Thompson said. “Your team will love and accept all parts of you — all the orphaned, marginalized, exiled pieces. They will help you to excavate until these ostracized parts make their way back home — the place of true belonging — to your authentic self.”

She stressed the need for graduates to be there for one another, despite their differences.

“You all have chosen a career path that will ask you to serve people who are at the lowest points of their lives,” Thompson said. “These will be people that may not think like you, look like you, vote like you, pray like you, or love like you. Men, women, children and families that will be in crisis and looking for your support and help.

“We cannot heal in isolation. Regardless of our differences, we need each other. My friends, remember that at the end of our lives we were simply here to help walk each other home.”

Faculty, alumni support

The School’s faculty and alumni also shared words of support for the Class of 2024.

Interim Associate Dean for MSW Education Andrea Murray-Lichtman highlighted the rigorous curriculum and practicum placements graduates undertook and reminded them how prepared they will be to provide social interventions and services while working in their communities.

“At times I heard you say how overwhelmed you were, mainly when you had several assignments due during the same week,” she said. “But you persevered. Not only did you persevere, but you went above and beyond.

“On behalf of the entire faculty, I express our immense pride and admiration for you. With your skills honed, it’s time to join our esteemed UNC School of Social Work alumni, impacting lives worldwide. You’re not just graduates; you’re agents of change.”

Alumni Council President Caitlin Bearden Kappler, a 2014 graduate of UNC’s MSW program, reminded her fellow Tar Heels to be kind.

“We are all truly blessed to be a part of this vibrant social work community, surrounded by a network of individuals that will stand by you long after you step off this stage,” Kappler said. “The bonds you have created, the relationships you have built, and the encouragement you have received extend far beyond this moment.”

Alumni, SoWoSO awards

Along with recognizing current graduates, School leadership presented a pair of alumni awards to past graduates.

Michelle Chambers-Rollins ’08 (MSW) was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Yazmin Garcia Rico ’18 (MSW) was recognized with the Distinguished Recent Alumni Award.

Chambers-Rollins helps others through her private practice, Therapeutic Family Solutions, PLLC, which serves the Durham, Raleigh and Roxboro areas. Since its opening 13 years ago, she and her team have helped individuals and families dealing with anxiety, depression, traumatic stress disorders, and substance abuse disorders.

She earned her doctorate from the joint North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and UNC Greensboro departments of social work and has worked as a licensed clinical social worker for 15 years.

With the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Garcia Rico took a leading role in pushing for the equitable distribution of vaccines, conducting communication efforts, and spearheading informational outreach in collaboration with community organizations, doctors and health workers around the state.

As the director of Hispanic/Latinx policy and strategy with NCDHHS, she more recently implemented Medicaid expansion outreach and communication efforts to reach the Latino population with community organizations around the state, raising awareness about Medicaid eligibility and enrollment among eligible members.

The School’s Social Work Student Organization (SoWoSO) also presented its annual awards at the ceremony. The organization is the School’s primary student leadership organization, composed of smaller caucus groups, that promotes areas of special interest through discussions, activities and events.

Each year at commencement, students recognize faculty and staff who have been especially meaningful to them during their time at UNC. This year’s recipients included:

  • Most Innovative Teaching Faculty Member: Travis Albritton
  • Most Supportive Teaching Faculty Member: Laurie Selz-Campbell
  • Most Inspirational Teaching Faculty Member: Karon Johnson
  • Most Supportive Faculty Member in Practicum Education: Amy Levine
  • Most Outstanding Micro Teaching Faculty Member: Mauricio Yabar
  • Most Outstanding Macro Teaching Faculty Member: Jessica Lambert Ward
  • Most Outstanding New Faculty Member: Alyssa Draffin
  • Most Outstanding Staff Member: Aisha Stocks

Looking to the future

With new challenges ahead of them, the School’s newest alumni aren’t slowing down. Some are even continuing their education at UNC.

“Today was all anxiousness, nervousness and excitement all wrapped up into one,” MSW graduate David French said. “I have a few months off and then I’m coming back here for a Ph.D. program in social work.

“I’ve loved each and every person I’ve had the chance to work with here. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Denby-Brinson left the graduates with inspiring words as they head into their future.

“As you begin a new chapter of your life today and take steps into a society that so desperately needs your talent, education and empathy, I embolden you to embrace the worth and human dignity of all humankind,” she said.

Visit the Carolina Newsroom for coverage of UNC’s university-wide ceremony.

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