School of Social Work

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

As the calendar turns to November, stress can mount for students. The end of year holidays are approaching. Finals are less than six weeks away. And daylight savings time – and that extra hour of evening sunlight – ends this weekend.

The last thing anyone needs is an unexpected financial situation to add to their worries and to disrupt their academic studies.

Fortunately for currently enrolled students, the VCU School of Social Work has a financial safety net for such unexpected emergencies: the Pay It Forward Fund.

“Caring for our students holistically means we acknowledge that they are balancing their coursework, jobs, and caregiving, along with other responsibilities,” says Stevara Haley Clark, Ed.D., acting associate dean for academic and student affairs in the School of Social Work. “This fund allows us to provide financial assistance when students experience a crisis that has the potential to hinder their academic success while balancing tight budgets.”

If you are a student facing critical short-term issues that the Pay It Forward Fund might support, please connect with your advisor and/or consider applying to the fund.

Established in early 2021, the fund is earmarked for unavoidable emergency expenses that may be related to an accident, illness, death of a family member, fire damage or need for temporary housing. The goal: Fill the temporary financial gap and keep students progressing toward their degrees.

For one social work student, that one-time financial support made all the difference: “The funds I received (from) Pay It Forward allowed me to repair my car that was vital to attending the various prenatal appointments, and created greater financial freedom and flexibility for me to pay a security deposit down for a great apartment that me and my little one are lucky enough to call home after years of me being unstably housed.”

The fund cannot be used to reimburse expenses that have already been paid, and does not replace or supplement existing financial aid. The fund can be used, for example, for emergency medical care or childcare, books and essential academic expenses, safety needs, or travel costs related to an illness or death of an immediate family member.

Students can apply year-round, and funds generally do not exceed $500. Students should refer to eligibility requirements when submitting an application and supporting documentation

Four decades later, the memory of financial stress helped motivate Patricia Frankel, whose husband is social work alum Stephen Frankel (M.S.W.’79/SW), to donate to the Pay It Forward Fund.

“First, in Judaism, it’s a mitzvah to help people in need. Second, more personally, I remember all too well, even 40 years later, what it was like when I was in college and had unexpected expenses,” she says. “I didn’t have any place to turn for help. It was really hard – shame-inducing and incredibly anxiety-provoking. 

“I don’t want others to go through that. University should be a good experience. Especially in social work, it should be a place where students feel they have a safety net when they need one. And if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s taught us that everyone will need a net sometime. Providing that is what social work is all about, after all.”

The Pay it Forward Fund is one of two relatively new funds in the school to support emerging student needs. The other is the Field Fund, which also launched in 2021 and is still building before being able to support disbursements to students. The Field Fund is one way the school is working to respond to concerns around the financial stressors associated with field education.

If you are interested in opportunities to support School of Social Work students through opportunities like the Pay it Forward Fund and the Field Fund, contact James Romanik (M.B.A.’22/B), the school’s director of development, at or (804) 827-3631.

VCU has also developed the Internship Funding Program to support students in unpaid or underpaid internship placements. Summer 2023 application information should be available soon. B.S.W. student Oscar Kemp received support from the program to help fill a gap in funding that allowed him to study at the University of Michigan this past summer in its Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute. 

VCU social work students are also advocating for more support through a national Payment for Placement (P4P) movement focused on addressing the affordability gap through paid field placements.

The school is also advocating through appropriate channels such as state legislative bodies, national accrediting associations and employers, according to Interim Dean Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D. The Office of Field Education supports opportunities for work-based field placements through the Council on Social Work Education’s allowance for employment hours to count as field hours.

Overall, the School of Social Work offers more than 30 scholarships for B.S.W., M.S.W. and Ph.D. students. 

The factors contributing to the current challenges students and families face in paying for college are complex and multifaceted. Likewise, there are no easy solutions to the high cost of education, though the authors of a recent State Higher Education Finance Report emphasize more state funding: “States must continue prioritizing higher education in the years ahead to ensure that institutions are able to serve our students,” says Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which oversees the SHEF Report.

“As a social work profession, and as educators we will continue to address challenges to affordability and access to the social work degree,” Dr. Gomez says. “We know that access to the degree is critical to the well-being of our communities. While we continue to work to address barriers at both the micro and macro level, we thank our community for continuing to donate financial support and expertise that contributes to our student success.”

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