Dr. Tonya Hansel is an expert in social work research, disaster response, and trauma-informed care, bringing 20 years of experience to her role as the director of Tulane University’s Doctorate in Social Work program. Her path to a career in academia had an unexpected start: cheese.
As an undergraduate, Dr. Hansel worked nights in a domestic violence shelter in Texas. She noticed that people kept asking for a certain brand of Oaxaca cheese, but she didn’t understand why this particular item was so important, especially when these families were facing more serious threats to their safety and stability. “I knew I was missing something, and I knew that it was probably my upbringing,” she says. “I didn’t go hungry. I didn’t experience things like these families were experiencing. So I said, ‘Well, I want to understand what that’s like.’” She then applied to the Peace Corps.
“I asked them to send me to the poorest country they could find,” she says. After two weeks in Gambia in West Africa, Dr. Hansel understood: “It wasn’t about the cheese; it was about ‘this is what I’m familiar with, and this is a norm for me that I can control.’”
For Dr. Hansel, that norm was hot sauce. “I didn’t realize how important it was for me to be able to have that flavor, that semblance of home,” she says. “The women and children in the shelter needed that. It was a very valuable lesson for me that you really can’t find in books.”
Researching AIDS in West Africa
During her time in the Peace Corps, Dr. Hansel partnered with a Uganda-based program to conduct research and educate communities about HIV/AIDS, which was spreading in West Africa.
Her biggest takeaway was that people in Gambia were happy despite their struggles and had much to teach other cultures. “The U.S. is rich and wealthy in many ways,” Dr. Hansel explains. “We have running water. We have electricity. In the Gambia, they had a very difficult life, but they were happier people.”
Dr. Hansel also worked with refugees from Sierra Leone and — at the age of 25 — earned the opportunity to run one of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees components in West Africa. This experience ultimately led her to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate in social work at Tulane University.
“I knew that I would not be respected enough if I didn’t have higher degrees,” Dr. Hansel says. “I realized, if I want to continue doing this good work, I really need to have more education.”
Firsthand Experience in Disaster Response
In 2002, Dr. Hansel experienced a terrorist bombing in Bali, Indonesia, which resulted in hundreds of casualties. “I remember the next day seeing a group of Bali residents helping people and doing some real crisis intervention work, just organically,” she says. “I thought that was pretty amazing, and I wanted to know more about what these types of large-scale disasters do to people.”
This experience also expanded her interest in trauma-informed care and recovery. Since then, she has worked in the aftermath of natural, biological, and technological disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the COVID-19 public health crisis. “Trauma has only recently been at the pinnacle of research,” Dr. Hansel explains. “We’ve started to understand that people shouldn’t be expected to just ‘get over it’ when they’ve experienced trauma. We can help people strategically mend and find their new normals.”
Teaching a New Generation of Leaders
Today, Dr. Hansel draws on these firsthand experiences to help engage students who share her mission of making a difference in the world.
“We need more social workers,” she says. “As a student, I had a lot of guidance from faculty, and I realized that’s the way we get more social workers. People also tend to burn out in the profession, or they shift gears. Young social workers need proper training to sustain their work.”
Dr. Hansel most enjoys learning from students, hearing their unique perspectives, and collaborating on new ideas. “They’re fantastic,” she says. “When you have good students who are curious and ask questions, you get to have these philosophical conversations and challenge what’s been perceived as the ‘right way’ to do something. It’s fun to see them not only grow but also give back to the profession.”
Dr. Hansel has been instrumental in building the Online Doctorate in Social Work program, reaching students across the nation — from rural Maine to reservations in North Dakota.
“They are bright leaders in the field of social work who really need these credentials to foster not only their careers but also their credibility within the profession,” she says. “The online program really does allow people to get an advanced degree who may have never had the opportunity otherwise.”
Advancing the Field of Social Work
The field of social work is constantly evolving and expanding, and Dr. Hansel’s career has followed suit. “One of the beautiful things about social work is that you can jump around,” she says.
Going forward, Dr. Hansel plans to research new areas such as mass violence. “I think there are a lot of unknowns and many questions,” she says. “We can be creative and find some good solutions for not only improving our response but hopefully preventing some of these incidents from occurring.”
Wherever her research brings her, Dr. Hansel remains committed to better understanding and advancing the field of social work.
“It’s very important that people’s voices be heard in a collective, scientific way — and also that we’re adjusting our policy and our programs in accordance with research,” she says. “I hope we can build on what we’ve already learned and be more proactive following disasters of any kind.”
Meaningful Careers in Social Work
Tulane University’s School of Social Work has a century-long history of helping social workers become leaders in their communities. The Online Doctorate in Social Work program is designed to provide working professionals with the skills they need to implement effective programs and policies and to make a positive impact on the future of social work. Students learn from faculty and peers with firsthand experience and engage in career-shaping immersive learning opportunities.