Social work turns 60: Some reflections

College of Health and Behavioral Studies

by Morgan Vuknic and BJ Bryson

Social Work 60th Anniversary Celebration

JMU’s Department of Social Work is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Over the years there have been many contributors and changes, among them Ann Myers (‘69) and Gerri Rigney.  

Chair emeritus Myers came to JMU in 1965 to major in nursing but quickly found that social work was the right path for her and graduated. After completing her MSW, Myers joined the social work faculty in 1973 staying for more than 40 years until she retired in 2013. Myers later became co-chair of the committee overseeing JMU’s reaccreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Remaining at JMU, Myers took the part-time position as JMU’s faculty credentialing coordinator.  

Rigney graduated from Bridgewater College in 1974 before coming to JMU in 1994 serving as the social work department’s administrative program support for more than 25 years. After retiring in 2015, Rigney has served as a temporary floating administrative assistant with various units across campus.

Although Myers and Rigney have different journeys coming to JMU, they both agree work with students was one rewarding aspect of their careers. They watched students grow from their freshman orientation to the time they graduated. "I enjoy seeing the students grow," Myers said. “It’s great to see them grow both while they’re in the [social work] program and once they’ve graduated and they’re able to see and acknowledge that they can do things that they thought they couldn’t.” The Social Work department evolved under Myers's leadership and Rigney’s skillful administrative support to around 250 social work majors and hundreds of family studies and nonprofit studies minors. Ann Myers and Dr. Cecil Bradfield founded JMU’s Community Service-Learning efforts in 1986 out of the unit's work by providing opportunities for students to grow academically and be engaged in civic and community life.

Ann Myers and Gerri Rigney

The department enjoyed the steady participation and contributions of many faculty members, including faculty emeritus Greg Verson, known locally as “Professor Blues”, who for many years shared his “Blues passion” weekly on WMRA. Faculty anchors Cindy Hunter, Nancy T. Poe, Hyong Yeom, and BJ Bryson have served the department for over 18 years. Together they have built and maintained a strong program that serves some of the local community's needs by assisting students in community service learning and field practicums. These and other professors have maintained a high-quality, continually accredited program for 60 years.

The profession of social work has long strived to not only assist community life but to incorporate areas of human rights, social economic and environmental justice. Bryson said the department has grown through difficult conversations about diversity and the handling of social justice issues wanting to provide opportunities for students to be action-oriented while providing “brave spaces” for them to grow. For example, the department started with a Student of Color Affinity Group and has expanded the number of groups offered by adding LGBTQIAP+, Coexist, and a Men’s Affinity group convened by faculty members to talk with and about various student challenges. 

The department’s curriculum is scaffolded with experiences to increase student self-awareness, to understand professional values, roles, and judgment, and to build professional competency for today's community realities. Students learn how the NASW Code of Ethics guides our profession to enhance the well-being of all community members, especially those marginalized and muted by their position in society.

“With the social justice concerns facing the world, social work has needed to help students to see their professional roles more seriously as we are at critical points in recent years,” Bryson said. “We have always worked on issues of diversity and inclusion, but we, like others in our college, are working harder to foster interpersonal connections and engaged learning.”

Social work is at a time of transition with the hiring of a new academic unit head, two full-time faculty members, and the life stage retirements of current faculty members becoming a reality. Bryson said the current social work faculty and staff continue to center student learning with program maintenance. Myers hopes to see the department continue to grow and more alumni like herself return to help the program. Many community partners and alumni are helping with searches, community needs conversations and continuing to support students as they engage in community life.

“We’re a close faculty,” Bryson said. We have grown together and seen each other through life's ups and downs. We've endured transitions of long-term & short-term staff and the professional transitions of faculty members.”

With support from fellow faculty and staff, Bryson believes a main goal is to ensure that the program’s positive legacy continues keeping the best interest of students in mind as it thrived for the past 60 years. 

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Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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