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.

After earning his master’s degree at the VCU School of Social Work, Ira Colby, D.S.W. (M.S.W. ’75/SW), did a little bit of everything to make ends meet as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

When a federal grant fell through a month before classes started, he took out student loans, worked with faculty on research grants, taught classes, served as a lacrosse referee and even sold suits in a local department store. His student loans still took 10 years to pay off. 

“I often said during those 10 years, ‘if given the opportunity, we need to do something so future students do not experience what we went through,’ ” he says of his discussion with wife and fellow alum Deborah Colby (M.S.W.’80/SW).  

That opportunity has recently manifested itself as the Peace and Justice Scholarship for Distance Education, with the Colbys making an initial endowment and also committing to a sizable planned gift upon their passing. Their support factor significantly in the School of Social Work’s $3.2 million in gifts and commitments that came during VCU’s eight-year Make It Real Campaign.

Deborah and Ira Colby, smiling; the landscape behind is a snow-covered mountain with the sun setting.
Alumni Deborah Colby (M.S.W.’80/SW) and husband Ira Colby, D.S.W. (M.S.W. ’75/SW) in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

The Colbys’ passion for distance education is rooted in Deborah’s experiences as a graduate student, when onsite classes were held at satellite locations outside Richmond.

“We were living in rural southwest Virginia,” Ira says. “This was before computers and online classes. Typewriters were still in vogue. All that to say, her distance ed experience is different in many ways than today’s students and also has similar aspects.

“We think it is important to provide educational opportunities to rural and underserved populations and areas as well as to a variety of adult learners who may not have the opportunity to attend on-campus classes. Providing distance education is an important aspect for adult learners with family and employment commitments, as well as for rural areas with minimal access to higher education.”

Deborah was the recipient of a criminal justice scholarship her second year.

“This allowed me to have funds to travel into Richmond, spend the night and attend the required on-campus courses,” she says. “These additional funds allowed our family to not acquire the massive amount of debt that today’s students accumulate. It provided a basis for educational advancement to assist in career advancement. Without the scholarship, I would not have obtained the M.S.W. degree that allowed me to succeed.”

Deborah went into social work practice and was a field instructor within two years, a role she continued throughout her career in a variety of settings. 

“One common thread with many of the students I worked with was balancing school and family life as well as the ongoing sagas of financial needs personal, academic and familial,” she says. “There was always a perceived need for scholarships to provide support for learning and education.”

“We know that our lives would have been very different had it not been for VCU. The decision to create an endowed scholarship was easy as the University and the School hold such important places in our lives.”  

Ira moved into leadership in higher education, becoming director of the University of Central Florida’s School of Social Work from 1993-98 and then dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work from 1999-2014.

“Having been a dean of a college of social work, I witnessed the impact of scholarships on scores of students’ lives,” Ira says. “Graduation was always a great time, and I would come home telling stories of students who came across the stage to get their diplomas, smiles that glowed and were contagious. 

“I watched their careers grow as they became ‘change agents’ in so many ways – working in public and private agencies; working for local, state and national elected officials; directing agencies and organizations; and the list goes on. Many shared a common thread – they wanted to help others, and they were able to graduate and have a fulfilling career due to their financial support.”

Ira says he and Deborah were shaped by their time at VCU, which led to an ongoing belief in the power of higher education in general and social work in particular. 

“The VCU School of Social Work was a pivotal experience for both of us, individually and as a couple,” he says. “We were challenged by the faculty, staff and fellow students in unmeasurable ways to look at things through a lens of justice and equality for all people and to advocate for just policies and practices. We know that our lives would have been very different had it not been for VCU. The decision to create an endowed scholarship was easy as the University and the School hold such important places in our lives.”  

Recent data from the Council on Social Work Education and the U.S. Department of Education show the average student debt is $45,080 for M.S.W. degree holders and $35,397 for undergraduate degree holders.

With this increased financial burdens for students, “supporting academic scholarships became an important means to help the broader community for both today and tomorrow,” Ira says. “Students’ work will help realize a stronger and more just society for all people. Essentially, an endowed scholarship is a gift that keeps on giving for years and years. 

“We hope that others, be they colleagues, alumni or people who believe in a stronger more just community for all people, will also consider creating a planned gift. Our gift is small in the larger scheme of things, yet we know, based on our personal experiences, that a scholarship, no matter how large or small, can transform a student’s learning experience.”

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