A photo of a woman standing on stairs outside
Denise Burnette, Ph.D., the Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work, earned the Career Achievement Award from the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work. (Photo by Allison Bell, VCU School of Social Work)

‘Full circle’ of honor: VCU social work leader Denise Burnette earns historic career award for dedication to older adults, their families and communities

Gerontology education group honors her impact in scholarship, teaching and mentorship.

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It took Denise Burnette only 24 years to make history.

In November, the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work presented its annual Career Achievement Award to the Virginia Commonwealth University social work professor. The recognition comes after Burnette, Ph.D., earned the organization’s Faculty Achievement Award as an early career scholar in 1999. 

She is the only person to have received both AGESW awards.

“It is such a rewarding experience to come full circle,” Burnette, the Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work, said of receiving the recent honor in Tampa at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. “I had the opportunity to express my honor and gratitude to so many of the people I had grown up and grown old with in this academic milieu.”

A doctoral student from Burnette’s tenure at Columbia University, where she was on faculty and associate dean between 1990 and 2015, nominated her for the award. Burnette joined the VCU School of Social Work in 2016, where her colleagues cite the impact she continues to make in the field – and on them.

“The award acknowledges Denise’s exceptional leadership in the realms of scholarship, teaching and mentorship in the fields of social work and aging,” said Kyeongmo Kim, Ph.D., VCU social work associate professor. “Denise has devoted her life to advancing social work education in gerontology and guiding both faculty and students, and I am fortunate to be among them.”

There is a strong historical bond between the VCU School of Social Work and AGESW, which is affiliated with the Gerontological Society of America. AGESW’s founding president in 1981 was Robert Schneider, Ph.D., who was a professor and assistant dean for 34 years at the school. AGESW honored him with the Career Achievement Award in 2006, two years before he retired from VCU.

Kim also has an AGESW connection, earning a pre-dissertation fellowship in 2012-13 as a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. As the former Ph.D. program director at VCU, Burnette mentored two others who received the same fellowship: current Ph.D. student Matt Morgan in 2022 and, in 2018, alum Tommy Buckley, who earned his Ph.D. in 2021.

Burnette has been involved with AGESW since its inception, serving on committees and working in its aging research group. She recalls early in her academic career batting around with colleagues different ideas for a suitable acronym for the organization – and sharing thoughts on why the work of the organization was so important.

“It is essential in every career stage to have a trusted group of colleagues and mentors with whom you can collaborate and exchange ideas,” Burnette said. “It is truly a gift to move through academic milestones, and other important events in your life, with these people. These relationships enable you to work together toward the same goals, the betterment of life for older adults … and to make aging, the process of aging, as normative, healthy and rewarding as all other stages of human life – rather than simply its denouement.”

Burnette’s scholarship and teaching in social work and aging also extends to international settings. She has taught, conducted research and consulted, for example, in Albania, Mongolia, Moldova, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Botswana and India.

Included in that work are three Fulbright appointments: Fulbright Specialist at Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences, 2023 and Fulbright Scholar at the Center for the Study of HIV And AIDS, University of Botswana (2012-13) and at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India (2016-07).

“Denise has provided invaluable opportunities to engage with diverse populations in the U.S. and other countries, as well as offering expertise in grant writing, project development and scholarly writing,” Kim said. “I deeply appreciate her caring nature, creativity and openness to embracing diverse cultures.”

Burnette relates how her career path started, at age 25, with a second-year internship as a Master of Science of Social Work student at the University of Tennessee. A sensitive fledgling social worker, she asked not to be placed in an end-of-life setting.  

When Burnette discovered she was placed in oncology and hospice, she said, she notified the field director that “there must be a mistake. The director responded, ‘No, no, no. This is where you’re going to grow and develop, and you can absolutely do this.’

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll try this.’ I worked there for almost 10 years, and I learned that what I love most and what I was best at is working with older people, especially toward the end of life. As a child of Southern Appalachia, I particularly appreciated how they structured their life histories in ways that brought coherence and meaning to the lives they had lived.

“They were fonts of wisdom and equanimity, bold equanimity,” Burnette said. “As an academic, my research and teaching, at home and abroad, have never veered far from these foundational lessons.”