School of Social Work

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

The international organization of directors of social work doctoral programs has recognized two influential VCU professors for their work, continuing a legacy of national leadership by the School of Social Work. 

Portrait of Kia Bentley, Ph.D.
Professor Kia J. Bentley, Ph.D.

The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) has selected Professor Kia J. Bentley, Ph.D., LCSW, as the recipient of the 2021 GADE Award for Educational Leadership in Doctoral Education. 

Professor and Ph.D. Program Director Denise Burnette, Ph.D., LMSW, was recently elected president-elect of GADE. She will serve as the president-elect for one year, followed by two years as the GADE president.

Portrait of Denise Burnette, Ph.D.
Professor Denise Burnette, Ph.D.

Dr. Burnette becomes the third VCU social work faculty member to hold the position, following Dr. Bentley (2012-13) and Ann Nichols-Casebolt, Ph.D. (1997-99), one of the school’s emeriti faculty and a former associate vice president for research at VCU. 

GADE comprises more than 80 social work doctoral program directors worldwide. For more than 40 years, GADE’s primary purpose has been to promote rigor in doctoral education in social work, focusing on preparing scholars, researchers and educators who function as stewards of the discipline.

Dr. Bentley’s ‘strong commitment’

The GADE Awards Sub-Committee ​​recognized Dr. Bentley “strong commitment to advancing doctoral education at multiple levels.” She will receive a certificate and a monetary award at the Doctoral Student Award Breakfast on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, at the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting in Orlando, Florida.  

From left, social work doctoral alumni with Professor Kia J. Bentley, Ph.D.: Jenny Crowell Thompson (Ph.D.’07/SW), Jen Keast Charles (Ph.D.’15/SW), Dr. Bentley, Rachel Casey (M.S.W.’12/SW; Ph.D.’18/SW), Cory Cummings (Ph.D.’17/SW) and Mel Bellin (M.S.W.’98/SW; Ph.D.’06/SW).

Dr. Bentley led the school’s Ph.D. Program from 1999-2012 and was very active with GADE during that tenure and in several years after. In 2013, she commissioned the update of GADE Guidelines for Quality in Ph.D. Programs in Social Work and also chaired its conference committee, bringing the organization to Richmond and securing Brené Brown as the keynote conference speaker.

“I have known Dr. Bentley for over 40 years and have followed with keen interest her wonderful achievements in social work education and scholarship, highlighted by her contributions to doctoral educational leadership,” wrote her nominator, Bruce A. Thyer, Ph.D., LCSW, BCBA-D, distinguished research professor at Florida State University’s College of Social Work.

“My experience with GADE through the years was very positive,” Dr. Bentley says. “There were some deep connections formed with other directors over the years who were a source of much support, not to mention fun and frivolity. It was and is a true think tank for sharing ideas about doctoral education, and literally everyone is so committed to excellence in research and advancing the field of social work through scholarship. 

“I am pleased about this moment of recognition and validation, knowing how rare they can be. I am thankful to my nominator, Dr. Thyer, one of my own mentors from Florida State, who has been in my corner since Day 1 of my own doctoral program there.”   

‘Culture of completion’ continues with peer mentoring

Of her tenure as Ph.D. Program director at VCU, she says, “I am most proud of creating what I called ‘a culture of completion,’ where policies and practices were designed to highlight students’ palpable and constant movement toward success. Success was defined as a positive, nurturing learning experience within a strong sense of community and collaboration. The hope was for graduates to have a clear professional identity and mission and complete a dissertation product that made an impact and made them proud.”

Dr. Bentley says several of the school’s doctoral alumni are now members of GADE as program directors. She maintains a strong connection with former students and facilitates a “peer mentoring group” with four graduates who are now educators. “We meet twice a semester to challenge each other with professional development questions, bounce ideas about our own research, and process an interesting article that one of us has chosen,” she says.

Two of those in the peer group are former students Cory Cummings (Ph.D.’17/SW), LCSW, an assistant professor of social work at Nazareth College; and Rachel Casey (M.S.W.’12/SW; Ph.D.’18/SW), assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern Maine.

“I entered my doctoral education unsure of what it meant to be a social work scholar. Kia both modeled this and gave me the space to define it for myself,” Dr. Cummings says. 

“This (peer) community has been invaluable to me; how amazing it is to come together with other scholars that mutually support each other. In speaking with other faculty, I realize how lucky I am to have such an outlet, and the credit goes to Kia for creating this space. She has consistently been clear of vision yet eager for new learning, vulnerable yet never shying away from challenges, and always authentic. These are qualities that I aspire to as a scholar and as a person.”

“Dr. Bentley provided dedicated, responsive and loving support throughout my doctoral degree,” Dr. Casey says. “She challenged me to grow, always encouraging me toward excellence. I attribute many of my strengths as a researcher and writer to Dr. Bentley’s teaching. Dr. Bentley also provided wise guidance regarding my future career in academia; her mentorship propelled me through a successful job search. I will be forever grateful for Dr. Bentley’s significant role in my life.”

‘GADE’s work is essential’

In addition to serving as director of social work Ph.D. programs for more than a decade, Dr. Burnette has chaired and served on multiple national and international committees on doctoral education. At VCU, she has led the Ph.D. Program since 2016 and holds the Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Faculty Chair in Social Work.

“I was delighted and honored to learn that I had been elected,” she says of her leadership role with GADE. “I am pleased for the VCU School of Social Work’s support of my service to the profession as GADE president and proud to represent the school in this capacity.”

“Each new era brings its own historic, current and emergent opportunities and challenges for doctoral social work education. As president-elect, I look forward to collaborating closely with other program directors, doctoral students and the leadership of other professional social work organizations to build on our current strengths as we prepare students for their future as researchers, educators and leaders.

“GADE’s work is integral to that of our other professional organizations, and it plays an essential role in ensuring the quality and integrity of Ph.D. and D.S.W. education.” 

Categories Alumni, Awards and honors, Education, Faculty and staff
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