School of Social Work

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

John C. Bricout (Ph.D.’98/SW) has embraced the disruptive nature of innovation, reinvention and, as he calls it, working outside the box. All the more reason to find grounding in several key tenets developed as a doctoral student at the Virginia Commonwealth School of Social Work.

Twenty-four years after earning his Ph.D., Dr. Bricout has been named the 2022 recipient of the school’s Making a Difference Alumni Award. The award recognizes and honors doctoral alumni who have distinguished themselves as innovators in research and scholarship, education, advocacy, and policy development or human services. He was honored at a luncheon May 4.

V-C-U social work alum John Bricout at podium
John C. Bricout (Ph.D.’98/SW), the 2022 Making a Difference Alumni Award winner

Dr. Bricout is a professor and director of research in the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. He also serves as co-director of the interdisciplinary Workforce Development and Research Lab in the UMN College of Education and Human Development.

“It was completely out of the blue,” he says of the honor. “And I thought about things I am particularly grateful for from my VCU education.”

First, he says, is the importance of teamwork, modeled by his doctoral advisor, Kia J. Bentley, Ph.D., LCSW, and also by Paul Wehman, Ph.D., director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC), where Bricout worked as a student. 

In nominating Dr. Bricout for the award, social work Associate Professor Matthew Bogenschutz, Ph.D., reached out to Dr. Wehman, who notes, “I will never forget the times John would come into my office with yet another idea. His writing even back then was outstanding and I knew right away he was going to do real well. I knew he was going to have an extraordinary career. Watching his ambition without the slightest hint of arrogance and always a smile on his face made him a joy to have in our center.”

At RRTC, there was a “cross-fertilization” of employees, Dr. Bricout says, including staff and job coaches under different funding structures, social work faculty, and other VCU and VCU Health personnel. 

Working outside the box is more interesting and potentially more powerful. It’s not simply a question of thinking about things differently, but acting differently on those different thoughts.

Dr. Bentley led the doctoral program at the time and is still a professor in the School of Social Work. “Dr. Bentley makes a great emphasis on teamwork with her advisees and is also inclined toward teamwork in her own scholarship,” Bricout says.

Dr. Bentley and Dr. Wehman also showed Dr. Bricout the importance of a value-driven purpose. “Dr. Bentley is very motivated and guided by her values, particularly around supporting mental health consumers, the human dignity of people who are consumers of mental health services, the rights of people who are mental health consumers,” Bricout says. “RRTC was also very much focused on the dignity, rights and opportunities for people with disabilities; it was very much in parallel.” 

When funding at RRTC changed the focus of the center, Dr. Wehman “made it clear that we had the same values and commitment to the lives of people with disabilities,” Dr. Bricout says. “Your values remain firm, and the work you do expresses those values.” A similar situation recently arose during a research collaboration with Georgia Tech: Funding and focus changed, but leadership emphasized the key values were immutable. 

“You have to reinvent yourself,” Dr. Bricout says. “In an academic setting, it’s not quite like social work practice in the field, but you have to adapt to changing times. You’re reinventing yourself as an organization, as an individual.”

This reinvention – a willingness to work outside the box – is the third key principle from his VCU experience. “Working outside the box is more interesting and potentially more powerful,” he says. “It’s not simply a question of thinking about things differently, but acting differently on those different thoughts. At the core of interdisciplinary work, it’s supposed to be about the idea that you develop new frameworks that represent a kind of blending of various disciplines. So when you do that, you’re actually working outside the box, not merely having ideas that are outside the box thinking, but you’re actually changing some of the parameters of the box, and some of the dynamics of the box.”

Dr. Bentley and Dr. Wehman encouraged these disruptive dynamics. Both were looking for parallels between people with developmental disabilities or traumatic brain injuries and those who needed mental health services or who had psychiatric disabilities. “Working outside the box meant we were looking for commonalities, ways in which one could inform the other,” Dr. Bricout says.

This work became a pattern for Dr. Bricout. At Washington University in St. Louis, he had a dual appointment in occupational therapy, and found “cross-fertilization” between working with people with mobility limitations and research focused around mental health. Studying tools like personal digital assistants to enhance mobility evolved into, at the University of Central Florida, a collaboration with an engineer and a computer scientist to attach a robotic arm to a wheelchair. At the University of Texas-Arlington and now at Minnesota, those interests shifted to the role of robots in relieving adult caregivers serving young adults with developmental disabilities. 

“All of these have to do with threads of how technology has changed people’s lives,” he says. “Each step along the way increased my awareness, especially of ethical issues around privacy, ethical issues around technology focused on optimization rather than technology focused on the capabilities of the end user.”

From working with the Japan College of Social Work while at Washington U to becoming a Fulbright Scholar at Texas-Arlington, Dr. Bricout developed a strong affinity for international work. He credits growing up in Montreal – his father’s family is French – and social unrest there in the 1970s as shaping his perspectives around an international focus as well as macro social work. He began working with people with psychiatric disabilities during his master’s program at SUNY-Buffalo, shifting to a developmental disabilities focus at VCU. 

His motivation for pursuing social work, he says, is “mixture of the social awareness on the one hand, a macro awareness; and then on the other hand, working with people with disabilities and feeling very strongly that they should have the same rights and capabilities of other people in society.” 

His nomination letter captures the layers of experiences and expertise that Bricout has built over his career: “John’s line of research has established him as a forward-thinking innovator, whose work has remained on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and community living for people with disabilities. … John has consistently brought social work values and skills into cross-disciplinary work in order to more holistically meet the needs of people with disabilities. …

“His commitment to people with disabilities, his research innovation, his development of future social workers, his service to others, and his ambition to build the social work research environment have exemplified all that the VCU School of Social Work’s Ph.D. Program hopes our graduates will contribute to our shared professional world.”

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