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UNC School of Social Work bestows two 2024 distinguished alumni awards

by Barbara Wiedemann 

Two North Carolina moms celebrated Mother’s Day a day early with their daughters, who were awarded distinguished alumni awards from the UNC School of Social Work. 

The two daughters, Michelle Chambers-Rollins and Yazmin Garcia Rico, were honored during the School’s 2024 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11, at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The winners celebrated with family and friends at a brunch event prior to the ceremony. 

Yazmin Garcia Rico ’18 (MSW) (third from the left in photo at left) and Clinical Assistant Professor Michelle Chambers-Rollins ’08 (MSW) (in photo at right with Professor Emerita Iris Carlton-LaNey)

Chambers-Rollins was recognized as the School’s 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. Chambers-Rollins is a double Tar Heel with a 2008 MSW degree from the School who went on to receive her doctorate from the joint North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and UNC Greensboro departments of social work.  

Garcia Rico received the 2024 Distinguished Recent Alumni Award. She is a 2011 Guilford College graduate who studied French Studies, Business and Human Resources, and went on to earn her MSW from the School in 2018. 

Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson welcomed more than four dozen guests to the family-style gathering decorated with Carolina blue and white balloons and floral bouquets. 

“In our hustle bustle world … so much is transactional,” Denby-Brinson said.  

“Very rarely do we have a moment just to sit down with the people that we love and care about — the people that got us to this moment — and say, ‘You know what? Thank you. Thank you for everything you have done,’” she continued as she invited both award winners to take a few moments to speak to the gathering. 

Coming full circle 

Chambers-Rollins, ’08 (MSW), a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed clinical addiction specialist, was recognized for the important work she is doing for the children and families of North Carolina.  

She taught more effective parenting skills using thorough intervention techniques at Child Protective Services in Person and Wake counties. She also co-authored How to Work with Families Affected by Substance Use. From 2013 to 2016, she served as clinical director at Upward Change Health Services in Durham, N.C. 

An entrepreneur with a passion for helping others, Chambers-Rollins also opened a private practice, Therapeutic Family Solutions, PLLC, in 2010 which serves the Durham, Raleigh and Roxboro areas in an outpatient mental health therapy setting. She and her team have helped individuals and families dealing with anxiety, depression, traumatic stress disorders and/or substance use disorders.  

The award-winning graduate has served the School in many ways since 2016, in roles as a curriculum developer, an education specialist and an adjunct professor with the Jordan Institute for Families (JIF) and the Family and Children’s Resource Program, among others. 

In her nomination for the alumni award, it was noted that “Not only does Chambers-Rollins understand the value of culturally competent practice, but she takes every opportunity to teach and train other social workers and the community at large. Chambers-Rollins does not presume to be the ‘culture expert,’ rather she is adroit at encouraging and following the guide that the consumer provides.” 

“This person is speaking about Michelle’s ability, her knowledge, her compassion,” Denby-Brinson added as she introduced the award winner during brunch. “How she centers others first and how she helps others recognize their abilities. 

“You in my mind are a promise-keeper,” Denby-Brinson said to Chambers-Rollins. “All the things that we hope for our students, you went out and realized. You made our mission complete. We thank you.” 

Chambers-Rollins thanked her mother and father and said, “Community means everything to me.”  

She went on to say that community is led by God, whom she thanked for bringing generations of her family and a table full of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority friends together. The crowd applauded when she recognized her husband for his support— “We are newlyweds, y’all,” she said with a smile — and again when she thanked Professor Emerita Iris Carlton-LaNey for being her mentor. 

Future Carolina MSW students will have the opportunity to get to know the Distinguished Alumni Award winner. Chambers-Rollins is one of three full-time clinical assistant professors hired in May to support the School’s practicum education program and teaching needs. 

Tener un impacto 

Garcia Rico, ’18 (MSW), who graduated from the School with a community management and policy practice concentration, puts her academic training to work by fighting for equity and expanding community outreach around North Carolina.  

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2021, Garcia Rico joined the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) as the director of Hispanic/Latinx policy and strategy.  

In her nomination, Garcia Rico was cited for using her NCDHHS leadership role to effectively advocate to increase COVID vaccination rates among the Latino community; help implement Medicaid expansion outreach efforts to Latinos across the state; and broadly support Spanish-language communications across the state for the department, work which garnered a ClearMark award from the Center for Plain Language for the department. 

Garcia Rico shared that as of May 11, some 80%, or 40,000 of 50,000 eligible Hispanic/Latinx North Carolinians, had enrolled. 

“We know how important good health care and access to health care is,” Denby-Brinson said. “We can level the playing field when all populations have access to good care. So, thank you for what you are doing in that space.” 

In her remarks, the NCDHHS director shared that getting to graduate school as a DACA student had been a real challenge, particularly financially. She mentioned the support of her community and the support “of faculty and professors who guided me on my journey — you all know who you are.” 

The award-winning MSW alum noted that since she graduated, social and political unrest and a COVID pandemic have challenged the community.  

“Time and time again, it was the skills that I learned in this program … that helped me to be better prepared and to come up with solutions once I was out in the field,” she said. 

“This moment here is a full circle for me, and it’s very meaningful, especially on Mother’s Day weekend, because my mom is here with me,” Garcia Rico noted. “My mom has been my strength and my support, and she is my example of what a strong woman is like,” she said as she turned to her mother to thank her in Spanish. 

The School’s advancement team, led by Associate Dean Kandace Farrar, hosted the Saturday morning brunch on the fifth floor of the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building. Farrar thanked Chambers-Rollins and Garcia Rico for allowing her and her team to have jobs that center around supporting, uplifting and celebrating alumni like them.