University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

Awards - Honoring Accomplishment

Left to right: Associate Professor Kate Kost, Al Dirschberger, Rita Andolina, Ellen Fink-Samnick - Dirschberger and Fink-Samnick are the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients

Annual SSW alumni, field and research awards were presented in two ceremonies held in spring honoring the accomplishments of alumni, faculty, field educators, students and community partners. Following are profiles on the award recipients.

Distinguished Alumni Award

Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW '83

MSW level

For more than 30 years, Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW '83, has made significant contributions to social work as evidenced by her roles as professional trainer, industry consultant, educator, social media moderator, continuing education developer, accreditation specialist, social work supervisor and professional mentor for the case management community.

The lessons she learned along the way to a successful career in the profession are rooted in her experience at UB. She recalls her introduction to social work as a junior in sociology who was enticed to join an innovative program being created between the two departments.

"Since I would be finishing all of my undergraduate courses by the end of that academic year, social work was something I was interested in," Fink-Samnick recalls. "I met with (then-SSW dean) Elizabeth Harvey who was impeccably dressed, with heels to match, and her hair equally impeccably done. She sat down, kicked off her shoes, pulled up a leg underneath her in a very relaxed way and said, 'So, why do you want to be a social worker?'. It was definitely a wow moment! I remember thinking, to be that comfortable in your own skin, if this is what social work involves, I'm in. Then, we started to talk about social work and my strengths, working with populations who could be a bit marginalized but not necessarily, yet certainly in need of intervention. I walked out of that meeting  captivated and sold. I was excited about starting this program."

For Fink-Samnick's field experience, Bertha Laury provided a challenge for her to demonstrate her value and what she could uniquely bring. "Bertha at that point was director of field instruction and in my situation served triple duty as my field liaison and field instructor. I heard she was tough but, coming from the New York City metropolitan area, so was I. I thought I could handle it. Bertha looked at me and said, 'I'm sure you're an intelligent young lady but I wasn't in favor of your program acceptance and, frankly, I think you are too young for this program. You have no life experience.'"

Laury's response was hard for Fink-Samnick to accept at the time "but Bertha's words actually inspired me," she says. The student rose to the occasion and proved herself to her mentor as a lifelong relationship developed. So much so that Laury asked to officially hood her at graduation.

During her subsequent tenure at various hospitals, Fink-Samnick found herself purposefully examining the need to develop competent, well-trained helping professionals. She carefully planned to start her own business – EFS Supervision Strategies, LLC – in order to educate, advocate for, mentor, and empower the trans-disciplinary case management workforce.

With a reputation as the ethical compass of professional case management, Fink-Samnick has published more than 90 articles, book chapters, and texts. She moderates a forum on Linked-In, Ellen's Ethical Lens, discussing ethical challenges faced by professionals in the health and behavioral health domains. She also has a Twitter feed on which she posts relevant articles daily – most days the first post goes to the SSW – to help people empower their knowledge base.

Fink-Samnick remains connected to the SSW by sharing valuable resources through social media as well as guiding new MSW students in the mentor program directed by Denise Krause, clinical professor and associate dean for Community Engagement and Alumni Relations.

At her award acceptance, Fink-Samnick recalled life lessons she began to develop while becoming a social worker at the SSW:

Lesson 1. Know what unique value you possess and be ready to demonstrate it to anyone and everyone – colleagues, clients, industry stakeholders.

Lesson 2: The only constant in our industry is change. You must be open to what it means for you to change with it.

Lesson 3: Invest in life-long learning. Moving forward, assimilate your knowledge to assure your professional sustainability. That is critical. Stay current on trends, constructs, populations and interventions. Invest in yourself.

Lesson 4: Leave a legacy. "I realized that to provide quality health and behavioral health care, you need a competency-driven quality workforce. So I created a company that did just that. Every contract I make, every presentation I engage in, every student I educate, and every professional I train allows me a unique opportunity to empower the workforce. It's my mission, vision and legacy. What will yours be?."

Ellen Fink-Samnick, second from right, receives award, from left, Clinical Professor and
Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Alumni Relations Denise Krause, Dean Nancy Smyth, and PhD student Josal Diebold.

Al Dirschberger, PhD '09, MSW '99

PhD Level

Assuming the role of commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services (DSS) in Western New York in 2015, Al Dirschberger, PhD ’09, MSW ’99, was suddenly faced with a number of challenges, accessibility being primary to a population with concentrated poverty, a disproportionate minority representation in child welfare, and a high number of immigrants and refugees. "One of the things we wanted to get away from was people seeing DSS as a building. If you needed services, temporary assistance or homeless, everybody came to us (in downtown Buffalo). The question was how do we reach out and go to the community," he points out.

Dirschberger referred back to his experience in community concentration during his time at the SSW. "A lot of the work we did in our community classes was to learn to think outside the box, to build collaborations, to think about non-traditional collaborations. We were always encouraged to think creatively in how to engage the community and how to address a community issue, rather than just the same old techniques. So I've always taken that macro approach when addressing what's going on in the community."

The new commissioner went about setting up partnerships within the community. This includes one with the SSW where interns are co-located in county libraries, helping people sign up and access their benefits on the department website. Representatives from Child Protective Services have been placed in the county's 28 school districts to improve communication with the school districts. Safety net committees were established throughout Erie County to bring communities together to work on distinct issues. There are even diverse collaborations with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo Museum of Science to encourage family participation.

"If we're going to address community issues, we have to engage with the community and ask them what they need and how we can help them," explains Dirschberger. "I really like the trauma-informed principles that the school is teaching because one of the main philosophies is that we have to stop saying what is wrong with people and start asking what happened to them and how can we help them."

Al Dirschberger is flanked by Krause, Smyth, and Associate Professor Kathleen Kost.

Excellence in Research Award

Travis Hales, MSW '14

Student Level

Because of the lack of research on implementing trauma-informed care – the SSW's curriculum focus – as an organizational change process, Travis Hales, PhD Candidate, MSW, '14, under the guidance of mentor Thomas Nochajski, professor, set out to study the original five values or principles of researchers Harris and Fallot. They included creating a safe culture where transparency and honesty are valued, where people are given choices and autonomy, within a spirit of collaboration and empowerment.

"What we did was take a look at the relationship between those principles or values in the statistical way to see how they were associated with one another. What we ultimately found was that the five values were somewhat unique but they all shared an underlying dimension and were all extremely correlated with one another," Hales explains."So while it may make sense to talk about, say, safety as being different than trust, and trust being different than collaboration, in reality they're all highly similar constructs."

The PhD candidate notes that the finding turned the initial theoretical model around. because it was never empirically tested to see how those values were related to each other in the name of trauma-informed care.

"Why our research was unique is that for the first time we really looked at trauma-informed theory using data to see how those relationships played out," observes Hales. "What we found was interesting because it has direct implications for organizations or system that want to become trauma-informed. What the data is ultimately saying is that intervention in any one of Harris and Fallot's five areas is likely going to produce positive impacts on all the others because they share an underlying dimension."

PhD Candidate Travis Hales, right, receives award from Research Professor Thomas Nochajski, with Smyth.

Nadine Shaanta Murshid, PhD

Faculty/Staff Level

Assistant Professor Nadine Shaanta Murshid has an innovative research agenda that includes the exploration of an understudied and controversial topic. Her research on mobile banking in Bangladesh in partnership with bKash, Bangladesh's largest mobile banking provider, breaks new ground, focusing on how mobile banking – the use of cell phones to provide electronic banking services – impacts migrant worker families. This research studies how technological innovations influence family roles and control their resources.

It began with a dinner conversation with Murshid's husband whose work was involved with mobile money. "That inspired me to learn more about that because there seems to be a lot going on but we know so little about the people who are accessing these bank accounts, amidst low levels of both economic, general as well as IT-related literacy," she explains.

Murshid engaged in a series of interviews to discover how this is being used among such a low-income population.

"One of the things that emerged from the interviews was that they're circumventing the levels of illiteracy through the use of agents – they are part of the system and infrastructure that provides this service so that people can access them," she relates. "People are also sending money back to the villages where their families reside, including their immediate family members. Migrant workers in cities are the largest subset of people who use mobile money to send money home. One of the interesting things I saw was that people were sending money home to their families but they themselves were not going home as much anymore. In some instances, they were also forming additional family units in the city."

Murshid concluded that the mobile banking convenience resulted in both positive and negative impacts on families. "I call them unintended consequences because I'm assuming nobody foresaw that happening. That's something that keeps coming back in my work because I saw that same thing with microfinance, that there is unintended consequence of domestic violence among those who participate in microfinance, particularly those who had higher wealth than average among those who are still living in poverty. I believe untangling such unintended consequences of social policies is an important way to understand the impact of such policies and the extent of their uptake."

Assistant Professor Nadine Shaanta Murshid honored with Associate Professor Gretchen Ely and Smyth.

National Network of Abortion Funds

Community Level

Jenni Kotting, communication director and chief technology officer for the National Network of Abortion Funds, acknowledges the dearth of solid research around how abortion barriers affect vulnerable communities, especially in the area of abortion funding. "We have a network of about 70 organizations, many of which are volunteer run and many of which are run by people from those local communities who know what it's like to struggle – people of color, single parents, people with families making tough decisions."

Kotting notes that the research conducted with associate professor Gretchen Ely was a true partnership in the sense that there it was mutually beneficial and that the research itself would be beneficial to the work, not just to the academic.

"The research here is really new and tells us a lot about what are the life circumstances of someone who is seeking abortion funding – what are the demographics, what else is going on in their lives, and what obstacles have they encountered over time and how have those changed. That allows us to track how difficult it really can be for someone trying to make that tough decision when there are all sorts of barriers, whether they be financial or political," Kotting explains. "What we've been able to tell over time is that the distance traveled has increased, the cost has increased, and, more than ever, these affect people who are already struggling to get by. We're able to bring that information into the public sphere to really let the people know what the issues are and how people's lives are being affected by inaccurate, non-medical state policies."

Kotting says that the results currently are national in scale, based on about 4,000 cases over a period of five years. "They really told us about the need that exists among people of color, young people, and people living in poverty." 

Jenni Kotting (center) receives award on behalf of National Network of Abortion Funds from Ely and Smyth.

Outstanding Field Educator

Ronald Schoelerman, MSW '07

Coming full circle in his career, Ron Schoelerman, MSW, '07, is director of the program in which he originally interned as an SSW student. "It's an amazing thing to me, and I hope other students get that opportunity," he says.

Toward that goal, the director of Intensive Adult/Forensic Mental Health Services for Erie County has been helping to groom a number of students since 2008. The job he is doing has earned him the SSW's Field Educator of the Year award.

"I became involved because I was an intern once myself," Schoelerman notes. "To me, that's everything – you get a chance to learn on the job, to gain that mentor skill. I wanted to make sure I gave students the same opportunity that I had."

In his role as director, Schoelerman guides the department in providing services within the county's correctional facility and deliver – and that's where the students come in – that one-on-one intervention for incoming inmates, individuals in custody who might need some support while they go through the legal process, mental health care if they have such ongoing needs. "We know that's a large component of our population," he points out. "So what the students get to do is to learn under our licensed professionals to do those intake assessments and, during those last four months, independently conduct those assessments and process them after so that they have good experience when they leave."

Schoelerman describes it as a challenging environment but a perfect social work environment. "It is multi-system – you have the inmate population system, the correctional health system, the court system, and the deputies and the administration of security, all trying to meet what they are supposed to do, and here you are in a social work position navigating it while meeting with their clients. It fits that whole social work experience of working with micro and macro levels and to be able to process with the students after."

After Schoelerman served in the Marine Corps, he went into criminal justice but increasing felt that dealing with the arrest process didn't get him to the root cause. "As I met more social workers, it seemed like the direction to go," he relates. "During my time at UB, I was able to come to the point that I could take my Marine fight and put it to that systems work, advocacy, and social justice – all the things that ring true to the social work experience."

Field Educator Ron Schoelerman is flanked by Senior Field Education Coordinator Zoe Koston and Assistant Director of Field Education Margie Quartley.