“One word: resilient.”
Resilience was an apt, recurring theme at the ceremony, held at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, as the grads prepare to meet the surging demand for social workers in and beyond New York City. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently projected that employment for social workers will grow faster than the average for all occupations.
“All of us have come to this profession for one reason or another: a history of trauma, the yearning to help those in need, or to be the advocates that they did not have when growing up,” said Wallace-Mills, who directs the supplemental nutrition and home energy assistance programs in Ulster County, New York.
As she looked out on her 900-plus classmates, she said she saw “faces of resilience, motivation, and hope,” people with the desire and skills to make a difference.
‘Do Good by Doing No Further Harm’
For Jennifer Jones Austin, LAW ’93, CEO of the anti-poverty Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, the ceremony was a kind of homecoming. Exactly 30 years after she earned a J.D. from Fordham Law School, the University awarded her an honorary degree for her “commitment to creating economic opportunity and greater social mobility for the most marginalized in our communities.”
Wiping away tears, she encouraged graduates to “do good by doing no further harm,” which, she noted, would require them “to do the things that aren’t always easy to do, to be the lone voice at the table, to have the courage to not look away, but lean in.”
Jones Austin, who once described herself as a “lawyer with a social worker’s heart,” said she has worked side by side with social workers throughout her career, including as deputy commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and senior vice president of the United Way of New York City. In February, she moderated Fordham’s annual James Dumpson Symposium, this year titled “Leading for Change: How to Create Sustainable Impact in Children and Family Services.”
On a personal note, she said she’s grateful for the way social workers accompanied her 13 years ago when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer and a “99% chance of imminent death.” They were instrumental to her own “mental and emotional journey to complete healing,” she said.
Finding the Right Balance
Addressing graduates and the friends and family who’ve supported them along the way, Tania Tetlow, president of Fordham University, joked that she could omit some of her staple advice.
“At all of my other graduation speeches, I urge students to go out and matter to the world,” she said. “But I don’t have to say that here. You’ve already made that choice. You will literally go out to feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, visit those who are imprisoned, and gather the little children.”
Indeed, Fordham social work students, in particular, know what it means to practice the Jesuit principle of cura personalis, or care of the whole person, she said.
Sharing a few anecdotes from her days running a domestic violence law clinic in New Orleans, Tetlow encouraged attendees to take a practical approach to solving societal problems.
“I hope you will balance the need to turn up the pressure by railing against injustice with the need to sit at the table and find the answers, mired in the complexity necessary to solve complicated problems,” she said.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Debra M. McPhee, Ph.D., dean of the graduate school—the largest school of social work in New York state—told graduates that “connection is the lifeblood of the social work profession,” and they’d need to foster it as they “step into the lives of those who are struggling, disenfranchised, and often in pain.”
“Social workers bear witness to the nation’s deepest flaws,” she said. “Our work confirms that inequality, racism, and oppression are not just political buzzwords, but systemic realities that shape lives.”
McPhee implored the graduates to “be relentless in shining light into dark corners, exposing the consequences of oppression and injustice, and working tirelessly to rectify them.”
“You turned challenges and losses that you faced into your best teachers,” she said. “You didn’t let your experiences disadvantage you, but rather they inform the way you show up in the world: with compassion and a rare sense of humanity and humility.”