James Madison University

Professor Cindy Hunter Wins Educator of the Year Award

By: Lori News
Posted: April 1, 2014

PHOTO: Wall hanging

After a warm, smiling welcome from social work professor, Cindy Hunter, I immediately noticed décor on the walls. Two colorful batik cloths depicting African culture decorate the walls of Hunter’s office. A photograph capturing a moment from her time in Mauritania is displayed on her bulletin board and reminds her of happy times there.

During her travels, Hunter developed a passion for helping people; and through her travel experiences she teaches her students the importance of social work.

After earning an undergraduate degree in public health education, Hunter joined the Peace Corps and lived in Mauritania, West Africa for two years. Her knowledge in health education and her experience working in shelters with displaced people played an important role in developing her interest in the social work field.

She was assigned to work in a village where she helped start an infant feeding center for malnourished kids. As a health educator, she collaborated with other health care professionals to screen children for malnutrition and promote oral rehydration and immunizations.

As she was working in the shelters for displaced people, she discovered that working with an international population appealed to her and she decided to pursue a social work career.

While working toward her Master of Social Work (MSW) at Howard University she married, had two children and worked full time. Once she completed her studies, she was eager to go abroad to work with displaced populations. In 1995, Hunter came across an organization called the Mennonite Central Committee that would send her to El Salvador to work with displaced people in a recently formed community. With her husband and two small children, she packed up and moved to El Salvador for five years.

Because the fairly new community of 10 years was made up of war refugees who claimed the government owned land, there were issues with trust and communal group work. Hunter worked with groups of people and facilitated teamwork that contributed to a more effective and fluid community. She explained it as “a group process with perseverance.”

Hunter explains her favorite memory from her time in El Salvador was getting to know a group of women artisans and helping them market their work and pool their money to buy raw materials for their crafts. After her assignment was finished and Hunter returned to the United States, an earthquake destroyed a large number of homes. The craft women came together as a team and helped rebuild the community.

Hunter received a video a year later from the Mennonite Central Committee who funded and organized the rebuilding process. The same group of women who had previously been embroidering and making paper beads were shown using electric tools and rebuilding each other’s homes.

“I would love all my students to get an experience where they live among people in which they are the minority and they get a feel for how collectively a group of people can problem solve differently. It challenges your world view. That is so rich to me,” she said.

In spring 2013, Hunter developed a study abroad trip to San Martín, El Salvador that was focused on mental health. Prior to the trip, she taught the inter-professional class some background about mental health and El Salvador in general. Through her husband’s work with a mental health project in El Salvador, the students were able to learn about mental health care.

“In a country and community where there are very few psychiatrists and mental health professionals, there is a particularly high need for supporting and educating of the family members,” she explained. She hopes to repeat the trip again in 2015.

In addition to her extensive field work, Hunter and her colleagues of the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors, Inc. (BPD) worked to put together a manual to train field directors.

After a three year process, Hunter recently finished editing the book, Social Work Field Directors: Foundations for Excellence, with the help of two other colleagues, Miriam Raskin from George Mason University and Julia Moen from Bethel University.

“It is a guidebook for field directors of all different levels,” she explains. “It explains how to be a field educator, a manager and a leader. It’s pretty comprehensive.”

In October 2013, Hunter received the Outstanding Virginia Social Work Educator Award. Dr. Nancy Poe, social work professor, nominated her for the award.

“I like to think we are acknowledging a person who not only has outstanding presence and ability in the classroom, but also someone who models an ethic of service to one’s community, and recognizes and addresses fieldwork as a key component of social work education and reckons with how to manage the limitless contingencies and constituents involved with preparing the next generation of social work practitioners,” Poe stated.

According to Director of Social Work, Lisa McGuire, Cindy Hunter “has a remarkable commitment to social justice and lives the values and ethics of the social work profession. She maintains a positive presence and is able to see the best in everyone. She understands the importance of celebrating the good in life, which is an important skill to be able to confront the things that need to be changed.”