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Dr. Tonya Hansel: Inside a 20-Year Career in Social Work

November 20, 2020

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 Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) program. Her path to a career in academia and the field of social work 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 did not 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 that “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, that 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. In the field of social work, this is usually referred to as trauma-informed practice, a specialty that focuses on working with victims who have endured a traumatic personal experience or impactful event. Trauma-informed practice emphasizes the principles of trust, transparency, safety, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural competency. 

Since the event in Bali, Dr. Hansel 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 normal.”

What makes trauma-informed practice effective, especially in the case of terrorist or natural disaster victims, is that it is an approach to social work that is mindful of intangibles and emotional complexities. When engaging in this particular brand of social work, it is important to recognize victims’ coping strategies, the thoughts and feelings associated with trauma, and the role that intergenerational transmission of trauma may play when working with families. 

Teaching a New Generation of Leaders

Today, Dr. Hansel draws on her firsthand experiences to 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.” 

In addition to burnout, compassion fatigue is a common problem in the field of social work; it is a form of secondhand trauma that can develop from helping the traumatized. By preemptively addressing it, graduates of the social work program are more inclined to handle it when they notice signs of it. 

Although Dr. Hansel has worked in social work for over two decades, the field is as dynamic as ever. She 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 DSW 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.

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

As Dr. Hansel pointed out, the country needs more social workers, and the employment data supports that. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the role of social workers will grow by 7 percent by 2032; that is more than double the growth rate of all other occupations combined. Of course, several specializations and areas of focus lie within the field of social work.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. They provide therapy for individuals, couples, families, and groups, helping them cope with a variety of life challenges and mental health conditions. 

School Social Worker

School social workers help students achieve academic and social success. They address issues such as bullying, absenteeism, and family problems that can affect a student’s performance at school. They also work closely with parents, teachers, and school administrators to create safe and supportive learning environments.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers provide support and resources to patients dealing with acute, chronic, or terminal illnesses. They help patients understand their diagnoses, navigate treatment options, and cope with the emotional and practical challenges of their conditions. 

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker

In the field of social work, these individuals specialize in helping individuals overcome mental health issues and substance use disorders. They provide support, interventions, therapy, and advocacy to help clients recover and lead fulfilling lives.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers focus on making homes safer and more nurturing for children by offering services and support to families in need. They work to prevent child abuse and neglect and help arrange adoptions or foster care placements when necessary. 

Community Social Worker

Community social workers strive to improve conditions for entire neighborhoods, towns, or regions. They organize and implement programs to address widespread issues such as poverty, inadequate housing, and lack of health care. 

Make a Difference in the Field of Social Work

The Tulane University School of Social Work has a century-long history of helping social workers become community leaders. The Online DSW 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. The fully online format makes this program an ideal educational path for working parents and those with busy schedules. Learn more about the program so that you can see how it supports your professional goals of establishing a rewarding career in the field of social work.