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Meet VCU’s newest social work Ph.D. students

Reflecting the missions of Virginia Commonwealth University and the social work profession, the Ph.D. Program in Social Work aims to develop scholars, researchers and educators who will, independently and collaboratively, contribute significantly to advancing social justice and human well-being within local, national and international contexts.

The four students in the school’s newest Ph.D. Program cohort are poised to do just that in the areas of aging, environmental justice, the global oppression of women and the experience of dual-minority status.


In choosing social work as a career, Tommy Buckley married two interests: talking with people and learning why individuals are disadvantaged. “I’ve always been passionate about helping the less fortunate,” says Buckley, whose late mother was a clinical social worker. His research focuses on aging, models of long-term care, caregiver burnout and health care for older adults.

 

Buckley has always enjoyed the company of older people, and while completing a bachelor’s in social work at George Mason University, a challenging social work internship with VITAS Innovative Hospice Care deepened his commitment to the field. “Working in end-of-life care made me fall in love with aging even more,” he says. Following his undergraduate studies, he provided mental health support to older adults through Second Chances Comprehensive Services.

Buckley completed a master’s in social work at Columbia University with concentrations in social enterprise administration and aging. He then practiced clinical social work as a case manager for older adults in a long-term health care setting and as a community social worker helping older adults to age in place. At VCU, Buckley is working with assistant professor Kyeongmo Kim to develop innovative models of long-term care. The collaboration has reignited his passion for the field.

Envisioning a leadership or consulting role, Buckley would most like to make a large-scale impact by bringing a social work perspective to government or nonprofit agencies that create and implement policies that affect older populations.


A passion for sustainable development has led Claire Luce to pursue a career in the emerging field of environmental social work, in which social workers respond to environmental factors that affect societies and populations. “I’m invested in a better life for every person and the planet,” she explains.

Luce is striving to empower populations who are disproportionately affected by negative environmental change. To that end, she conducts community-engaged participatory research, in which researchers partner with those affected to find solutions their problems. “As social workers, we’ve signed up to do our best for these populations,” she says. “We need to figure out how to be involved in conversations.”

A solid foundation in research and clinical social work underpins her current pursuits. Luce earned a bachelor’s in environmental studies from Franklin University Switzerland and master’s in social work from the University of Illinois, focusing on mental health. She has received specialized certifications in rape crisis counseling, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and youth mental health first aid. Her graduate research included assistantships focusing on data collection and analysis, preparing her for an academic career that balances research and teaching.

At VCU she looks forward to working with faculty mentors in the areas of international social work, complex systems interaction and social empathy, as well as connecting with peers already studying environmental justice. Developing these relationships will allow her to meet a personal goal. “While here I want to learn everything I can,” she says.

“I want to grow as a scholar, which means a continued evolution of my ability to think in new and complex ways, and not just react to problems.”


 

During her four years as a social worker at the Carolinas Medical Center surgical trauma intensive care unit, Laura Swan felt right at home in the multidisciplinary setting, helping people in crisis.

The internship she undertook while pursuing a master’s in social work from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte evolved into full-time employment, helping families navigate hospital and community resources. It was an apt follow-up to weeks-long community-building service trips to Haiti and Kenya that opened her eyes to widespread poverty, and five years volunteering in her community at a free medical clinic. “I feel like my whole life has been leading me to social work,” Swan says.

Today, her research interests include the global oppression of women, violence against women, human trafficking, women’s health disparities, and compassion fatigue among social workers and health care workers. Her research experiences include analysis of qualitative data from community forums discussing healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships and analysis of quantitative data of college students’ drinking habits.

While at UNC-Charlotte, Swan’s capstone project, “Using Social Norms Marketing to Address Disordered Eating in Young Women,” underscored her clinical interest in mental health. She has received specialized training in advanced care planning, motivational interviewing and human trafficking.

Under the direction of VCU assistant professor Hyojin Im, her current research looks at health literacy of refugee populations and how culture comes into play. The experience will prepare her for an academic position balancing research and teaching.


Pursuing a career in a helping profession was forever top of mind for Keith Watts. “I always got fulfillment after helping someone feel better or making their life better,” says Watts, who worked as a behavior specialist after earning a bachelor’s in psychology from Georgia State University.

Watts attended Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university, for a master’s in social work. “It helped me come to appreciate what it means to be a black man in America,” he says. In his thesis, “African-American Gay and Bisexual Men: An Intersection of Vulnerability,” Watts explored oppression and discrimination in multiple, intersecting aspects of their social and personal lives. “African-American gay and bisexual men are forced to maintain a dual-minority status — racial and sexual — and this places them in a unique, precarious intersection of vulnerability,” he says.

Dual-minority status continues to be a strong research interest for Watts, who identifies as gay. VCU’s urban location and strong community partnerships enticed Watts, who plans to conduct community-based LGBTQ research with VCU assistant professor Alex Wagaman, Ph.D.

Watts has found VCU to be “exceptionally supportive” of research and scholarship. “I look forward to developing my skills as a competent researcher,” he says, “so I’m able to find and develop effective and evidence-based strategies and interventions to help bring either awareness to issues that plague this population or effective interventions to address the needs of this population.”

Watts plans to conduct research that can be used to shape and inform public policy at all levels of government. He envisions a career in advocacy.