New associate dean Gomez brings focus on students, community
Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., LCSW, has a CV chock-full of awards, many of them related to technology, innovation and online learning.
But VCU School of Social Work’s incoming associate dean for academic and students affairs says her focus and philosophy can be much more simply stated: students and community.
“As an institution, everything we do is about educating students,” says Gomez, who starts Aug. 1 after spending the past seven years at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas, most recently as associate professor and director of the Ph.D. program.
“That can be as simple as making sure we hear their voice or as complex as evaluating our systems to see where we have created barriers to their success. It is important to evaluate our systems from a student perspective. Considering what they look, feel and sound like from a student view. When you look at your school through the experience of a student, it results in changes. As for changes at VCU, I’ll defer that. The experts on that are our students, so I will trust them to lead the way.”
The school’s dean, Beth Angell, Ph.D., emphasizes Gomez’s diverse skill set.
“Dr. Gomez brings a wealth of experience as a teacher, mentor and leader in social work education,” Angell says. “Her profoundly student-centered approach will enable the VCU School of Social Work to build upon our legacy of preparing change agents, with renewed attention to expanding access for underrepresented students, strengthening all aspects of the student experience, and transforming our curriculum to meet the needs of the 21st century. We are thrilled to welcome her to VCU!”
An award-winning online learning pioneer
At OLLU, Gomez developed and led an online Ph.D. program, one of just three of its kind in the country.
“Social work education is not just about the curriculum,” she says. “It is also about the community. It is really important to ensure that your online program is part of your community and shares the same values and culture. We have to be intentional about including students in community and ensuring that there are outlets for informal camaraderie, and mentoring. If we don’t do that, students will miss an important part of the educational experience.”
In June, the Council on Social Work Education presented her with its Distinguished Recent Contributions to Social Work Education Award, adding to her other high-profile honors, such as:
- Top 30 Technologist, Transformer, and Trailblazer, 2017, Center for Digital Education;
- Agnes M. (Lehman) Gloyna Award for Technological Innovation in Teaching and Learning, 2015, OLLU; and
- Award for Outstanding Commitment to Excellence and Innovation in Distance Learning by an Organization, 2015, Texas Distance Learning Association
“It is amazingly humbling to be honored by CSWE and to be among such inspiring colleagues” she says. “I have been honored in my various roles by the trust of others. I am so grateful to the students, staff and faculty I have worked with and their passion for advancing social justice within social work education. I am also grateful that they were willing to travel outside the box with me and take the risks inherent with innovating. It is an exciting time for social work. We are rethinking the rules and dismantling barriers.”
Many of those limitations have historically had a negative impact on underrepresented and non-traditional students. But the first Ph.D. cohort in Gomez’s program at OLLU saw a 36% increase in racial and ethnic diversity compared to social work Ph.D. programs nationally. Overall, OLLU’s’ graduate student population in fall 2019 was 51.1% Hispanic/Latinx.
“My current students are amazingly gifted,” Gomez says. “They have too frequently faced unnecessary barriers, injustices and oppression. Being in community with these students, I know how desperately our profession needs them. We have to ask why we do what we do, who it is benefiting, and is it really achieving the goal or just creating obstacles for students? Diversifying the student population and the workforce requires that we question and rethink everything about our systems and how we do what we do.”
More inclusion of voices and perspectives
Two incidents of anti-Black racism occurred at the School of Social Work this past spring, and a new task force of faculty, staff and student representatives will lead planning and implementing a schoolwide strategy to reaffirm the School’s commitment to confronting injustice and dismantling oppression. Gomez will bring an outsider’s perspective and – as always – an emphasis on students.
“Let’s start with the most important thing: Students have to feel safe, period,” she says. “That is our primary responsibility. Everything we do is dependent on students feeling safe. We can’t expect them to fully engage with our implicit or explicit curriculum until they feel safe.
“I am new to VCU, and I am new to Richmond so it is critical that I understand the history, culture and intersectionality of the community. Change is community-driven, so knowing a community is critical. Schools across the nation are looking at how they can do a better job of dismantling structural racism and how they can better and more transparently teach the content needed to educate social workers to address issues of discrimination, racism and white supremacy.
“Despite strong beliefs among social work academics that we want increased equity, diversity and inclusion, the data shows that we haven’t made much movement. To me, one thing that is really positive during the current dialogue is that more and more discussion is occurring around systemic racism and how our very structures are perpetuating discrimination. There are voices and perspectives that have been excluded from the conversation, and those voices are critical to formulating and carrying out meaningful action. It is imperative that we create a safe learning community.”
Recent events – the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and the resulting protests over their deaths and systemic discrimination and racial injustice – have left her feeling “heartbroken,” she says. “People are hurting. That feeling has slowly started to transition to determination and hope. Racism as well as health and economic disparities (which are just a reflection of systemic racism) were very much impacting people prior to now.
“Sometimes a wound is covered, but there is still shrapnel that hasn’t been cleaned out. When that happens, you aren’t promoting healing. When you just cover it, you are promoting infection. The current protests, dialogue, system evaluation … all of it feels like a way to begin removing the shrapnel. Sometimes healing is painful. I think it is really important that we respect how people tell their stories, grieve and express their pain.”
‘We need strong social workers’
Gomez, who interviewed last fall and accepted the position early this year, says she is excited to join the school and the Richmond community. She will replace Humberto Fabelo, Ph.D., who is returning to duties as full-time associate professor after serving in the associate dean role since 2011.
“I am always motivated by the opportunity to serve and to make a difference,” Gomez says. “VCU offers a new opportunity to make an impact, and this is really exciting. Meeting everyone in the VCU community, I was really impressed by the passion, talent and drive to make an impact. I come from a background that is very mission- and service-focused so knowing that the school has a commitment to the greater Richmond community, including community-engaged research, is really important to me.
“You can never replace a legend,” she says of Fabelo. “You just walk in every day with gratitude for the foundation they built, and I am grateful that Dr. Fabelo is leaving that for me. I am excited to begin my journey with VCU this fall. Yes, we are in unprecedented times, but that also creates unprecedented opportunity. This is a time when we need strong social workers, and I am grateful and excited to be joining such a strong team.”