Graduate School of Social Work 2021–2022 Progress Report

In 2021–22, we continued to evolve our curriculum, introduced new programs, and expanded our community engagement, all to advance social and racial justice and transform social work practice, education and research. Learn more about our progress in the past year. 

people packing bags

Strategic Goal: Engage

We further expanded our connections to the community through community-engaged courses and research, and our research expenditures continued to lead the entire University. New community-engaged initiatives included the Mutual Aid Collective exploring the intersections of social work and collective care. 

  • Strategy | Reinforce and expand our bridge to and from the community
    • Translating Science for Action: In the second year of the Pedagogy for Action and Community Engagement (PACE) Program, MSW students in a research dissemination course taught by PhD student Katie Calhoun partnered with the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative (CSPI), translating science on homelessness into public-facing messaging to help the organization combat NIMBYISM and expand its work across Front Range communities. Launched in 2019–20 with support from GSSW faculty and students through the University of Denver Collective Impact initiative, the CSPI network has expanded to more than a dozen locations, providing safe overnight parking, supportive services and a path to housing for hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness and sheltering in their vehicles. 
  • Strategy | Advance training and knowledge that influence public policy
    • Advancing Environmental & Racial Justice: Launched in fall 2021, GSSW’s Environmental and Racial Justice Series addressed social work’s Grand Challenge to Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment. The webinar series aimed to catalyze and equip social workers to confront and disrupt environmental racism. “Our focus on social workers for 2021 is intentional, as one focal goal of the grand challenge is to grow the profession’s commitment to and action on environmental and ecological justice,” says Associate Professor Lisa Reyes Mason, co-lead for the grand challenge. Sessions included “Disrupting Environmental Racism” and “Mobilizing Power for Action and Change.” 

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  • Strategy | Engage in scholarship and research that is driven by communities and rooted in social justice
    • Exploring Mutual Aid & Collective Care: Informed by mutual aid organizers from across Colorado, a team of GSSW faculty, students and alumni launched a study to better understand mutual aid values and practices and explore how mutual aid approaches challenge — and could potentially improve — social work’s approach to care. The team recently published the first paper from its pilot study of Colorado mutual aid during the early months of the pandemic in 2020; the paper explores the values and beliefs underlying mutual aid efforts. In 2021–22, the team designed the new Mutual Aid Collective. In partnership with community organizations, the collective includes a mutual aid fellowship program and expands the school’s research into the intersections between social work and collective care. 

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  • Strategy | Continue our influential and innovative research legacy
    • Advancing Justice through Human–Animal–Environment Research: GSSW’s Institute for Human–Animal Connection is a global leader in research and education into the interrelationships among human, animal and environmental health and welfare. Conducted in collaboration with a variety of organizations and academic partners, the institute’s research focuses on how human interactions with other animals drive individual and community-wide health and welfare outcomes. Research Professor and American Humane Endowed Chair Kevin Morris, executive director of the Institute for Human–Animal Connection, discussed recent research in a February 2021 Brave Ideas for Social Change podcast. 


    • Focusing on the Public Good: In January 2022, the University of Denver joined the ranks of the nation’s R1 research institutions. As it leads the University in research expenditures, GSSW’s scientific focus has remained on racial and social justice, community-engaged research, interventions that improve individual and community well-being, and on translating science into action for social change. GSSW’s annual research expenditures have grown from $8 million in 2015–16 to $11.8 million in 2021–22, representing 28% of the University’s total of $43 million.

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The next 90

Strategic Goal: Envision

While we celebrated our 90th anniversary, we focused on the future and the ways we will transform social work research, practice and education to imagine, ignite and sustain change. One measure of our transformative impact was the improvement in our national ranking. 

  • Strategy | Invest in meaningful relationships with alumni
    • Sharing Alumni Expertise: The school’s new Alumni Career Interview Series spotlights alumni in different career paths in a recorded 15-minute Q&A, followed by a small group discussion with current students over Zoom. Interview Series sessions are recorded so all students can access the information later. In partnership with mental health programs across campus, the GSSW alumni and career services teams also launched a quarterly alumni panel focused on mental health topics ranging from LGBTQIA+ mental health to working in interdisciplinary behavioral health teams. 
  • Strategy | Advance and celebrate the uniqueness of our school
    • Improving National Ranking: U.S. News & World Report ranked GSSW 11th among the nation’s social work graduate schools, up from 17th previously. 

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    • Celebrating our 90th Anniversary: We celebrated GSSW’s 90th Anniversary in 2021–22. A new web page recapped some of our historic milestones and notable scholars, educators and leaders, and a Brave Ideas for Social Change podcast episode discussed the role of historical consciousness and imagination in reckoning with our past, repairing harms and improving how we teach and practice social work in the future. 

  • Strategy | Enhance our financial, physical, and human capital
    • Supporting Students, Staff and Faculty: As an outgrowth of our Culture and Climate Initiative, we created Support Pods to facilitate connection and support among students, staff and faculty during challenging times. Individuals propose and volunteer to facilitate groups, which are designed by members based on their unique needs and capacity. Support Pods have ranged from “Parenting in a Pandemic” to groups focused on topics such as wellness, living solo and aging, or on activities such as role playing games and gardening. 

  • Strategy | Illuminate the vast fields of social work practice and impact in the global community
    • Advancing Equity in Community Behavioral Health: Graduates of GSSW’s Four Corners MSW Program continue shaping social work in the region. One recent graduate is piloting a new integrated, community-based model for social work service delivery 

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    • Shedding Light on Genocide: A new book by GSSW alumna and Professor of the Practice Ann Petrila shares eyewitness accounts of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia. Following the book’s release in 2020, Petrila and her coauthor have discussed the book at a wide range of events worldwide, sharing insights into the sociopolitical conditions that make genocide possible. 

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2,000+ More than 2,000 alumni participated in GSSW continuing education and other programs in 2021–22.

Alumni Spotlights

professor teaching to a class

Strategic Goal: Learn

Informed by our students and our community, we continued to innovate in how and what we teach, preparing students to lead in the 21st century economy. We introduced new academic programs and technological innovations. 

group of PhD graduates

Strategic Goal: Transform

Our operations and academic programs continued to transform to focus even more strongly on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, and we expanded access to social work education through increased financial support for diverse MSW students. 

  • Strategy | Challenge and disrupt systems of oppression within and outside our school
    • Developing an Anti-Racist PhD Program: GSSW has implemented several significant changes to focus its PhD program even more strongly on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. Changes span admission, the curriculum and elimination of the qualifying exam. 

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    • Designing a DEI Training App: Professor Michele Hanna — GSSW’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — and colleagues are designing and piloting an app that will augment DEI training while also cultivating a DEI-focused culture. The app would facilitate ongoing, interactive, collaborative learning and community building. 

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  • Strategy | Increase the accessibility of social work higher education for those who have historically been excluded
    • Increasing Student Financial Support: Designed by an MSW student, GSSW’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Student Support Fund will increase access and reduce student debt through scholarships for diverse applicants and for students who experience consequential life changes while enrolled in the school’s MSW programs. The DEI Student Support Fund will also provide internship stipends to diverse students. 

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    • Preparing Rural Social Workers: The Rocky Mountain Health Foundation Workforce Development Fund awarded $25,000 to support scholarships for students enrolled in GSSW’s Western Colorado and Four Corners MSW programs. The foundation awards grants to Western Slope organizations offering programs and services that improve conditions for underserved, vulnerable or marginalized people; its Workforce Development Fund specifically supports people of color and people experiencing poverty who are seeking careers in behavioral health and health care, including social work. The funds have supported 17 GSSW MSW students preparing for rural social work practice. 

  • Strategy | Invest in and elevate our unique programs
    • Supporting Online MSW Students: Established in 2022 in memory of MSW student Marie Motahari, The Marie Motahari Endowed Scholarship supports students enrolled in GSSW’s MSW@Denver online MSW program. A promising social worker, Marie worked with older adults with mental illness, provided social services to death row inmates, was passionate about animal rights and was a devoted and loving live-in caregiver for her own grandmother. Although Marie struggled with progressive sight impairment and depression, these limitations made her a champion for all those who struggle and gave her extraordinary empathy with which she could sincerely acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest successes with her clients. Motahari Scholars are students with financial need who, like Marie, demonstrate success at helping others despite their own personal challenges. 


37% Of GSSW tenure-line faculty, 37% identify as people of color; 36% of clinical faculty and 34% of staff identify as people of color.

Justice-Oriented Research

lisa colon
Health and Historical Trauma

2022 PhD graduate Lisa Colón is studying the effects of historical trauma on the health of Puerto Ricans.

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Fighting Weight Stigma

Assistant Professor Erin Harrop advances awareness of weight stigma and discrimination in social work. 

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Addressing Ageism

Through his research, graduating PhD student Andrew Steward seeks to understand and respond to ageism and include ageism in social justice conversations. 

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