Wurtzel chair

About Denise Burnette (she/her)

Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work

Social work is aligned with my own values. It’s not just a profession; it’s a mission.

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.

Behind the Chair

The Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work was established by the VCU Board of Visitors in 1986 and funded by Alan Wurtzel in memory of his father and his commitment to social justice, the Richmond community and the School of Social Work.

Samuel Wurtzel believed strongly in community and social responsibility. In 1963, he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to a special trade mission to Switzerland and Austria, and in 1973 he received the Distinguished Community Services Award from the Richmond Jewish Community Council and the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

He served as chairman of the advisory board of the VCU School of Social Work, president of the Richmond Jewish Community Council, member of the Board of Governors of the Greater Richmond Community Foundation, and director of the Better Business Bureau of Richmond.

Mr. Wurtzel was also a member of the executive committee of the United Givers Fund and the Capital Area Comprehensive Health Planning Council. Alan Wurtzel's goal was to create a resource for future scholars to continue his father's humanitarian vision, and support the research and scholarship mission of VCU School of Social Work for generations to come.