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UT has recently garnered significant national accolades, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Trailblazer award for retention and graduation rate gains and the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification for outreach. These successes are due to the hard work of our innovative employees. Here’s a look at two College of Social Work faculty members who are trailblazers in and out of the classroom.

Sunha ChoiSunha Choi

As America’s older adult population grows bigger in numbers and lives longer, critical services are in much higher demand.

Assistant Professor Sunha Choi is leading the way in efforts to improve older adults’ access to health and mental health services.

Her quest began after watching her grandmother’s struggles. Her grandmother was suffering from a stroke and other health-related problems. Suddenly, caregiving became a very important issue in her family. Even with eight siblings, her mother’s burden was still heavy and the emotional toll was great.

“The experience with my grandmother led me to see the importance of studying gerontology, because everybody ages and the aging of oneself or a family member impacts the lives of so many people in various ways,” said Choi. “I began to see caregiving and aging-related challenges as one of the systematic social issues, rather than an issue limited to individuals and families.”

She started seeking volunteer and internship opportunities to work with older adults and their families, which, in turn, led her to concentrate on gerontology in her master’s and doctoral studies.

As one of 125 Hartford Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholars across the nation, Choi has committed herself to raising students’ awareness and familiarity with various aspects of geriatric social work so that students who will be the future social workers will better understand their older clients.

“We need more social workers who are equipped to work with older adults. I am glad to see that for some students, my class works as an eye-opener to the older adult population and how their lives are affected by social policies such as Medicare and Social Security,” Choi said.

Choi also advocates for vulnerable subpopulations of older adults, such as older foreign-born individuals and older adults with depression, through her research that focuses on accessing quality health care.

Choi is also a visiting scholar at the Atlanta Census Research Data Center, and her recent projects include focusing on how individuals’ health service use behaviors are affected by the community’s characteristics.

“By focusing on how individual health services are affected by the larger community around them, Dr. Choi has brought a unique approach to help answer some of the growing issues in our field,” said Karen Sowers, dean of the College of Social Work. “This approach will prove critical with the need for customized health care growing as our population ages.”

Lisa Reyes Mason

Assistant Professor Lisa Reyes Mason’s passion for environmental issues started as an eighth-grader, when her teacher set the spark by introducing her to recycling.

Her subsequent experience as a Peace Corps health education volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, made her think more about how to improve the quality of life for others.

Those experiences shaped her concern for the consequences of environment-related problems at the center of society and the environment, such as adaption to climate change, water security, and urban pollution.

“Whether teaching tenth-grade human biology in French, conducting individual health meetings with new mothers in the local Pulaar language, or training incoming Peace Corps volunteers in English, I discovered that in many ways I was an educator at heart,” Mason said.

Mason said she believes that students have a genuine interest in making the world a better place and look to faculty to help them develop the skills they need to accomplish change.

Lisa Reyes Mason (left) poses with her research team while conducting a study on water security in Baguio City, Philippines.

As a researcher, she is always looking for new collaborations, believing that people working together can accomplish more than individuals forging ahead alone.

“By the nature of her work, Dr. Mason has developed an exceptional ability to team up across disciplines and even colleges,” Sowers said. “In turn, those experiences help her provide wide-ranging perspectives on leadership and curriculum development in social work.”

A recent collaboration involves faculty of the College of Engineering and the Department of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences. With funding from UT’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, the researchers are studying environmental and social conditions in four Knoxville neighborhoods, along with downtown and Ijams Nature Center.

“My goal is to infuse students with a passion for advocacy and a belief that even small actions can lead to meaningful policy change,” she said. “Through hands-on education, in and out of the classroom, I strive to equip students with the confidence, skill, and commitment to pursue social change—even in incremental ways—throughout their social work careers.”

CUTLINE: Lisa Reyes Mason (left) poses with her research team while conducting a study on water security in Baguio City, Philippines.


Katherine Saxon (865-974-8365,