School of Social Work

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

The origin of VCU social work Ph.D. candidate Seon “Sunny” Kim’s dissertation dates to the Korean War, deeply personal work that is receiving national recognition. 

The Korean American Social Work Educators Association in the fall honored Kim’s dissertation work with its Outstanding Dissertation Proposal Award for contributions to aging research, policy and practice.

Seon “Sunny” Kim, left, and Dr. Kyeongmo Kim showing her KASWEA award certificate.

“As a Ph.D. candidate, receiving an award holds significant meaning for me,” Kim says. “I could feel a sense of gratitude and accomplishment upon learning that I had been selected.”

Kim’s academic journey began in South Korea, where she obtained her master’s in social welfare from Yonsei University in Seoul and her bachelor’s in family environment and welfare from Chonnam National University in Gwangju. Before pursuing her Ph.D., she spent four years working at a Korean national think tank.

“I started my Ph.D. program at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, coming to the United States from South Korea filled with anxiety and fear,” she says. “I had relatively limited interaction with people, which led to a lack of confidence in my research. This award has provided me with support and confidence in my research and has instilled in me the passion to continue my research.”

Kyeongmo Kim, Ph.D., social work associate professor and Kim’s advisor, says her dissertation work examining the role of neighborhood and home and community-based services (HCBS) on older adults’ health is innovative in its approach; she is using multiple data sources and employing complex data analysis such as geographic information systems, geospatial regression and multilevel modeling.

The ultimate goal of the study is giving policy implications for enabling older adults to age healthily in their own homes.

Ph.D. candidate Seon “Sunny’ Kim

Using GIS, Sunny Kim can visualize the distribution of HCBS and the spatial correlation between neighborhoods and HCBS availability in Virginia. A neighborhood with high poverty, for example, has a relatively low number of HCBS, she says. Using multilevel modeling, she found neighborhood characteristics – such as poverty, population size, older adults proportion and racial/ethnic minorities – impact HCBS availability in Virginia, which eventually affects older adults’ health.

“These multiple approaches can take years, but she is completely dedicated to her passion and research to fully understand the landscape of HCBS and the neighborhood,” Kyeongmo Kim says. “I am sure that her study could ultimately contribute to increasing national support for reducing health inequities among older adults.”

Sunny Kim agrees that is the desired outcome. “The ultimate goal of the study is giving policy implications for enabling older adults to age healthily in their own homes,” she says.

There is a strong connection between her research commitment and her grandfather, Chunsik Chae, who suffered a gunshot wound during the Korean War, leading to a disability in one arm. He passed away in 2023.

Sunny Kim with the man who inspired her research focus, her grandfather, Chunsik Chae.

“He has been a profound source of inspiration for me,” she says. “Despite enduring a challenging youth, he was able to live independently at home with the assistance of various home care services as South Korea progressed. 

“However, as he grew older and required more assistance, I embarked on a research journey to fulfill his wish for a comfortable aging in place through home and community-based services. This experience has instilled in me a dedication and passion for the field of older adults’ health and welfare, serving as a significant source of inspiration for my research and academic interests.”

Besides validating her work, the KASWEA award will help connect her to Korean-American researchers and create opportunities to introduce her to researchers in both countries, she says. KASWEA is an important resource for support and building connections.

Chunsik Chae during the Korean War.

“This organization helps foster a sense of community, offers opportunities for networking and facilitates collaborative efforts,” Sunny Kim says. “They are building a strong network with Korean-American scholars, Korean national think tanks and Korean scholars in Korea, which is invaluable in providing me with a platform to share knowledge.”

Her award is the latest in a series of national honors for students in the VCU School of Social Work Ph.D. Program, including a similar pre-dissertation fellowship that doctoral student Matt Morgan earned in 2022 from the Association of Gerontological Education in Social Work.

“I am proud of the strength and quality of the VCU social work Ph.D. Program,” she says. “The mentorship and experiences I have gotten are exceptional. I was particularly impressed by the contributions of my advisor, Kyeongmo Kim, and Denise Burnette (social work professor and former Ph.D. director) in the aging team toward the academic development of students. 

“Through their guidance, I had the chance to explore various research areas and enhance my scholarly depth. They also offered me great opportunities for career advancement. Furthermore, I could sense the genuine dedication of many faculty members in fostering students’ growth and providing them with ample opportunities.”

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