School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.

The four newest faculty members in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work are experts in the areas of child welfare and aging. The addition of teacher-researchers Nicole Corley, Ph.D., Jamie Cage, Ph.D., Hollee McGinnis, Ph.D., and Kyeongmo Kim, Ph.D., builds critical capacity for the school to create and disseminate knowledge about children and aging adults, two particularly vulnerable subsets of society.

Areas of interest: Black student achievement, black single-mother families, racial socialization, multicultural education, decolonizing social work education, critical pedagogy, qualitative methodology

Nicole Corley was fresh out of the Marine Corps and studying sociology at a community college when a trusted professor took her aside and told her she’d make a great social worker. Corley hadn’t thought about a career in social work. But the field, she would discover, strongly suited her interests in advocacy and social justice, and it provided a “language” for expressing them.

Today, the mother of two studies black student achievement, focusing on youths from single-mother homes and the systems that frame their experiences. A qualitative researcher, she captures counter-narratives to help disrupt dominant, misrepresented views of marginalized groups like theirs, allowing black students and black mothers to actively oppose oppression. Corley’s research validates her own experiences as a mother and “those who look like me.”

With its commitment to community-engaged research, VCU greatly appealed to Corley, who missed working with young people. “That’s really what pulled me in,” she says.

Corley aspires to better academic outcomes for black students and to help identify culturally appropriate interventions and programs. “I hope to have a meaningful impact within the larger Richmond community around issues of educational equity,” she says.

While she develops as a scholar whose research centers on community-level praxis, she aspires to have a lasting, positive influence on her students. “My teaching encourages students to advocate and work in solidarity with others to organize for social change,” she says. “My hope is that through the co-learning process I will help them expand their awareness of themselves and social justice issues.”

Areas of interest: Adolescents involved with the child welfare system, risk and protective factors of psychosocial development, child welfare policy and practice, educational outcomes, child welfare interventions, qualitative and quantitative research, human development, social policy, theories of oppression, diversity studies

Making the foster care system a better place for children is at the heart of Jamie Cage’s research. “My overarching goal,” she says, “is to contribute to the optimal development and overall well-being of adolescents involved with the child welfare system by developing studies that influence child welfare policy and practice.”

Cage shifted her undergraduate studies from pre-med/psychology to social work after realizing the positive impact she could have on populations and policies as a social worker. She was studying to be a child psychologist but social work seemed like the better career fit, as she desired a broad and far-reaching impact on vulnerable populations.

Cage, who has a background in applied intervention research, says her short-term research goals are to expand knowledge on the influence adolescent maltreatment has on educational attainment, employment, early parenting, and criminal involvement for youth.

Ultimately she hopes to meaningfully collaborate with departments of Children and Family Services to develop and implement interventions that promote the well-being and foster optimal psychosocial development for adolescents involved with the child welfare system.

VCU’s commitments to community engagement and diversifying its faculty were selling points for Cage, as was its urban location in the city of Richmond. “I’m really excited about being here, and my cohort,” she says, noting that her colleagues’ shared interest in child welfare contributed to her enthusiasm. “I’m excited about the opportunity to do collaborative work and do true community research, and to bring about change.”

Areas of interest: Children’s mental health and well-being, child welfare policy and practice, intercountry adoption, institutional care, global child welfare, transnational and transracial families, ethnic/racial identity development, international social work

In her research, social worker Hollee McGinnis broadly examines the individual, family and cultural determinants of children’s mental health and well-being, focusing on improving the outcomes of children with histories of early childhood trauma and child welfare involvement.

Her work has been featured in national media, a notable accomplishment considering she grew up unaware of what a social worker was. “I had no sense of the profession in college,” she says. “If you wanted to help someone, you became a doctor.”

McGinnis was adopted from South Korea when she was a toddler and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family. The questions she had around her personal identity shaped her interest in children and families and led her to a master’s in social work. “My research bubbles up from all my experiences,” she says.

At the Donaldson Adoption Institute, she led a national study on adult adoptees’ racial identities and culture. After five years there, pursued a Ph.D., giving her the tools and education to better inform and affect policy at the federal level and to help address questions such as: What are we doing to ensure children’s needs are being met? How can we make family-like systems? How do we develop systems of child welfare that are compassionate?

“I want my work to impact the community and individuals broadly,” McGinnis says. At VCU, she sees the opportunity to leverage the university’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and be a leader in informing national policy, connecting the macro (policy and research) with the micro (individuals).

She takes the VCU tagline, “Make it real,” to heart. Making it real means making a real-world impact. “I hope that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and with my research,” McGinnis says.

Areas of interest: Aging and mental health, mental health service utilization, neighborhoods and health, well-being of older adults, racial and ethnic health disparities, social work practice with older adults, social policy and aging, community practice.

Living in South Korea, Kyeongmo Kim had no idea what social work was when he saw a family in a low-income neighborhood being evicted from their home. “They had nowhere to go,” he says. “It was horrible.”

Kim, who was studying German literature at the time, couldn’t shake the shock he felt and wanted to do something to help. The incident compelled him to pursue graduate degrees in social work and become a champion for social justice. Today, he studies how policy issues impact services for the elderly.

His research focuses on aging and mental health — specifically, how neighborhood environments promote aging adults’ well-being. When older people retire from work, he says, their neighborhoods become everything to them: where they live, socialize and receive services.

By examining a community’s status, income, education, employment and resources, Kim helps city and county governments identify where to put money to best benefit residents. For example, “Many cities and communities are adapting to be aging friendly, which means changing their physical and social environment,” Kim says. Walkable communities and those with public transit promote and encourage social participation and social engagement, which is important to mental health.

Kim heard good things about VCU while attending a conference for social workers. He has found a good match at the university, which is committed to community-engaged research. What’s more, as a capital city, Richmond offers unique access to community partners and government agencies — the stakeholders Kim is ultimately trying to work with or influence. “I want to participate in the process for Richmond to be aging friendly,” he says.

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