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Tuesday, June 02, 2020
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More than 400 students, faculty, staff and family members of graduating students gathered recently at the 92nd Street Y for the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work’s (GSSW) 2016 Academic Recognition Program.

The happy event, imbued with warmth and humor, celebrated the graduates’ academic achievements, outstanding community service and inspiring personal triumphs.

In addressing the gathering, Dr. Steven Huberman, GSSW’s founding dean, focused in part on the school’s overarching philosophy, which is rooted in the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or perfecting the world.

“While we may not be able to complete the task,” said Dr. Huberman, “the Torah says that we should keep on trying.”

Patricia E. Salkin, provost for Touro’s Graduate and Professional Division, expressed gratitude to the faculty training a new generation of social workers, and applauded the graduates for their service to others. “There was something inside you that said, ‘I can do more, contribute more and I can make a difference,’” said Provost Salkin.

In her congratulatory remarks to the graduates, Nadja Graff, vice president, Division of Graduate Studies, hailed the students for their idealism and courage. “You are not afraid to be the rock when people are in need,” she said. “You came with a dream and I urge you to keep that idealism and spirit alive. Don’t judge the day by the harvest but by the seeds you plant, and you will plant many seeds each day.”

The event highlighted several individual students, including Alina Kheyson, who achieved a 4.0 GPA and was voted valedictorian by the faculty and peers. Ms. Kheyson also received the Graduate Student of the Year Award from the New York State Social Work Education Association.

“Agent of Change”
Jonathan Benedek received the National Association of Social Workers-New York City Chapter Student Award from Candida Brooks-Harrison, president-elect of the NASW-NYC Chapter, for his “leadership and compassion,” as well as his  commitment to helping advance the profession.

Mr. Benedek also received the inaugural Ohel Distinguished Community Service Award from the organization’s CEO, David Mandel, chair of the Graduate School’s Professional Advisory Committee, who applauded him for going to great lengths to
make a difference. Mr. Benedek was among those students who achieved a 3.9 GPA in their studies.

Annabel Amir and Martina Rodriguez were honored with the Dr. Bernard and Sarah Lander Distinguished Social Work Tikkun Olam Award, which memorializes the legacies of Touro College’s founder and his wife while paying tribute to students who “are striving to make the world a better place for all people,” said Professor Allison Bobick, director of student advancement and organizer of the event.

As a college student who advocated for oppressed women, children and families, Ms. Amir fled Kyrgystan, a former Soviet Union state, fearing for her life. In the US, she was granted refugee status and provided for herself and her young daughter with low-paying jobs. She worked for UNESCO, the United Nation’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, which enabled her to return to Kyrgyzstan, and amid a changing political climate, advocate for people in need. As a single mother with four children, Ms. Amir returned to the US, worked as a home health aide, and then enrolled at Touro to become a social worker while holding down a full-time job.

Ms. Rodriguez grew up in the Dominican Republic with a single mother raising three children. At 21, her family made it possible for her to visit the US on a sixmonth visa. To remain in America, she became an undocumented immigrant and
worked long hours in sweatshops and factories. She enrolled in college and completed her BA in seven years. She began working as a para-professional at the New York City Department of Education and in 2014, enrolled at Touro, continuing to work 10- to 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Today she has established Esperanza, or “Hope”—a not-for-profi t organization that provides clothing and school supplies to children in the Dominican Republic.

Also honored was Dr. Larry E. Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, who was presented with the National Distinguished Social Work Leadership Award. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Davis noted racial conflict represents a major problem in America, a development that social workers—with their training and racial and economic diversity— are in the best position to assist society in overcoming. He asked graduates to “advocate for change” and build coalitions with police, city planners and developers. “The world needs your talents more than ever. Work to make this a more perfect union,” he said.

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