Suzanne Dworak-Peck, an internationally recognized leader in social work and a USC alumna, has donated $60 million to the USC School of Social Work, the university announced Wednesday.
The gift is the largest donation from an individual to a social work school, according to USC, and changes the school’s name to the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
“Today is about recognizing and celebrating social work — as a focus for learning and research, as a profession and as an investment in the future of humanity,” said Dworak-Peck, who has served as president of the National Assn. of Social Workers and is known for forging partnerships in the field around the world. “Our school will always be a destination for learning, where future generations of students will feel that we value and are invested in empowering their goals and their creativity and their growth. This is the feeling I took from USC and internalized throughout my career, and I really want to share that exceptional experience with others.”
USC has the largest social work school in the world, and — with an enrollment of 3,500 — it educates 1 out of every 20 graduate-level social workers in the country, university officials said.
Founded in 1920, the school is recognized for its interdisciplinary approaches to solving society’s problems. Earlier this month, it joined forces with the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering to launch a center devoted to tackling large-scale societal issues such as homelessness by bringing together computer scientists using artificial intelligence and social workers grounded in the real world.
The school is also known for its military social work program — the first established by a civilian research university — and its graduate nursing program and research in aging and quality of life.
Dworak-Peck, who lives in Malibu, earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1965 and completed her master’s in social work in 1967. She said she hopes her gift will ensure that social work education will continue to grow as its own USC school while partnering creatively with some of the other 18 schools on campus.
Dworak-Peck’s career provides an inspiring example of the many possible ways to pursue a lifetime of social work, said USC President C.L. Max Nikias.
She has spent much of her career working with traditionally excluded communities as well as providing clinical supervision and treatment to families and individuals. She is praised by colleagues for being instrumental in advancing the public image of social work and establishing more accurate portrayals in entertainment and the media.
“Suzanne Dworak-Peck is a visionary who has shown extraordinary leadership in her field, almost single-handedly changing how we perceive social workers,” Nikias said. “Her great generosity is matched only by her passion for social justice and her drive to inspire change by re-imagining social work so that it empowers everyone it touches.”
She continues to serve as an ambassador for the International Federation of Social Workers, and was a president and founding member of the California Coalition for Mental Health and a National Mental Health Leadership Foundation board member.
Along the way, she said, she dabbled in real estate investments — a longtime interest and hobby, which is how she was able to make such a large donation.
“I applied the skills I learned at USC — the ethics, the values, the disciplined approach to problems, research, assessment, planning, analytic skills, and very importantly, building professional relationships and connecting people,” she said. “I used my education in non-traditional areas and fortunately, I was successful…. And now I’m able to give back to my primary passion: social work.”
Before Dworak-Peck’s donation, a 2007 gift to NYU was the largest of its kind to a social work program. The $50 million from alumni Constance and Martin Silver to what is now called the NYU Silver School of Social Work was an “unprecedented moment for social work education” and expanded the school’s work in addressing systemic poverty, officials there said.
At USC, Dworak-Peck said she hopes future students will think about how their skills and desires to help society could be put to use in any career or project.
“Don’t be hesitant to apply your education to new and innovative ideas or areas or roles,” she said. “Follow your interests, follow your passions, follow what inspires you, and your education will empower you.”
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