School of Social Work

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

Goal: $2.25 million. Achieved: $3.2 million (142% of goal). $1.05 million endowment dollars raised. 17 planned gifts totaling over $1.8 million. 20 major gifts totaling over $1,978,000. 1938 households contributed to the campaign totaling $3,203,108. 318 scholarships awarded. Over $300,000 awarded to students since 2013. 1,368 alumni gave over $2.5 million (80% of total raised). Rodney the Ram head.

Joyce Beckett, Ph.D., laughs heartily and acknowledges that, yes, after all these years she is still an “autumn.”

Beckett, who retired as professor in 2005 after 20 years at the VCU School of Social Work, is explaining how she became friends with Rita Schleuter (M.S.W.’88/SW) – and why she chose to fund a scholarship in her friend’s name.

“Rita was in one of the first classes that I taught, human behavior,” in 1985, says Beckett, a longtime donor along with her husband, alumnus John Purnell (M.S.W.’64/SW; M.P.A.’78/GPA). “She was into ‘colors’ – this was at a time that people were trying to determine the best colors for their skin and attitude and all that. Rita asked if I could go to lunch and do my colors. We had a wonderful time, and from then on, we would meet for lunch every once in a while, and became close in that way.” 

Schleuter’s color analysis, Beckett says, was spot-on. Things turned more serious, though, when Schleuter was diagnosed with brain cancer. She passed away in 1996.

John Purnell with blue blazer, white shirt and magenta tie; and Joyce Beckett, with light blue jacket and white blouse
School of Social Work alumnus John Purnell (M.S.W.’64/SW; M.P.A.’78/GPA) and his wife, former faculty member Joyce Beckett, Ph.D.

In her honor, Beckett decided to endow the Rita Schleuter Memorial Scholarship in Social Work, and she and Purnell continue to support the scholarship with annual gifts. Their donations make up a portion of the School of Social Work’s $3.2 million in gifts and commitments as part of VCU’s Make It Real Campaign

The Schleuter scholarship goes to an incoming freshman with a demonstrated knowledge of the African American culture and interest in pursuing a career in clinical social work. 

“I stayed close with her family and still have contact with her daughter, so we talked about this possibility,” Beckett says. “She was very pleased. Rita had real respect for African Americans and the need for African Americans in social work. That is what I was interested in carrying on.

“Rita was soft-spoken, but a go-getter. She would decide what she needed and wanted, and she would have it. She would use a velvet glove.” 

“A young lady … wanted to personally thank us because she had been a recipient of the scholarship as an undergraduate. She would not have been able to go to VCU if she hadn’t gotten that scholarship.”

Beckett and Purnell have been a couple since 1985 and married since 1997. Their philanthropy as a couple was rooted in their own experiences as students, when they each received National Institutes of Mental Health grants. They donate to multiple universities besides VCU.

“We both had been recipients of funds in college and graduate school so we felt we should give something back, and this was one fo the ways we did it,” Beckett says. “We were at a local chapter meeting of the Association of Black Social Workers not too long ago, and a young lady that neither of us remembered came over and wanted to personally thank us because she had been a recipient of the scholarship as an undergraduate. She would not have been able to go to VCU if she hadn’t gotten that scholarship.”

Purnell is in his fourth year as a member of the VCU Foundation’s board trustees after a 41-year career as executive director at FRIENDS Association for Children, a Richmond non-profit child and family agency founded in 1871. 

“One thing I learned from sitting on the foundation board is how important the scope of VCU’s academic program really is,” he says. “I have just been amazed how many specialties and accomplished academicians are on the faculty of VCU. For people who really want to get a solid education and who are really focused on achieving, there’s not really a better option than VCU.”

Purnell enrolled at the then-Richmond Public Institute for his social work master’s degree in 1962. His future wife, meanwhile, was actually incentivized with funding by the Commonwealth of Virginia to apply to out-of-state colleges, the result of segregationist policy. She ultimately wound up at Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia.  

“I am a Richmond native, and I came along at a time when African Americans going to publicly supported state institutions were only able to enroll in graduate programs,” Purnell says. “To see that shift, I am always thinking about how we encourage students to become interested in the program and especially African American students. I see some progress there, and that is very encouraging.”

The Rita Schleuter Memorial Scholarship in Social Work was a big step in the right direction.

“Joyce and I both fully understand and appreciate how difficult it is to maintain and sustain in school, and the cost of education is quite high,” Purnell says. “In our own small way, it is what we do, and it is something we always agreed on.”

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