May 2024

UMSSW Grads: Empowered to Transform Communities

May 23, 2024    |  

In a ceremony filled with joy, reflection, and a deep commitment to social justice, the University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW) conferred over 300 degrees to its 2024 graduates on May 17 at the Lyric Opera House.

This year’s convocation highlighted the readiness of a new generation of changemakers, prepared to serve their communities with the skills and knowledge gained through quality education, meaningful mentorships, enriching fellowships, and community connections.   

Graduates were excited as they entered the Lyric Baltimore and began spotting their loved ones in the audience.

Graduates were excited as they entered the Lyric Baltimore and began spotting their loved ones in the audience.

University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, opened the ceremony, capturing the emotion of the moment. He attended four convocation ceremonies that day to confer degrees to excited UMB graduates, speaking to the joy and pride felt by the families and friends in the audience.

“If you think back to the time when you first came to the School of Social Work, you had some ideas in mind. You wanted to help people. You wanted to help mankind. You wanted to help the oppressed. You wanted to help all of those people who needed your help. Now you can actually do it,” he said. 

(See photo gallery below.)

Mindful of strong views about events surrounding the conflict in Gaza impacting not only UMB, but also universities across the country, UMSSW Dean Judy L. Postmus, PhD, ACSW, addressed the issue directly with graduates.

“At the School of Social Work, we believe in fostering safe and inclusive spaces for all,” Postmus said. “Please know that antisemitism, prejudice against Muslims, and other types of hate and discrimination will never be tolerated. In a world where the complex dynamics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are under attack, may we each be committed to addressing injustice against others, be it based on their membership in an oppressed population.” 

Soon after Postmus spoke, about 30 faculty members and graduates demonstrated their views, standing and turning their backs on the keynote speaker, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, JD '67. Cardin is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong supporter of Israel. Some of the graduates held Palestinian flags as they stood. Many wore keffiyehs, a square-checked scarf worn in certain areas of the Middle East, in a show of support for Palestinian civilians in Gaza. 

In his address, Cardin encouraged graduates to use their education and skills to serve others and create positive change.

“This graduation is not just a celebration of academic achievement, but also a recognition of your unwavering commitment to serving others,” he said. “With your new degrees, you are the agents of transformation, equipped with the tools and knowledge to address some of the most pressing issues facing our communities.

“As Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘Service is the rent you pay for living.’ As social workers, you have chosen a career to help others — individuals struggling with mental health and substance abuse, communities challenged by poverty and homelessness, neighborhoods that need your advocacy. In one word, you have chosen the career to be changemakers.” 

Several graduates received Student Exemplary Awards, recognizing outstanding contributions in clinical, macro, and fieldwork. Marence Edu, MSW, MPP 24, who won the Exemplary Student Macro Award, reflected on her journey, saying, “My studies in social work have equipped me with empathy, effective communication skills, critical thinking, and a profound understanding of cultural humility. I’ve learned to advocate for marginalized populations, navigate complex social systems, and implement various intervention strategies to support those in need.”  

Edu is a dual master’s degree graduate in social work and public policy. Currently, she is an intern at Catholic Relief Services for her advanced year and works as a program specialist in the Youth Program Division at the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in the U.S. Department of State.

“I’m grateful for the supportive cohort that has facilitated our collective learning journey, encouraging us to challenge assumptions and promote inclusivity and respect," Edu said. “I feel prepared to embark on my journey, aiming to serve the refugee community as a refugee officer and eventually pursue a career in foreign service.” 

Andre Bisimwa, MSW ’24, recipient of the Exemplary Macro Field Practicum Award, developed a peer-to-peer mentor program in the Kinship Center at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. He also engaged with legislators in Annapolis, advocating on issues from education to foster care.

“My experience at UMSSW has taught me the importance of policy work and direct service,” Bisimwa said. “I‘ve seen firsthand how legislative advocacy can complement on-the-ground efforts to bring about meaningful change.”

Bisimwa had the privilege of working closely with the assistant deputy director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services during his final year, which inspired his desire to impact change through legislation and be in leadership positions where he can make life easier for social workers.   

Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dawn Shafer, PhD, LCSW-C, MSW, praised Bisimwa’s efforts, noting his partnership with UMB police to bring services to unhoused people in Baltimore. “In recognition of his dedication, Andre received the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award for designing and implementing a fundraiser that generated substantial financial resources and distributed winter care packages to unhoused folks,” she said.

Samantha Wypych, MSW ’24, another dual-degree graduate pursuing social work and public policy, highlighted the support she received from the Child Welfare Fellowship program.

“I was in the Child Welfare Fellowship program, which guided me through my degree and prepared me to work in the field. Soon, I’ll be working with the Department of Social Services. My goal is to start with clinical work, working hands-on with clients. Then, I’d like to transition to policymaking to adjust policies based on the challenges and needs we actually see in the community,” she said.  

The ceremony also honored the memory of Donta Herbert, a student who passed away before completing his degree. Herbert’s sister, Dashawn Herbert-Williams, MSW ’24, accepted Donta’s posthumous certificate on his behalf, with Postmus highlighting Herbert’s dedication to helping others through his work in child welfare.

“His dedication to helping others was evident during his initial foundation placement at Montgomery County Health and Human Services in the child welfare division and at his advanced placement at Cornerstone, Montgomery. Dante was committed and well on his way to being a true changemaker,” Postmus said.  

Among the many highlights of the ceremony was the graduation of the first Fellowship for School-Based Mental Health cohort. Last year, UMSSW held a news conference to announce the launch of this fellowship, which is part of the Center for Restorative Change. The program aims to address the shortage of mental health providers in high-need K-12 school districts in Central Maryland.

The program offers tuition scholarships, additional stipends, and other incentives to MSW and BSW fellows, with a focus on enhancing diversity in social work. In collaboration with Coppin State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the center recruits, trains, and develops 105 social work students per year. These students mirror the diverse backgrounds of those in UMSSW’s partner schools, ensuring an inclusive approach to mental health service provision.  

Bianca Collins, MSW ’24, a UMSSW fellowship student who shared her thoughts about the program with The Baltimore Banner last October, said, “This fellowship has not only provided financial support but has also given me the tools and confidence to make a real difference in our schools. I am excited to be part of this pioneering group, ready to bring much-needed mental health services to our communities.” 

The graduates, having completed their rigorous training and education, are now prepared to step into their roles as social work professionals, ready to make a meaningful impact on their communities. 

Darreisha Brock-Orsot, MSW ’24, the student convocation speaker, encapsulated the spirit of the day, sharing: “The world awaits us, and I have no doubt that together we can leave an indefinite mark on the world with one act of kindness, one advocacy campaign, and one life transformed at a time.”