It was only through a text message that Trevecca professor Elizabeth Nunley found out she received an award that recognizes social workers who go above and beyond in their field.
Without her knowing, Nunley’s former and current students nominated and voted for the professor to receive the Social Worker of the Year Award from the Middle Tennessee branch of the National Association of Social Work (NASW).
Though Nunley, assistant professor of social work and director of field experience, feels grateful for the recognition, she considers the reward to be what her students did for her.
“You don’t always know the kind of impact that you have,” she said. “This, to me, was just affirmation that, yes, they do know and see how important they are to me.”
After becoming a Trevecca professor in 2015, Nunley balanced her career in private practice with teaching. She became a licensed clinical social worker in 2010 and— over the course of her career— worked in healthcare, psychiatric hospitals and schools.
Since then, Dr. Amanda Grieme Bradley, social and behavioral science chair and professor in psychology, said Nunley has “revamped some of the classes” she teaches, allowing students to better absorb and think about different levels of social injustices.
“She has these high expectations for students,” Bradley said. “Her assignments are thought-provoking, and they’re very practical. From a social work perspective, it’s important that the classes are practical, and they prepare students to— immediately upon graduation— be able to go serve.”
For Nunley, the challenge is necessary for her students to succeed in social work. Nunley often addresses the spiritual aspects of social work in her classes because it sustains students as they encounter challenges in the field.
“We’re putting ourselves in the position of what people that are minorities feel all the time,” she said. “Any real, connected, vulnerable relationship requires a sense of discomfort at times.”
Enas Gerges, junior social work major, said being in Nunley’s class meant learning both her chosen program and why she made that choice. She says Nunley often pushes students into finding their purpose in social work which convinced her that Nunley deserved the award.
“She always says that if you’re not on the edge of your seat and your hands aren’t sweating, then you’re not doing it right because this work makes you uncomfortable— it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable,” Gerges said. “These are not easy topics or not things that everyone wants to talk about.”
Junior social work major Berenice Oliva agrees, saying whenever the class gets into a heated discussion, Nunley always maintains her cool. Her open-door policy is what draws students, Oliva said.
“She listens and allows every student to take a chance and speak their mind. In other classes, it just kind of, for me, just feels like it’s a right or wrong answer,” she said. “For [Nunley], it’s like ‘tell me what you think and maybe I’ll learn something new from you.’”
Nunley hopes the social work program would continue its momentum and grow to become a more diverse community. She also hopes to give students considering the social work program to have a good understanding of what it means.
“People need to know you’re going to get your hands dirty and you’re going to be uncomfortable. But you’re also going to be known and seen and cared for and encouraged,” Nunley said.