A “Student-Centered” Teacher is Recognized for Excellence

Elisabeth Tavarez
Daria Hanssen, Associate Professor of Social Work

August 30, 2019—Associate Professor of Social Work Daria Hanssen wants people to know that there’s much more to social work than what they think they know.  “It’s a much broader field than people imagine.  Social workers serve oppressed populations.  We help the underdog: the traumatized migrant child separated from their parent, the veteran struggling to transition back to civilian life, the family caught up in the opioid crisis.  We are at the forefront of all of society’s major problems, and we come up with innovative solutions.”  In fact, according to the National Association of Social Workers, social workers make up the largest group of mental health workers in the US, serving individuals, families, and groups in schools, hospitals, correctional settings, and behavioral health settings. There’s probably one working in your child’s school right now.

If Hanssen seems passionate about the critical role social work plays in society, it’s because she is.  And, as director of Marist’s growing social work program, she shares this passion with her students.  For this reason, Hanssen is this year’s recipient of the Board of Trustees’ Faculty Award for Distinguished Teaching.  This award was established by Marist’s Board to recognize faculty members who, in the estimation of their peers, display excellence in teaching and an outstanding commitment to the learning of their students, as well as a solid record of scholarly activities and exemplary service to the Marist community and beyond.  Hanssen clearly meets these criteria with her collaborative approach to teaching and research and the way in which she exemplifies Marist’s ideals of excellence in education, a sense of community, and service to others.  She confesses, “I’m not usually one for fanfare, but I’m grateful for this amazing honor.”

As an educator, Hanssen seeks to instill in her social work students both a sense of mission and a sense of pride that they can be a force for good in the world.  Since joining the faculty full-time in 1999, she has seen an increase in the number of students with a social justice orientation.  Says Hanssen, “My students are very concerned about fairness and equity, and they have impressed me as deep thinkers.  They really want to make a difference.  My role is to engage them in the social work curriculum in a very hands-on way.”  She also encourages students to present their research at academic conferences in order to build their professional bona fides.  Deborah Gatins, Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences notes that students are the beneficiaries of Hanssen’s active engagement and commitment: “Daria is deeply involved in our community not only because she cares about what is happening in our hometown, but also because she constantly cultivates relationships that will provide important field work experiences for our social work students.”

Daria Hanssen

Hanssen is also well known for her engaging teaching methods, including bringing art into the classroom and using photographs as a tool to help students develop their observational skills.  Her own research activities range from cross-disciplinary work with the physical therapy faculty to collaborating with the Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership’s Tarver Interns.  Professor of Art Ed Smith, who nominated Hanssen for the Distinguished Teaching Award, described Hanssen this way: “Daria is a tremendous person and wonderful teacher, full of depth, compassion, common sense, and caring.  It is marvelous that she is able to impart these values to her students and to us, her colleagues.  The resiliency she shows each day is inspirational.”

Hanssen bases her educational philosophy on what she sees as the core values of social work.  “I’m guided by the importance of human relationships, dignity and respect for students, integrity, and social justice.  I’m a student-centered teacher.”  A first-generation college student herself, Hanssen is very sensitive to students who might be struggling to navigate the educational process, which is why she places such an emphasis on establishing relationships with her students.  Hanssen is proud to note that she’s had students go on to be Marist valedictorian, work at the educational nonprofit City Year, and serve in the New York City Mayor’s Office.  She says, “I think the student-faculty relationship is imperative.  It’s important to look beyond the work and get to know who the students are as human beings.  I try to be present and visible, especially when it comes to attending student events, and I change up my courses every year to keep them fresh and innovative.  The truth is that my values align very well with Marist’s mission and values, and that’s why the College continues to be my home after 20-plus years.”

Perhaps Dean Gatins sums it up best when describing why Hanssen is such a worthy recipient of the Board’s Faculty Award for Distinguished Teaching: “Daria is always the first person with her hand raised when we need a volunteer – for anything.  She leads her students by example; she’s thoughtful, she’s involved, she’s empathic.  She is a special mentor to new faculty, and she always finds time to listen.  I am delighted she has been given this award, as she certainly exemplifies what it means to be an outstanding faculty member.”

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