‘Essential for the future’: Biggerstaff’s gifts support doctoral research
As a graduate student in social work in the 1960s, Marilyn A. Biggerstaff was the beneficiary of the era’s ample federal grants, bolstered by the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Times have changed. Forbes reported in early 2020 that student debt is a record $1.56 trillion – the second-highest consumer debt category in the country.
That trend helped motivate Biggerstaff’s philanthropy: significant endowment and planned gift commitments for scholarships in the VCU School of Social Work. Those gifts count toward the school’s successful fundraising efforts in the recently completed Make It Real Campaign. The school surpassed its original goal of $2.25 million with a total commitment of $3.2 million over the eight-year campaign that ended June 30, 2020.
“I was very fortunate to have first a child welfare scholarship and then a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) scholarship for my two years in the M.S.W. program at the University of Kansas,” says Biggerstaff, D.S.W., who retired as a professor in 2005 after 28 years on the school’s faculty.
“My doctoral studies at the University of Southern California were funded by a NIMH fellowship, and I also worked part-time for the public mental health agency in Los Angeles County. The idea of establishing a scholarship for students at VCU came from my own experiences and knowledge that federal programs are not funding social work education at the level that occurred in the 1960s forward.”
Her 2019 gift initiated the Dr. Marilyn A. Biggerstaff Fund for Doctoral Student Research. As faculty, she served on and chaired the Ph.D. Program’s comprehensive exam and many dissertation committees. The scholarship’s purpose is “to support research in the School of Social Work that strives to make a difference in the lives of persons experiencing poverty.”
“My decision to establish the Ph.D. scholarship came from a desire to expand private sources of support for social work doctoral students,” Biggerstaff says. “The endowed gift was aimed at getting a head start on the scholarship, and the planned gift will build on that startup.
“Increasing opportunities for a doctoral degree in social work is essential for the future of the profession. Research by social workers is a major contributing force to address social and behavioral challenges faced by people in the U.S. and other nations. Social and behavioral challenges are increasing, as are the need for researchers to prepare to study the causes of racism, social isolation, aging, physical and sexual abuse and poverty. These are but a few of the ways that social workers can contribute to our knowledge of human behavior and needs.”
Biggerstaff led a group of a dozen emeriti faculty who volunteered to help local government agencies and nonprofits that needed support when the coronavirus pandemic struck in the spring. The group used its experience and expertise to provide confidential telephone support. “We did not have a large number of requests, but those agency executives truly appreciated our efforts,” she says. “I also saw this as a way to keep emeriti faculty involved in their areas of expertise in serving our local communities.”
Whether it’s talent or treasure, Biggerstaff sees her support as essential, especially as a former faculty member who benefited from professional development opportunities through the school.
“Contributing to scholarship and professional development for all social work students is an important way to support the School of Social Work,” she says. “I think that annual contributions to the Dean’s Circle support faculty efforts such as attending professional conferences and having funds available for start-up research. I personally benefited from these efforts while I was on the faculty. Not everyone is in a position to make a legacy gift; however contributions to these funds will continue to support students through scholarships and professional development activities.”