Each year at graduation, the UNC School of Social Work presents the Distinguished Alumni Award 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, fellow alumni or students and are chosen by a committee.
This year, the School presented five distinguished alumni awards to the following honorees, who represent four different academic decades: Sharon Warren Cook, MSW ’95; Dana Newman Courtney, MSW ’74; Karen McLeod, MSW ’01; Phyllis Thomas-Thorpe, MSW ’82; and Irene Nathan Zipper, MSW ’73.
Sharon Warren Cook is a 1995 MSW graduate and the dean of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y. Prior to this appointment, Cook served as an associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Psychology at North Carolina A&T State University. During her tenure with N.C. A&T, Cook demonstrated outstanding leadership by assuming numerous administrative roles, including interim associate dean for research and institutional effectiveness; co-director of the Joint Master of Social Work Program; director of the Undergraduate Social Work Program; and interim department chair. As the executive director of the Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging and Community Health, Cook implemented major innovations aimed at improving the health and quality of life for individuals and their families who are coping with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. This work included promising studies to address issues specifically affecting the health of the African American community. Cook’s commitment to high ethical social work standards is further reflected in the diversity of services and programs in which she has been engaged over the years, including serving on a number of community boards and councils and hosting a radio program that focused on diverse subjects affecting academia and the broader community.
Dana Newman Courtney is a 1974 MSW graduate, past president and current member of the School of Social Work’s Alumni Council and a current member of the School’s Board of Advisors. Considered a “dedicated warrior for social justice,” Courtney has spent 40 years advocating on behalf of others, including through her work with children and families, human services practitioners, immigrants and the NAACP. A former child welfare social worker, including for the Durham County Department of Social Services, Courtney focused much of her career on educating individuals and facilitating organizations to address the dynamics of race, racism and other -isms and to practice cultural competency and equity. As the manager of organizational development for the Durham DSS, she directed implementation of an award-winning diversity and inclusion program that was recognized nationally. This effort was based on the department’s work with VISIONS Inc., a nonprofit training and consulting organization that specializes in diversity and inclusion. For the past 18 years, Courtney has served as a consultant for the nonprofit, focusing on education, human services and community advocacy organizations. A recipient of numerous awards, she was recently honored by the N.C. Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers with the 2016 Myrna Miller Wellons Advocacy Award, which recognizes individuals who have “demonstrated a strong passion to advocate for the needs of the social work profession and/or policy issues” and who have “been a champion in impacting policy both for the social work profession and the clients served by social workers.”
Karen McCloud is a 2001 MSW graduate and the CEO and president of Benchmarks, an alliance of nationally accredited agencies committed to providing quality care, leadership, and accountability in services to children, adults and families in North Carolina. In this role, McCloud directs the strategic initiatives of the association, its advocacy and lobbying responsibilities, as well as development of collaborative partnerships for Benchmarks and its members. Over the years, she has led the association’s efforts on system changes to improve outcomes of care that emphasize research-based intervention models, effective use of data to track outcomes and performance based contracting. McCloud has a history of community leadership, having served as the executive director of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services, director of the Office of Victim Services for the N.C. Department of Correction, and as chair of the statewide Mental Health Coalition. McCloud currently serves as chair of the N.C. MCO/Provider Steering Committee and as co-chair of the Legislative Child Fatality Task Force.
Phyllis Ann Thomas-Thorpe is a 1982 MSW graduate and current member of the School of Social Work’s Alumni Council. She has more than 30 years of experience in human services, including in acute care settings and in law enforcement/regulatory settings. Thomas-Thorpe has devoted most of her career to improving the quality of life and the systems of care for socially, emotionally, physically, economically, mentally and criminally challenged clients. Her journey toward social work began shortly after she received a BA degree in sociology and political science from N.C. Central University. That same year, she enrolled in the Durham Public Safety Academy and in 1972, she broke the gender barrier by becoming the first female officer with the Durham Police Department. A few years later, Thomas-Thorpe began working as a clinical social worker with Duke University Medical Center and remained employed there while she pursued her MSW at UNC. From 1999 until her retirement in 2006, she worked as a certified health care facility regulator for the state of North Carolina. In this new post, she was responsible for investigating complaints and for ensuring that acute and long-term care facilities complied with state and federal laws. Over the years, Thomas-Thorpe has further demonstrated her commitment to public service through her work with various local, state and national organizations, including with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the National Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the Greater Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Orange/Durham Coalition of Battered Women.
Irene Nathan Zipper is a 1973 MSW graduate. Throughout her career, Zipper contributed to the well-being of children and families across North Carolina, the nation, and Europe. Early on, she was instrumental in the development of an agency training curriculum that enhanced the system of care for vulnerable children with mental health needs. As a social work educator, Zipper promoted international scholarship with Sweden, Germany, and Portugal through her leadership with the Transatlantic Consortium for Early Childhood Intervention. As director of the Family Support Network™ of North Carolina and later the Family Support Program, she oversaw the expansion of local programs to serve thousands of families with children who have special needs. Over the years, Zipper has continued to demonstrate excellence in social work service, including during the latter part of her career. Inspired by recent natural disasters that showed the particular vulnerability of people with disabilities, she secured federal funding for a project designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities and their families are supported in the event of an emergency.