Alumni Profile: social work alumna earns doctorate


Veronica Dillard

By: BJ Bryson
Department of Social Work

Veronica Dillard (’10), DSW, LCSW was awarded her doctoral degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (May 2020). Achieving a doctoral degree is no easy task as it requires coursework and independent research occurring over years. With a passion for recognizing disparities, her doctoral focus was on African American students who receive special education services within the school setting. Practice observations illustrated that black and brown students are often disproportionately labeled as emotionally disabled and/or referred for special education services. A failure to understand cultural realities and bias-based labeling in systems was identified.

Dillard acknowledges a lot of her success is due to the love of her family and the amazing women in her life. Her mother’s encouragement and support was an essential motivator for pursuing the MSW. During her studies her grandmother would often say “You better finish”. Even while her grandmother was hospitalized, books and a computer where expected as part of any hospital visit. Dillard’s grandmother provided strong encouragement to FINISH whatever they start. This contributes to Dillard’s tenuous attitude to finish her doctoral degree, to work with and on behalf of challenging client systems and engaging in critical conversations. From her grandmother she learned an understanding that progress is not lateral. Things get hard, but the ultimate goal is to do your best and finish what you start.

Working with at-risk children and youth from a variety of environments such as foster care, juvenile justice, inpatient psychiatric care, and education, grew into Dillard’s passion. Recognizing racial disparities, she felt a need to be in the room and at the table where decisions about young people’s lives were being made through policy and administrative actions. Establishing a personal goal of continued education was necessary to constitute having knowledge, proven skills, and credentials to be at the table. Advocating for young clients at the service delivery level is important but organizational leadership has the potential to make larger differences on behalf of children who can easily fall through the cracks of service delivery.

Dillard identifies completing field with People Places in Harrisonburg and being at JMU as the best four years of her life but being ready to graduate after completing graduation requirements. She had worked hard, got solid grades, with the final step of the JMU BSW program… the oral exam. She reports being “so nervous”, it took twice to be success. When former AUH, Professor R. Anne Myers said she passed Dillard reports being speechless. As a student, she felt the pressure of completing this exam in front of the department head. Dillard knew the content, but nerves were everywhere. This momentous occasion opened doors to her next career step, the MSW, which she completed at GMU. Dillard recalls her grandmother didn't tell her how to finish, shared she didn't need to be in the top, but her grandmother did say you must finish. Another step on her career ladder was completed.

There are many social issues identified by Dillard that she cares about, but one that is on the forefront is COVID-19 and the impact on African Americans, specifically in inner city areas.   There are the systemic issues and injustices that many choose to overlook that cause African Americans to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, one of which was the inability to purchase groceries for pickup due to receiving government food benefits. Addressing larger systemic concerns are often at the front of Dillard’s concerns. Direct practice is a great starting point for social workers, but the more you work the more you can see that this is not enough. Social workers need to increase the awareness of everyone and increase our actions towards systemic change so that all disenfranchised clients and their families have a fighting chance to live their best lives.

Dillard looks forward to the next stages of her career and encourages others to dream into existence the possibilities of their future professional life, especially students of color who she reaches out to support when possible. As a BSW student getting her doctorate was but a dream and today it is manifested into reality.


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Published: Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

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