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Where Social Work and the Law Intersect: GSS Double-Alumna Named Founding Dean at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Social Work & Criminal Justice


For someone who has accomplished so much in her career, you’d think Dean Naelys Luna, Ph.D., M.S.W. (GSS ’05, ’01), might not remember the first class she took as an M.S.W. student. However, when asked about her fondest memories as a student at Fordham GSS, she seemed to transport back into a budding social worker, sitting in the first row of “Social Work Practice with Individuals.”

“I loved it,” Luna said of the experience. “I loved every minute of being a student of social work.”

Since that first class, Luna went on to become a double-alumna of GSS; a clinical social worker; a professor; a director; an interim dean; and most recently, founding dean of the newest college at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) – the College of Social Work & Criminal Justice – which was founded on July 1, 2020 and which Dr. Luna played a major role in creating.

“I am very excited to lead FAU’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice,” Luna said in a press release on January 6. “I look forward to working with an exceptional team who inspire and prepare tomorrow’s social work and criminal justice leaders, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to effect positive change in the world.”

A Special Professorial Relationship

When Luna thinks back to her time at GSS, one professor stands out — Cathy Berkman, Ph.D. Luna said it was Berkman who “recruited” her to Fordham.

“When I put a face to the school, it’s Cathy Berkman,” she said. “She became my inspiration, my friend, and my mentor for life.”

After the two met in one of Luna’s application interviews, Berkman mentioned a grant opportunity available to conduct research focused on Hispanic elders in NYC, examining their perceptions of mental health symptoms and exploring their help-seeking behaviors. As a Cuban-American herself, Luna took the opportunity with pride.

“That convinced me that Fordham was the right place,” Luna said. “Because there was a commitment toward minorities and diversity — and that was a key point for me.”

Following her very first semester at GSS, Luna was again approached by Berkman — this time with a different proposition. She wanted Luna to consider pursuing her Ph.D. at GSS, as well.

“I remember looking at her as if she had three eyes and thinking, ‘what is she talking about?’” Luna said, laughing. “Forget about being a dean; being a doctoral student didn’t cross my mind until that conversation.”

Sure enough, Luna enrolled in the Ph.D. program, and with her doctoral education came yet another fellowship — this time working as a minority research fellow at the New York Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University. Luna’s doctoral studies were funded by a National Institute of Mental Health center grant supporting minority fellow students interested in becoming researchers in mental health among Hispanics. In this role, she conducted research, published, and presented about Hispanic mental health alongside nationally and internationally recognized researchers.

But she wasn’t done. In addition to her doctoral studies and research, Luna also worked as a licensed social worker in a holistic office. She built her private practice in partnership with a psychiatrist, psychologist, chiropractor, nutritionist, and a physical therapist. Her dream of working as an independent social worker in clinical practice in Manhattan was realized.

She was also a Research Project Director at Lehman College. As a Project Director, Luna coordinated the implementation of a research study funded by the National Institute of Health examining children of outpatients with dysthymic disorder, their outcomes and mediators of risk.  During this time, she also taught as an adjunct instructor at Lehman College.

But this was just the beginning.

Down to Florida, Up the Ladder

Doctorate degree in hand, Luna moved to Florida ready to make an impact. As a professor in FAU’s Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work, Luna’s research focused primarily on substance use disorders and treatment, mood disorders, and overall psychosocial functioning.

“I was testing the effectiveness and efficacy of interventions for individuals afflicted with addiction and/or mental disorder,” she said. “I wanted to see if we could tailor interventions for individuals with comorbid disorders.”

One day, she heard a knock on her office door. It was a fateful knock, one that would send this life-long clinician, educator, and researcher into a different role. The School needed a director.

“They needed me to step up,” Luna said. “I never saw myself as an administrator; I was a researcher. But with the confidence and encouragement of my colleagues, I decided to give it a try.”

For three years, Luna served as director of the Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work, learning new leadership skills and realizing the broadened impact she could have as an administrator. She also oversaw one of the largest financial gifts in FAU history at the time, a $7M gift from the Sandler Family to name the school.

“[The position] really redefined what I was doing,” she said. “I felt that I was making a difference in people’s lives in different ways.”

The impact she had was tangible, and people took notice. On July 1, 2019, there was another knock at the door. This time, to see how she would like to serve as interim dean.

A School’s Formation

As interim dean, Luna brought vision and clarity to the School’s strategy. At the time, the College consisted of five separate schools. Luna wanted to refocus the College’s intent and clarify its identity.

“We needed to have difficult conversations about who we were as a college,” she said. “Did we want to reimagine who we were and what we were doing?”

The reimagination process came to fruition this past July, in the formation of The College of Social Work & Criminal Justice.

According to their website, the College “encompasses the Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work and the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, offering one doctoral, two master’s and two undergraduate degree programs; three specialization certificate programs in child welfare, healthy aging and addiction; and four post-graduate certificate programs, including Paralegal, Legal Nurse Consultant, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).”

“I’m very optimistic about what this college is going to offer,” Luna said, “particularly after what we experienced last year in this country with police brutality, violence, and social injustice — this college is more important than ever.”

Marrying Two Vital Professions

As a nation, 2020 opened our eyes. We faced disease, death, and extreme polarization. Many have formed opinions on the current structures and systems within our country, and are seeking ways in which these systems can be re-examined with a 21st century, anti-racist lens.

One of the loudest conversations is around law enforcement. Should we “defund the police?” What does that exactly mean? How would that happen? And within the nuance of these discussions lies social work. How can social workers collaborate with police? Should they? And when?

As a dean of a college containing schools of both social work and criminal justice, Luna is immersed in these questions daily.

“I live it every day,” she said. “I do acknowledge and recognize that there are serious and systemic problems that we need to tackle, address, and change. But I also believe in how the two professions of social work and criminology/criminal justice can really come together to provide solutions.”

Luna believes that nurturing the relationship between the two professions will inspire positive change and have a lasting impact. In her view, the unique partnership will be a catalyst in addressing societal needs and championing systemic reform.

“In these two professions, we deal with a lot of things in common — mental health, family reintegration, children and families, juvenile justice, discrimination,” she said. “Both professions provide direct services to vulnerable and marginalized populations. Both strive for justice and equal access to care for individuals. The way I see it, we have more to offer if we come together.”

Bringing Action and Innovation to the Community

In her role as founding dean, Luna hasn’t rested on her many accomplishments. She’s already taken direct initiative to show her community — both in Boca Raton and across the country — how social work and criminal justice can work together for a better world.

One tangible outlet comes in the form of what the College calls “Community Conversations.” Through these free events presented twice per semester, leaders in the social work and criminal justice fields are brought together — virtually, for now — to examine cross-disciplinary issues like reintegration and victim advocacy from their own unique perspectives.

The goal, Luna said, is to highlight the overlap and the importance of integrating these professions. And she believes in the importance of community input — the virtual doors are open to anyone.

“How do you work with this topic from the angles of both professions, and how is it that we complement one another?” Luna said. “Many times, we have these conversations within academia — researchers, faculty, talking to one another — but we believe real change occurs when we open it up and engage the community.”

 A Born Leader

“She distinguished herself in every way,” Berkman said about Luna. “She is exceptionally smart, hardworking, dedicated, and a born leader.”

Berkman said it best. Yes, Luna has been a student, researcher, clinician, professor, director, and now a dean. But most of all, she is a leader.

“I want to be remembered as the person who represented values of our professions – because I represent two professions now,” she said. “[I want to be remembered] as someone who leads with integrity and respects the dignity and worth of every individual as a guiding principle. A person who forged the new generation of ethical practitioners in social work and criminal justice, and came up with tangible and innovative solutions to monumental problems.”

So, what’s her motivation behind it all? Why did she pursue a career in social work, and why is the profession so important to her today?

The way social workers answer this question, while always unique, seems to share a common theme among the profession. They just want to help people, making a difference and leaving a legacy of a better world.

“Not only do I have this ability to help people on a daily basis, but also the way I understand people and society in general now,” Luna said. “I don’t only understand them for the individuals they are, but I understand them as an individual within larger and complex systems. I think that really highlights the uniqueness of who we are as social workers. I love that about social workers. That’s who we are.”


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