As a child of immigrants from Poland, and a first-generation U.S. graduate, Sophia Dziegielewski has always desired to learn more. She has devoted over 20 years to the UCF School of Social Work through teaching, advancing research in the discipline, and helping to support infrastructure for the School and University. To commemorate her retirement, we explore her contributions to social work education and research.
When Dziegielewski started the first grade she was academically behind her peers, but by the end of the academic year her teacher labeled her “most industrious student.” She graduated early from high school in the top 10% of her class.
Her father noticed her academic abilities and would ask her to help him with daily tasks, such as reading the mail to him. “Before my father died, I asked him, ‘Dad, if you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?’ He called me by my Polish name and said, ‘Zosia, I would learn to read,’ I remember being shocked – how could the most intelligent man I ever met not know how to read?” recalled Dziegielewski and she finally understood why he encouraged her education and going to college despite coming from a cultural background that enforced traditional gender roles with a woman’s place being in the home.
Helping her father navigate within the U.S. system served as a catalyst for Dziegielewski’s social work career of helping others navigate the complexities of a new “system.” “I think seeing his struggle really helped me realize how complicated the system could be and I wanted to make it easier for other people too,” she said.
An Unstoppable Force
Lacking the resources to pay for an education, Dziegielewski joined the United States Air Force as a surgical nurse during the Vietnam War. While in the military, she took advantage of all the educational opportunities available. After her tour was completed, she used her veteran benefits to attend UCF with the goal of becoming a registered nurse, but after taking a social work elective she changed her major.
After graduating cum laude from UCF in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Dziegielewski began working full time – while simultaneously completing her Master’s in Social Work (MSW) from Florida State University, which was hosted at UCF, traveling back and forth from Daytona Beach to Orlando twice weekly.
Ceaseless in her drive to help others, Dziegielewski returned to the military with her MSW finishing her doctoral dissertation while on active duty as a social work officer serving on the Army Psychiatric Team during the Persian Gulf War. In this role, she supported combat troops and their families with the hardships of deployment and returning from combat, for which she received the Army Achievement Medal.
After leaving the military, Dziegielewski worked in the Department of Family Medicine with a joint appointment in psychiatry at Meharry Medical College. In this position, she earned her first federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration, securing and providing oversight for up to 15 salaried physicians. As principal investigator, she led a team to better train physicians to work with poor and underserved populations. She received a HRSA Project Director’s Award for this grant and it was later renewed for three subsequent years.
Scholarship and Teaching
Dziegielewski joined UCF as a faculty member in 1997. In addition to teaching social work classes, she also began serving on the Institutional Review Board and later became chair of the committee. Research has always been a passion of hers. Dziegielewski’s exemplary scholarship is seen in the impact of her work. She has over 150 publications and eight textbooks, and has a current Google Scholar H-index of 37, which exemplifies her impact on the profession. Her research focus on foundational social work can be seen in works such as her textbook “Introduction to Social Work” and “DSM-5 In Action,” both in their fifth edition and are used in classrooms around the nation.
“She was a great role model by exhibiting advanced research skills and high ethical standards that I still utilize today,” said UCF Social Work Instructor Kenan Sualp ‘15MSW ‘21Ph.D. who was mentored by Dziegielewski. “I have combined some of the skills I’ve learned from her into my own research and teaching style.”
Over the years, Dziegielewski’s scholarship has been recognized through many awards like UCF’s Professor Emerita, Excellence in Graduate Teaching, Faculty Leadership and Mentoring Award, Teaching Incentive Award, and the National Association of Social Worker’s Educator of the Year (Florida Chapter).
“She’s a legend in the social work field. Sophia goes above and beyond everything she has done in her career and for our students. It will be impossible to replace her, we wouldn’t even try!” said Matthew Theriot, director of UCF School of Social Work.
After retiring, Dziegielewski will continue to teach external social work licensure (LCSW) preparation courses, that have already assisted over 20,000 social workers around the nation to prepare for these intensive exams. She looks forward to continuing to provide workshops on topics in health, mental health, addictions, and ethics, while also revising one of her textbooks for the sixth edition. She may take some time to rest, but those who know her know her work is her passion, and that is never going away. “My goal has always been to assist my social work colleagues to not only sit at the table, but to lead at the head of the table where the importance of connecting and empowering all those we serve remains the key. Social work is not only a profession, but a calling that captures your spirit and never lets it go – I will never stop doing what I love!” said Dziegielewski.