Focus on Faculty Profiles

Betsy Vonk

Betsy Vonk
Betsy Vonk

Professor Betsy Vonk in the School of Social Work helps her students prepare for successful careers by giving them plenty of time to try techniques, role-play and discuss real-world cases.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology at Mercer University, a Master of Social Work at Florida State University and a Ph.D. in social work here at the University of Georgia.

Currently, I teach clinical social work classes in the Master of Social Work program and work with a number of doctoral students. My office is on the UGA Gwinnett campus, and about half of my teaching is in the part-time MSW program there. In addition to classroom teaching, I coordinate a study abroad program, “Social Issues in Northern Ireland.” It is a Maymester program that focuses on the effects of years of political and religious conflict (called “The Troubles”) on individuals, families and communities. During the trip, we visit with programs and organizations whose missions reflect peacekeeping and reconciliation. Also, I coordinate the Marriage and Family Therapy Certificate Program for the School of Social Work. The certificate is an interdisciplinary program with the College of Education and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

After I earned my doctoral degree, I served on the faculty of Ohio State University. I loved OSU, but my parents as well as my parents-in-law were here in the South wanting to spend time with their grandchildren, so we decided to come back South. Happily for me, UGA’s School of Social Work was looking for a faculty member who would coordinate their part-time MSW program in Gwinnett, and that position turned out to be a great match for me at that time.

What are your favorite courses and why?

My favorite courses focus on clinical social work practice. Before I started in academia, I practiced clinical social work for over 15 years. So, the clinical courses allow me to draw upon those years of practice to inform my teaching. My two favorites are “Assessment and Psychopathology” and “Cognitive-Behavioral Methods in Social Work Practice.” The first one focuses on understanding the continuum of mental disorders, while the other helps students apply cognitive-behavioral theory and interventions to clinical practice. In both cases, the students are extremely interested and engaged in learning, and of course, that makes it more fun for me, too.

What interests you about your field?

Social work is an amazing profession. It is based on the value of social justice and commitment to serving oppressed groups. These were values emphasized in my family growing up, and from the start of my MSW program in 1978, it felt like a perfect fit for me. Social workers are involved in a wide variety of practice areas—from mental health intervention to community organizing—and while demanding, a career in social work is always interesting and meaningful. I am fortunate to be in a position to help others ready themselves for a career that has been a great source of satisfaction to me.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA

I have greatly enjoyed working with MSW and doctoral students at UGA. It’s been very gratifying to see my former MSW students move into practice. I love it when I hear from them about how they are using knowledge and skills with their clients that they learned in the program. A few students have guest-lectured on advanced practice modalities in my classes after having continued training after graduating.  Likewise, seeing my former doctoral students move into successful academic careers has been amazing. Two of my former students share my research interest in transracial adoptive parenting, and that has allowed us to continue to conduct research and write together. It has been very gratifying to me that the model I developed early in my academic career to understand transracial adoptive parents’ relationship to race and culture has been used by many adoption practitioners in their work with families, as well as to further research. It underscores to me how important it is that the work we do in academia is relevant and useful for social workers in practice.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope my students are able to catch my passion for social work practice. My goal is to make class as relevant to practice as possible, so I try to make time in each class for students to try techniques, role-play and discuss cases. I also try to increase the relevancy of assignments by asking students to do tasks that are similar to those required of social work practitioners.

Describe your ideal student.

My ideal student is probably very similar to any instructor’s.  He or she is interested in the content, thinks about what they are learning, and comes to class with questions and ideas to share. I especially like teaching classes in which the students are also engaged in social work practice—in either a practicum or work setting. Most of the MSW students on the Gwinnett campus are working full time in human services while they study. This makes for some very lively discussions and challenging questions.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is

I have a new favorite place since the School of Social Work moved recently to Williams Street along the North Oconee River. The deck overlooking the river provides a great view of the river, and it’s very peaceful.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

… read fiction of just about any sort—mysteries, science-fiction, historical novels, Southern literature. I’m in two book clubs, one in Atlanta that has been going for more than 20 years and one in Lawrenceville that is about 2 years old. I’m an enthusiastic Jazzercise participant, and go to an average of four classes each week. I also enjoy spending time with my husband and two daughters, one of whom is finishing her freshman year at UGA, and the other who is a junior in high school.

Community/civic involvement includes….

… participation in the Lawrenceville chapter of P.E.O. International. This is a philanthropic organization that provides loans and scholarships to women who are pursuing higher education.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

I’ve never been able to answer this question. How can anyone pick one book or movie? There are so many that have inspired me over the years.

Proudest moment at UGA?

I was very involved with writing the self-study for the reaccreditation process of the MSW program a few years ago. I felt great pride in the School of Social Work, our MSW program, as well as my part in the process, when I learned that our program’s accreditation was reaffirmed by the Council on Social Work Education with no concerns raised.