USF's Top Social Work Educator

Asst. Professor Iraida Carrion is recognized with local and state professional awards for her work and compassion.



By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (July 1, 2011) – Iraida V. Carrion’s experience as a social worker began early, at the age of 11.


Her mother told her to look in on two elderly neighbors who lived alone, Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Medina, to see if they needed anything. Sometimes it was something from the store and sometimes she would be invited in for tea and conversation. It made perfect sense to go professional doing something she enjoyed.


“I was raised to think about other people,” Carrion, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida’s School of Social Work. “And later I wanted to look at housing issues and other matters that impacted people’s lives.”


This career choice has proven to be an excellent fit. Carrion’s skill at her work has earned her two of the profession’s highest honors from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) on the local and statewide levels. She was named Social Work Educator of the Year by the leadership of both the Tampa and Florida chapters of NASW.


But if she had listened to the thoughtless comment of a math teacher at her high school in New York City, she might not have made it this far.


“When I told her about my desire to go to college, she responded with, ‘Everybody cannot go to college.’  Despite that discouraging remark and with the emotional support of my parents, I traveled from the South Bronx to East Harlem all by myself, a young teenager, because someone told me there was a social worker there who would help me. She had a tiny office which was very difficult to find. When I finally found her and met with her she asked me, ‘Which college do you want to attend?’”


And with that Carrion experienced the power of what a social worker can do.


“You see our words and our works are powerful and they do change lives,” Carrion said upon accepting her statewide award.  Looking out on an audience that included some of her former students, she added, “Thank you for acknowledging that I too am changing lives.”


College led to graduate school.  After earning her bachelor’s in social work from Adelphi University she went on to a master’s there. Carrion later decided to work for a doctorate in Applied Anthropology.  The two disciplines complement each other.


“With this background, I can look at the micro, macro and mezo aspects of life, the individual, the family, all the way to national concerns, society, culture and life as a whole.”


Before teaching at USF, helping people in various settings prepared Carrion to provide her students with the kind of training they find most valuable – the kind based on broad clinical experience.


For many years I had the opportunity to serve numerous individuals and families in community agencies, schools, hospitals and hospice settings.


She worked for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, in an employee assistance program and has had a private practice. 


But leaving “applied” social work for the classroom? 


“I struggled with the decision of whether or not to join the faculty at USF as a social work educator, because my passion has always been to empower hurting, underprivileged and oppressed people, families and communities,” Carrion said. “Somehow I thought that teaching would distance me from the very people and work that I loved. I quickly learned that I would have the opportunity to motivate and contribute to the development of future social workers and leaders. This very idea inspires me every day.”


School of Social Work Director Bonnie Yegidis recommended Carrion for the award at the local NASW chapter. Then the state’s seven county chapters each submitted their local recipients.


 “Everyone who knows Dr. Carrion soon learns what a gifted and enthusiastic faculty member she is, bringing out the best in students, and how compassionate she is in every way,” Yegidis said.  “We are very proud of her and her commitment to the field of social work.”


The NASW awards are not her first. Most recently Carrion received the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Career Catalyst Award in 2010 and previously the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine College of Palliative Care Yearlong Mentoring Program Award, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Connections Emerging Scholars Second Annual Symposium Award and the National Science Foundation, Summer Weeklong Training on Methods of Behavioral Observation fellowship, all competitive honors. And she has published articles and book chapters on cultural competency, the Latino community and the elderly. 


Research interests such as end of life care, migrant health, and social work cultural competence issues within the Latino community have kept her very busy. In the future she will be turning her attention to writing a book integrating these areas of research. Fortunately, she was just awarded a McKnight Junior Faculty Fellowship which will enable her to take the next year to focus specifically on writing about issues of end-of-life and health disparities among Latinos.


“I’m looking at end-of-life palliative care communication and health care decision preferences of Latino patients with an end stage cancer diagnosis,” Carrion said. She is collaborating with colleagues at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, the Department of Aging and Mental Health Disparities, and in the Department of Anthropology. “I’ve done hospice work for eight years and it’s a privilege to be part of families’ lives in this setting. There is so much to be learned about people, their values, during this time of reflection.”


Carrion likes to quote Sir Albert S. White who once said, I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. 


She is very happy.


I consider it an honor to be first a social worker and then a social work educator. The two awards will always remind me of my responsibility to demonstrate passion and commitment to every Social Work student that I will be privileged to meet in the future. 


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.