Shenita Williams leaning on a desk in front of a wall that says \"Social Work\" in silver letters.
Shenita Williams’ dissertation focuses on identifying the necessary key components for school-based mental health systems to successfully address the mental health needs of Black students. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: After career in social work, graduate prepares for new career as a professor

Shenita Williams brings expertise and experience to her faculty position in the VCU School of Social Work.

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Over the past 25 years Shenita Williams has dealt with a variety of student issues as a school social worker. Now, as an incoming assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work, she will use those practical experiences to help educate the next generation of social workers.

Williams, who will graduate in May with a Ph.D. in education from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, is excited about her new position.

“I ultimately want the next generation of social workers to think about the expansive impact of social work,” Williams said. “I want them to know they have the opportunity to effect change at a micro level, macro level and everything in between by collaborating with professionals in other fields of study, such as educators and people in the medical profession.”

Williams has been invited to be a scholar in the 2022 David L. Clark National Graduate Research Seminar in Educational Administration and Policy this month in San Diego. The seminar is sponsored by the University Council for Educational Administration, Divisions A and L of the American Educational Research Association, and SAGE Publications.

Williams, who has co-authored two mental health-related papers, will be presenting “Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 on PK-12 Students: A Systematic Review of Emerging Literature,” at the seminar.

A native of Hampton, Virginia, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1993 and a master’s in social work in 1995 from VCU.

She started VCU as a psychology major.

“I was interested in people, interactions and being a support to others,” she said. “I switched my major my junior year at VCU to the School of Social Work because I knew I would get more practical experience, and I liked that idea.”

Her desire to become a social worker also stemmed from interactions she witnessed in her family, which has a history of mental health challenges. A social worker helped one of her family members through difficult times.

“I was impressed, thankful and grateful,” she said.

Charol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership, says Williams digs deep and thinks creatively.

“She is filled with both wonderment and skepticism,” Shakeshaft said, adding that when Williams starts her job at VCU she will be a “hardworking, questioning powerhouse.”

Williams, a licensed clinical social worker, started her career in Powhatan County Public Schools and then worked for Henrico County Public Schools for 19 years.

“Sometimes I would go out in the community and get to see the student in their neighborhood, get to see another layer to who they are,” she said. “This was invaluable because it provided the school with a holistic view of the student.”

She also worked with special education students and students with mental health needs.

“Because I am clinically trained, I have an additional set of skills on top of being a school social worker. If a student was showing symptoms of depression or anxiety, I could talk to them about that,” she said. “I would also help if they were talking about suicide or self-harm by assessing their needs and providing resources. I helped support the teachers and staff as well.”

Williams’ dissertation focuses on identifying the necessary key components for school-based mental health systems to successfully address the mental health needs of Black students.

“Ultimately, my goal is to create a culturally responsive school-based mental health framework that addresses and supports Black students,” she said. “When school divisions intentionally center the mental health needs of marginalized student groups, such as Black students, all students benefit.”