The Summit Avenue Classroom Building photographed on Monday, May 24, 2010.The building is home to the School of Social Work.

School of Social Work Marks First Doctoral Dissertation Defenses

Ten people sat around the table on April 18 in the lower level of O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library’s STELAR, the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research Center. On the wall a huge projection showed a series of Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) students from around the country as they presented and defended their doctoral banded dissertations and punctuated their years in the online DSW program.

“We’re all together but we’re all across the country. It’s powerful. It’s such a significant part of the students’ experience and journey to get to this point,” said Catherine Marrs Fuchsel, the DSW program director. “Each one has their own story and lived experiences. It’s so great to see them grow throughout these three years. I can see that progression, especially, when we get to this point.”

A Doctorate in Social Work student defends their dissertation over Zoom as members of the panel watch from the STELAR lab at St. Thomas.

A Doctorate in Social Work student defends their dissertation over Zoom as members of the panel watch from the STELAR lab at St. Thomas.

This year’s cohort marked the first fulfilling the new degree requirement to defend their doctoral banded dissertations, a fittingly digital continuation of their studies to this point.

“It was wonderful, surreal, intimidating,” said Catherine Roberson ’19 DSW. “We have spent two years developing and living with this work, so, for me, it is a central part of my life. It is surreal when you realize you have come to the place where you are finished and presenting it.”

“I find that the DSW program has a strong commitment to helping us become what it is we are studying, so that we don’t just learn about social work education but become social work educators,” she added. “I believe the dissertation and defense process plays a key role in this. We must learn to step out as scholars and individuals prepared to serve as faculty, committed and capable of disseminating our research in whatever form is necessary. We learn to write for publication, to make scholarly presentations and to defend our research among peers. While it is intimidating, the process is transformative.”

“I appreciated the additional level of rigor and validation that the dissertation defense process brought to the completion of our doctoral studies,” Ben Bencomo ’19 DSW said. “It helped to validate the importance of the scholarly work that we have been doing in our program and offered an opportunity to showcase our work.”

Beyond the people in the room at St. Thomas, dozens of peers, colleagues and friends watched each Zoom session as each DSW student defended over the course of several days.

“The combination of the in-person and online attendance was encouraging. This opened the process up to include faculty in our own institutions, as well as allowed our cohort members to attend,” Roberson said. “We were able to interact as honestly and openly as we would in person, without the added barriers of expense. It was especially nice to see faculty we studied under throughout the program. I had my cohort members in attendance from all over the country with my colleagues in my institution listening outside my door and holding a surprise party for me when I finished.”

For Marrs Fuchsel, seeing the culmination of so many students’ years of hard work in the defense process was like a party in and of itself.

“It’s exciting to see it all come together,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”