A Nontraditional Journey to Social Work

  • Practice
  • Research

When Suzanne Wenzel, interim dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, was informed that she had been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW), she was humbled.

“To be recognized by the Academy is a meaningful milestone because it further reinforces my hope that what I have been doing all along is making a difference and contributing to society,” Wenzel said. “Not just reflected in getting grants or publishing, but having an impact in our communities, where we live, and for the people who have been marginalized in society.”

Wenzel is the 11th faculty member from social work at USC to be elected a Fellow of the AASWSW.  The Academy describes their 140 Fellows as prominent scholars, top researchers and practitioners, with unparalleled insight and professional experience. USC has one of the largest contingents of AASWSW Fellows, a reflection of the school’s unwavering commitment to sustaining its position as a top-tier research institution.

The path to social work

The reason Wenzel is extremely honored and privileged to be counted among the Fellows of the AASWSW is because although she has formally been part of the social work family at USC since 2009, she does not hold a degree in social work.

“I have never felt comfortable calling myself a social worker in a formal sense, because I don’t have a social work degree; I don’t think that would be fair,” she said. “But I feel very bound [to this] field. And I understand the principles and the code of ethics of social workers, and I do all I can to uphold them in everything that I do. It’s aligned with my values.”

Wenzel was trained as a community psychologist, as someone who was extremely concerned about issues of social justice. There are many avenues that one can take to satisfy the need to work in the area of social justice, she said, and to engage in research that addresses the fundamental inequities in our society. She took the path of community psychology because it is social justice and action-oriented. The discipline was founded on the understanding that our mental health is influenced by the world around us.   

“It’s what affects one and the experiences one has throughout life and the communities they live in and the opportunities they have or don’t have,” she said. “That is a branch of psychology that is very close to the heart of social work.”

Ten years ago, when the school of social work at USC was looking for someone with expertise in homelessness to join their faculty, Wenzel threw her hat in the ring.

A leader in homelessness research

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, Wenzel first became active in research involving homelessness on a demonstration project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. The project focused on helping people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness to enhance their job training skills.

“It gave me the chance to talk a lot with persons who don’t fit any of the stereotypes we have of people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “[For most, they] couldn’t afford stable and decent housing for themselves and their families. It was really hard to gain traction and hard to save up for a down payment on an apartment.”

The idea was that workforce development through job training might be helpful, and the project gave Wenzel her first opportunity to engage in quantitative and qualitative research on the issue of homelessness.

“The women and men in the project talked about the many challenges that they faced, hardships in the economy, and there were some women who I remember very vividly that were in the midst of abusive relationships and trying to get out of them,” she said. “But if they got out, they wondered what would they do to support themselves and their families, because their partners were the primary breadwinners at the time. So I was learning a lot and realizing, my God, I’ve got to do something about this, I need to help, I need to be even more involved.”

Wenzel went on to receive her PhD in community psychology, and did her postdoctoral fellowship in the Rutgers/Princeton program in Mental Health Services Research, which was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This provided her with an opportunity to study with experts on the east coast, and then at UCLA. She then started her career at the RAND Corporation and led National Institutes of Health-sponsored research on understanding and addressing the needs of persons marginalized by society, principally persons who experienced homelessness or houselessness, and directed quality assurance for health research.

After 12 very satisfying years with RAND, the job announcement for the school of social work at USC intrigued her for multiple reasons.

“I was very aware of the field of social work, again it’s very close to community psychology and it’s very close to my heart,” she said. “I thought it would be so lovely to be doing more of what I was already doing but be closer to the communities I work with, and to participate in other ways. I liked the idea of having more opportunity to mentor students.”

Wenzel was accepted into the social work family at USC, and for the past decade has been a leader in the school’s efforts in homelessness research, serving as principal investigator for multiple major research projects on the issue, including the Transitions to Housing Study, and the Spreading Community Adoptors through Learning and Evaluation (SCALE) initiative in partnership with the Downtown Women’s Center in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.

In 2015, she received an endowed professorship and became the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development. She was a main contributor on the working paper that initiated USC to lead the AASWSW’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness. Her peer-reviewed journal publications and scholarly conference presentations are well into the hundreds.

Wenzel is not only a leading social work professor at USC, she is a leader within the field of social work.

Quality, impact, integrity and compassion

When the previous interim dean for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, John D. Clapp, decided to step down and return to his research agenda, Wenzel offered herself to be considered for the position. She had served as chair of the Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness since its inception, brought leadership and service experience with her from RAND, and felt that she understood the challenges the school was facing and wanted to be of service.

“It wasn’t without some sense of trepidation,” she said. “We’re on a path to recovery, and a lot of matters have to be addressed in the school. We’ve been working to reduce a budget deficit and we’re planning and trying to make changes that will help put the school on a very strong trajectory forward.

“We are still the same school in that, for example, we continue to have very strong educational programming and faculty, and we are one of the top research institutions―we are in the top five in research productivity among social work schools that have a PhD program, and that is a highly significant accomplishment,” she said.

Wenzel and Interim Executive Vice Dean Concepcion Barrio were formally appointed on July 1, 2019. Their first order of business was to put forth four basic principles that they felt should be absolutely fundamental in everything that is done at the school, looking forward to the future: quality, impact, integrity and compassion.

“These four themes should be present in our actions and initiatives in terms of helping the school achieve a more solid financial footing, growing our programs and supporting student success,” she said. “I think it’s important that we view all of our initiatives as a collective effort to build ‘one school,’ and it’s critical that we work together and pull together. That is what social work is about.”

Wenzel says that the school enjoys the full support of the university, and that the university recognizes the important and unique contribution that the field of social work and the school make to USC and the world.

“If we as a school continue to build on what we do well, find avenues for innovation, and make major contributions to society and in our communities, then these make a sound basis for our revenue generation,” she said. “We want to maintain a position at the cutting-edge, and do so in a responsible manner―we can never lose sight of this.

“We will continue to work with sincerity as well as humility. Humility is an attribute we haven’t talked about much, but we need to embrace it along with our strengths as we move forward,” she said. 

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)