Pitt School of Social Work is growing, creating new opportunities for community engagement, professional education, and exciting faculty research.
Retirements bring new positions and new opportunities
The retirement of Clinical Associate Professor Tracy Soska has created three openings within the School of Social Work, as he was Community, Organization, and Social Action (COSA) Chair, Continuing Education Director, and acted as the unofficial liaison to the community, which has now become official with the appointment of the first official Director of Community Engagement.
New COSA Chair and Associate Professor Mary Ohmer feels honored to take the reins from one of her mentors. Not only is she a graduate of the Pitt Social Work program, but Ohmer has over 30 years of experience in community organizing and development, working with residents and community, social service, corporate, government and philanthropic organizations to promote community change.
Ohmer explained: “This year as incoming COSA Chair I will be working with our awesome faculty team on reaccreditation, as well as working with our COSA committee members to explore ways to strengthen the program, develop new avenues for student recruitment and build stronger relationships with our alumni partners.”
Aliya Durham is the school’s first-ever director of community engagement as well as an assistant professor of social work. She comes to the position with a strong background in community development and philanthropy, having recently spent 10 years as vice president of foundation and government relations at the Greater Pittsburgh YMCA. She says she wants to give social work students a mix of theory and practice and to “create opportunities to connect them to our region’s nonprofit leaders whenever possible.”
“I think what’s most important and often misunderstood about how our region benefits from social workers is that our career paths are not confined,” said Durham. “Social workers show up in all kinds of spaces and places, driven by our passion to improve humanity, the environment and the world.”
Durham, who has an MSW — as well as three other degrees — from Pitt, will also teach graduate courses within the Community Organization and Social Action (COSA) concentration.
Joining Durham at the school is Molly Allwein, the new director of professional education. Her last position was senior marketing and community affairs manager for VisitPITTSBURGH. She wants to develop a strategic and targeted marketing plan and update the user experience of the school’s professional training materials. She also wants them to have a further reach.
“We have a goal to develop a digital platform to offer our programming to professionals everywhere, not just in Western Pennsylvania,” Allwein said. “With the wealth of research, knowledge and passion that our faculty and instructors possess, we are uniquely positioned for our professional education program to become the gold standard for social workers and other helping professionals throughout the country.” Allwein also holds an MSW from the school.
For the first time since it was launched in 2002, there will be a new face at the helm of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP). Interim Director James Huguley, also an assistant professor of social work, says he will build on the excellent foundation laid by Larry E. Davis, dean emeritus of the school and CRSP founding director.
“I want to expand our capacity to short circuit the distance between cutting-edge race research and applied work on the ground,” Huguley said. He plans to continue the signature CRSP activities such as its speaker series, summer institutes and student and faculty research awards. And he wants to expand the center’s research footprint. “We want to do empirical work that is influential not only in our region, but also abroad. We’re excited to think about possibilities on that front,” he said
Also joining the Center on Race and Social Problems as Senior Fellow for Research and Community Engagement is School of Social Work Professor and David Epperson Chair John Wallace.
“I am excited to work with my colleague James Huguley, to build upon the tremendous foundation that Dean Davis and others laid at the Center on Race and Social Problems,” said Wallace. “In my new role, I am particularly excited about moving forward our community-based research collaborations and supporting the work of CRSP affiliated scholars, both within the School of Social Work and across Pitt’s various schools and departments.”
Familiar faces take leadership roles at the School of Social Work
School of Social Work alumnus and BASW Program Director Keith Caldwell has been named as the new Associate Dean for Student Success. In this new role, Caldwell will work closely with faculty and staff to guide the enhancement of the student continuum by advancing both the quality and impact of the school’s student services operations, which include admissions, field education, and career services. Caldwell will also help lead the school’s re-affirmation process over the next year.
“I am excited to take a more active, school-wide role in helping our students achieve their goals,” said Caldwell. “As the Associate Dean for Student Success I will be working to further our school’s commitment to providing an inclusive educational experience that fosters a supportive community of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral social work students.”
Clinical Assistant Professor Yodit Betru has been named Director of the MSW Program. Betru was formerly administrator of the Child Welfare Education for Leadership (CWEL) program. Her clinical experience includes working in schools, shelters, jails, public child-welfare, and therapeutic services in community and private practice settings. She holds MSW and BA degree from the University of Oklahoma, and a DSW from the University of Pennsylvania.
“I am honored to be a part of school that has a rich history in helping address social problems and is deeply rooted in the community,” said Betru.” I am excited to be a part of the conversation of preparing future social workers for dynamic professional work. As a school we will continue to work on creating inclusive and diverse space and I look forward to working with students, faculty, and staff on these issues.”
Assistant Professor Rachel Gartner’s prevention-focused scholarship aims to address gaps in the literature regarding how we conceptualize and measure sexual violence, microaggressions and other forms of victimization for marginalized groups such as women, sexual and gender minority individuals, people of color, and those with intersecting, marginalized identities.
She received both her BA in Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and her MSW concentrating in Mental Health from Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Gartner completed her PhD in Social Welfare with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I am thrilled to join the Pitt Social Work community!” said Gartner. “I came to Pitt because of its commitment to community engaged scholarship, investment in diversity, and excellence in teaching and research. In the coming year I will be advancing my work on microaggressions and sexual violence on college campuses, victimization of sexual and gender minority youth, and intersectionality in social science research. I look forward to teaching and advising our MSW students and fostering collaborations within Pitt and with partners in the community.”
Assistant Professor Travis Labrum researches issues affecting persons with serious mental illness and their families --including caregiving and conflict--and violence towards family members, such as elder abuse. He earned undergraduate degrees and a MSW from the University of Utah and a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked in direct practice at a community mental health center for a total of nine years, serving as a clinician, clinical supervisor, and field instructor for MSW students.
Said Labrum: “I’m looking forward to researching how representative payeeship can be strengthened for persons with mental illness and their families.”
Assistant Professor Deborah Moon’s research focuses on identifying capacity-building strategies for community agencies that are traditionally underutilized in disseminating and implementing evidence-based family-focused psychosocial interventions that can prevent childhood trauma and promote child well-being. Moon’s research interests have been shaped through her practice experience as a music therapist and mental health therapist, working with children, adolescents, and families affected by various types of trauma.
Moon received a bachelor's degree in Life Science from Handong Global University in South Korea. She earned a masters degree in Music Therapy from New York University and in Social Work from the University of Maryland with a mental health specialization. Moon completed her Ph.D. in Social Welfare at the University of Kansas
“I came to Pitt most importantly because of the school's strong sense of presence in the community and supportive environments for interdisciplinary research,” said Moon. “A lot of my work in the coming years will be devoted to making connections with community agencies and researchers in other departments to build a strong foundation for community-engaged research and interdisciplinary research centered on translating research to create community impact.”
Edoukou Aka-Ezoua has joined the School of Social Work as the Project Support Coordinator for the Child Welfare Workforce Excellence Fellows Program. The program is meant to prepare MSW students to enter the field of child welfare through specialized coursework and internships, and will support students with fellowships of up to $16,000 a year.
Aka-Ezoua received her Master’s in Social Work, with a concentration in Community, Organization, and Social Action from the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Women & Gender Studies from Lafayette College in Easton, PA.
“I am excited to be part of a national grant that allows the School of Social Work to develop a traineeship program for MSW students interested in a career in public child welfare, “said Aka-Ezoua. “As a recent Pitt MSW grad, I am looking forward to applying the skills and knowledge I’ve gained from being a COSA student to the important work being done to build and transform the public child welfare workforce.”