East Carolina University's Rivers Building, where the School of Social Work resides, located on the university's main campus.

East Carolina University College of Health and Human Performance has received a new director of the School of Social Work, Kirk Foster, who hopes to grow the program through outreach and research.

Foster said he undertook his new position on July 1 and began in the field of social work as a church pastor in Ferguson, Missouri. After receiving his master’s in social work from Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and finding a passion for research in social work, he pursued his doctorate of philosophy in social work as well. 

After he worked at the University of South Carolina as a professor and as Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion for 10 years, Foster said he began to look for new opportunities. He said ECU provided an opportunity in that the school has potential for growth in its undergraduate program, as well as its presence in the community and research opportunities.

“What I saw here at ECU was growth potential, not only growth potential when we think of numbers, numbers of faculty numbers of students,” Foster said. “But also growth in faculty scholarly productivity, that I would have an opportunity to put some systems in place to ensure that faculty have the resources that they need to be the scholars that they all have the ability to be.”

Foster said he’s happy to be a part of ECU, and said the growing field of social work requires a lot of knowledge. ECU faculty, he said, is well-equipped to prepare students for the variety of jobs social workers can fill. 

Most faculty in the School of Social Work are also practitioners and bring real world experience into the academic classroom, which can help prepare students for their jobs as social workers, Foster said.

“We (ECU) have a rock solid faculty who have a wealth of experience, not only practice wise but also from their own research who bring that into their classroom,” Foster said. “Create well-rounded students who challenge our students to think critically about the world around them, think critically about the ways in which they see themselves, and also to ask deep probing questions about what we can do as social workers to make a difference.” 

Edwin Gómez, professor and chair of the ECU School of Social Work, said he led the search committee tasked with filling the vacant director position, a search that lasted from June 2020 until Foster was hired. Foster follows Director Sheila Bunch who retired from ECU in June 2020.

Gómez said the search committee to find a new director for the School of Social Work looked for someone with leadership ability, professional experience working in social work, teaching experience at the collegiate level and the ability to mentor new faculty. Gómez said the search committee identified 14 candidates met the minimum requirements, six candidates of which were interviewed over phone, which was then narrowed down to four candidates who were interviewed through Zoom, where they were given the opportunity to meet various faculty members and students.

“Kirk Foster was able to really articulate specific examples of initiatives and programs related to DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) that he did,” Gómez said. “As well as funding for those programs, because he was Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion at University of South Carolina, so that was a definite advantage.”

Foster’s experience in teaching weighed in his favor, Gómez said, as he taught 14 courses over 10 years and received three excellence in teaching awards during that time. He said Foster’s experience in outreach-based practice of social work and his mentorship of both undergraduate and graduate students were important factors in the search committee’s decision.

Gómez said Foster’s research is action based, community focused and centers around rural areas like those that the School of Social Work frequently works with. He said surveys taken by the directors of the School of Health and Human Development, faculty members and students within those schools, all reviewed Foster favorably, with feedback which was key information in the decision to select Foster. 

“He had some real-world, practitioner, field experience, that was really good, that sort of stuck out,” Gómez said. “But even his community engagement research, almost all of his research tends to have some type of an action-oriented community or engagement focus, which is something we really look for in rural areas because we’re really out there in those communities.”

Anisa Zvonkovic, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, said the college focuses on enhancing the well-being of individuals. She said she looked for someone who would provide energy and direction to be able to address the needs of the community and to be able to collaborate with other units within the College of Health and Human Performance.

Zvonkovic said the school wanted someone who would integrate well with the school’s mission to enhance the lives of individuals in their families and in their communities.

Foster’s strong background in diversity and equity made him an ideal candidate for the director position, Zvonkovic said. She said Foster was the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of South Carolina, where he worked within the College of Social Work as an associate professor as well.

“I have every confidence that he (Foster) will position the school (ECU) for further success, (Foster) has a great reputation in the state,” Zvonkovic said. “And I’m looking for it to continue, and be enhanced, and also to work collaboratively toward forwarding our research mission in our college (Health and Human Performance).”

Zvonkovic said it was a task to search for someone throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the search committee was happy to see Foster apply for the position. 

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