Dr. Barbara Shank, who is retiring as dean of the School of Social Work at St. Thomas and St. Catherine, received the St. Thomas Distinguished Service Award Saturday at graduate commencement exercises.

President Julie Sullivan surprised Shank, who sat on the platform to greet her graduating master’s and doctoral degree students, with the award during the ceremony in the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex field house.

The citation that accompanied the award calls Shank the “impassioned and fiercely driven leader” of the school, where she has taught or served as an administrator for nearly 40 years. Colleagues described her as a “visionary” and “an inspiration to social work educators everywhere … unfailingly loyal to your students, faculty, staff and profession.”

Shank’s career as an educator began in 1978, when she was hired for an adjunct faculty position that turned into a full-time position. She became department chair in 1982 and served as associate dean from 1990-96, when she became dean.

During her tenure, she established a master’s degree program and co-founded the Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services with the St. Thomas law and professional psychology programs. Three years ago, she launched a Doctor of Social Work program, the nation’s first online DSW program to focus on preparing social work faculty for leadership in higher education.

When Shank started to teach, there were four faculty members and 50 students in social work at St. Thomas and St. Catherine. Today, the program has 4,000 alumni, 31 faculty and 600 students who, the citation says, have “a singular purpose. ‘They want to make the world better,’ you say. ‘They want to make a difference in people’s lives.’

“The exact same words can be said of you,” the citation continues. “On this day, Barbara Shank, as we wish you the best in your retirement as dean, we also take time to thank you for your many contributions to make this world – and this university – a better place, and we proudly confer upon you the St. Thomas Distinguished Service Award.”

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