UConn School of Social Work Celebrates Class of 2024

Commencement speaker DCF Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly encouraged graduates to know and use their “superpowers”

Collage of photos from UConn School of Social Work's 2024 Commencement, including image of the university President shaking hands with student speaker Juan Torres, a group of students in the audience, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Scott Harding at the podium.

Collage of photos from UConn School of Social Work's (SSW) 2024 Commencement at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, May 4, 2024. (FLASH Photography)

The UConn School of Social Work (SSW) celebrated Commencement on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. The Commencement speaker was Jodi Hill-Lilly, MSW, the recently appointed commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, a longtime partner of the SSW.

The Class of 2024 included 157 graduates in total, including 135 receiving their Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees, 19 receiving their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degrees and three Ph.D. graduates.

After marshals led the procession of students to their seats, Dean Laura Curran welcomed UConn President Radenka Maric, Commissioner Hill-Lilly, Associate Deans Scott Harding and Jennifer Manuel, the two student speakers, faculty, staff and students. Award-winning opera singer Miles Wilson-Toliver offered a soulful rendition of the National Anthem, followed by a Land Acknowledgement by Dean Curran. Professor and Zachs Chair Cristina-Mogro Wilson shared a moving message about the late Alex Gitterman, a longtime professor at the SSW and a legend in the field of social work.

In her message to graduates, Dean Curran noted that social work is a challenging profession yet one the graduates are well prepared to embrace. “We’re tasked with addressing some of the most complex and intractable social issues while maintaining a deep sense of empathy, compassion and our commitment to social justice,” she said. “We know that as social work students you’ve had many difficult conversations that have challenged the ways you think and you’ve learned to approach others with respect, compassion and empathy. Your ability to create bonds across differences is a core social work value.”

Student Voices

Each spring, two student speakers representing the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs offer their thoughts for fellow graduates. One speech is delivered in English; the other in Spanish. In his speech, BSW graduate Juan Torres noted that he and his fellow BSW classmates had invested “an average of 4,500 hours on this journey.” After sharing details about the personal obstacles he faced along the way to receiving his degree, Torres offered these encouraging words: “As we embark on the next chapter of our journey, let us carry with us the lessons learned, the friendships forged, and the unyielding determination to make a difference in the world.”

In her remarks, the MSW graduate speaker Sonia Aponte shared in Spanish how her journey to becoming a social worker started 25 years earlier when she left Puerto Rico to arrive in a place where the language and customs were quite different. But with support she overcame many challenges and encouraged graduates from all three degree programs to “recordemos que nuestras acciones, por pequeñas que sean, tienen el poder de provocar un cambio significativo y elevar a los necesitados,” which means “let us remember that our actions, no matter how small, have the power to bring about significant change and uplift those in need.”

Commencement Speaker on Superpowers and More

In her keynote address, Commissioner Hill-Lilly detailed four points about how the Husky graduates might use their new degrees. Her points included knowing their superpowers, or unique interpersonal gifts; being a trailblazer and trail “widener” by empowering others; being mindful of the types of people they keep in their personal lives; and taking care of themselves in order to care for others.

“Each of us brings unique interpersonal gifts to our world – gifts like patience, enthusiasm, creativity, laughter, encouragement and generosity,” Hill-Lilly said. “Superpowers are closely aligned with your passions. They are attributes that have been with you most of your life. It’s what you have been born to do and purposed to do.”

In encouraging graduates to be “trail wideners,” she recounted a time when while traveling by plane, she assisted a fellow passenger who was having a panic attack. “The woman asked me what I did for a living. I said, very proudly, I am a social worker,” Hill-Lilly recalled. “We do what we have to do. We blaze and widen the trails for others.”

Hill-Lilly ended her speech by breaking into the song “Rise Up,” by Andra Day:

As social workers… we rise up!
we rise like the day,
we rise up,
we rise unafraid,
we rise up
and we’ll do it a thousand times again.

We rise up
high like a wave,
we rise up,
in spite of the ache,
we rise up
and we’ll do it a thousand times again.

The keynote was followed by the presentation of BSW candidates, presentation and hooding of the MSW and doctoral candidates, and the conferral of degrees by President Maric.

The UConn School of Social Work was established in 1946 and graduated its first MSW student in 1948. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2023.