Campus News

Professor kick-started her education late in life, but motored into action

“How in the world did you get in my life?”

That’s the question Donna Bliss, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, asks when she sees her dream motorcycle, a black and silver Harley-Davidson, sitting in her garage. Bliss says that riding recreationally as she does is a kind of meditation. But the motorcycle is also a metaphor for her life and work because Bliss is a woman on the move.

She is a Lilly Teaching Fellow this year, and the program is one reason she chose to come to UGA.

Also, this fall Bliss is an Institute for Behavioral Research Fellow, participating in IBR’s faculty mentoring program.

Last year, she was one of five inaugural Service-Learning Fellows, and it’s her service-learning projects that have made her well known in Athens. Bliss’ social work students have helped evacuees from Hurricane Katrina connect with resources, services and jobs in the Athens area; they have worked with community agencies to develop grassroots interventions to help stem homelessness, drop-out rates, recidivism and poverty; they have developed short films—Bliss calls them digital stories—highlighting the lives of individuals and using the power of storytelling to talk back to the stereotypes of people with social problems.

“What I like about service-learning is that it gives me a conceptual framework and an operational framework to think about how universities and communities can collaborate to help communities with their problems and also facilitate student learning,” she said. “In terms of being a professor, it’s hard for me to separate teaching, research and service. They all go together.”

Bliss is the first person in her family to attend college and when she committed to getting her degree, she was a non-traditional student.

“I was a 31-year-old freshman on the University of Maryland, College Park campus,” she said.

After earning her B.A. and M.S.W. degrees, Bliss worked in various drug treatment and mental health facilities as a counselor, caseworker, supervisor or director for 11 years before returning to school to get her Ph.D.

Bliss’ primary area of research is addictions in a broad sense and more specifically she seeks to understand the relationship between spirituality and addiction.

“I am very interested in what it is that makes some people decide to recover from addiction,” said Bliss. “I think like a practitioner, and to me research comes down to how does this affect real people in the real world.”

Because Bliss worked for years in organizations that had few resources, she appreciates the investments UGA has made in supporting its mission.

“One of the things important to acknowledge is that the University of Georgia helps to provide an environment that supports my work through an explicit public service and outreach focus, through the Lilly Teaching Fellows, the resources for research, and it all starts there,” she said. “It’s easy to criticize any large organization, certainly a university, but there are a lot of things that UGA does to support my work and that’s why I’m here.”