Wurtzel chair

Denise Burnette

The impetus

With a B.A. in psychology, I began my career on a geriatrics ward in a state psychiatric hospital in East Tennessee. Many "patients" had spent their lives there for social, not psychiatric, reasons. The injustice affected me, especially after I had children and could better see the full life course. It made me aware of how social contexts shape opportunities and capacities. That is what drew me to social work.

Developing a specialty

In choosing an internship site in my master’s program, I asked not to be placed in a setting involving death and dying. I felt too inexperienced. I was placed on an oncology unit and outpatient hospice, where I stayed for almost a decade. I experienced a lot of growth and learning in this position, and since most patients were older adults, it solidified my commitment to the study of aging. 

Going global

My career has paralleled the process of globalization. My experiences as a Fulbright fellow and an Open Society International scholar expanded my work to psychosocial problems of aging in less-developed countries and sparked a strong commitment to social work education in these locales.  

Coming to VCU

I am a first-generation college student from the American South. I was educated in public institutions, but I have spent my career in a private university. The Wurtzel Chair was an extraordinary opportunity to bring my experience to a first-rate public university in a region I still call home. I am struck by how deeply VCU is integrated with its environs. There is a real sense of responsibility to make what we do matter to people who live here. I think this model offers important lessons for social workers who strive to improve the well-being of individuals, families and communities across the globe.

What’s next

I hope to build meaningful research and teaching collaborations with VCU faculty and students. I plan, for example, to offer a universitywide graduate course on global mental health. If I can pass on the confidence, opportunities and inspiration others have invested in me, I will be proud of that legacy.