MSW Program Director Tom Walsh

MSW Program Director Tom Walsh delivers the keynote address at the diploma ceremony. Photo by Tim Correira.

Tom Walsh, a fixture at the Boston College School of Social Work for more than 40 years, said social workers should care for their clients as though they are gardeners tending sunflowers.

Walsh, the associate dean and director of the master of social work program, shared this piece of advice with graduates on May 20 at BCSSW’s diploma ceremony, telling them that social workers and gardeners who care for one of the world’s most recognizable flowers use similar strategies to promote growth and autonomy. 

  • Gardeners, he said, use sticks to support sunflowers when their heads droop on cloudy days. Social workers use psycho-social interventions to support clients when they’re feeling gloomy.

  • Gardeners confront people who build fences that block the sun from nourishing sunflowers, especially if they are unwilling to move those fences. Social workers protest injustices that prevent their clients from accessing equitable education, social services, and healthcare.

  • In extreme cases, gardeners uproot sunflowers and re-plant them in new, sunnier environments. Gardeners water them until it rains, providing nourishment until they can thrive on their own. Social workers clear the obstacles that hinder their clients’ natural ability to excel without assistance, unlocking the power in them to reach their potential. 

A graduate celebrates.

A graduate celebrates after receiving her diploma. Photo by Tim Correira.

“Treat clients with dignity and respect and discover how much support is too much, how much is too little, or how much is just the right amount to support growth and autonomy,” said Walsh, who delivered the keynote address. “Hopefully you won’t look at a sunflower the same way again,” he added. “You’ll wonder, is it thriving? Is it getting enough water and sun to protect it enough from the elements? And if not, what can you do to help?”

Walsh attributed his “story of the sunflower” to Robert Castagnola, a former professor at BCSSW who brought a sunflower to every class he taught at the School for more than 30 years. 

In homage to Castagnola, Walsh placed a sunflower in a green vase atop the podium where he gave his speech. The move drew laughter from an audience of more than 1,000 people who filled a big tent on the lower campus lawn to watch nearly 300 graduates receive diplomas wrapped in gold and maroon bows.

Walsh described the graduates as “special people,” saying they possess a blend of compassion and resilience that enables them to tackle complex social challenges that many others dismiss as too difficult to overcome.

Dean Gautam N. Yadama congratulates a graduate.

Dean Gautam N. Yadama congratulates a graduate. Photo by Tim Correira.

He said social workers help solve the intractable problems they see on the news—social scourges such as homelessness, child abuse, and community violence—while the average viewer feels helpless and changes the channel. 

“Having chosen this profession, these graduates are special people,” Walsh told family and friends of the newly minted social workers. “Who wants to do this work? Who knows how to begin to do this work? Who has the heart and stamina to do this work? It takes a special kind of person to do social work.”

In introductory remarks, Dean Gautam N. Yadama said Walsh dedicated his career to educating the best social workers in the world. 

Walsh joined BCSSW as a part-time faculty member in 1982, when he began teaching in a program focused on the interplay between mental health and the law. He was promoted to the full-time faculty in 1995 and was named director of the MSW program in 2001.

For decades, his commitment to educating students to address the world’s most pressing social problems extended beyond the walls of BC. He served as a member of the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Accreditation from 2010 to 2013 and from 2019 to 2022, reviewing accreditation self-study materials for BSW and MSW programs. And he served as a member of the CSWE Commission on Educational Policy from 2013 to 2019, writing the curriculum policy that the Commission on Accreditation uses to formulate accreditation standards.

Sierra Pannell

Sierra Pannell, MSW’24, gives the student address. Photo by Tim Correira.

His speech at the diploma ceremony marked a professional milestone, as he plans to retire at the end of June. 

“Tom Walsh has shaped social work education and practice over the arc of his 42 years at Boston College,” Yadama said. “He produced and helped orchestrate the faculty and staff to produce generation after generation of amazing, competent, professional social workers.”

One of those social workers is Sierra Pannell, who gave the student address.  

Pannell, MSW’24, encouraged the graduates to put thoughts of their future plans on hold to revel in their accomplishments right now. She urged her peers to tell friends and family that they’re simply “taking it all in” when they inevitably ask “What’s next?”

“Jobs, fellowships, and licensure will always be here,” said Pannell. “So for now, let’s celebrate, pat ourselves on the back, give ourselves a round of applause, and not get annoyed when a loved one tells us for the 10th time at dinner tonight that they are proud of us. Let’s celebrate knowing we have an incredible foundation that is ready to bear the weight of any hardships that are to come.”

She acknowledged the graduates for persevering through challenging courses, complex assignments, and difficult conversations with clients, saying these experiences have steeled them to surmount future obstacles. 

Members of the audience cheer the graduates.

Audience members cheer on the graduates. Photo by Tim Correira.

“We have all had moments where we questioned ourselves, our abilities, or the profession altogether,” said Pannell, who graduated from the Advanced Standing MSW program, which enabled her to earn a degree in one calendar year. “At times grueling, this exploration of ourselves, I like to think, is what has led us to this moment and will support us moving forward.”

The School awarded diplomas to 275 graduates, including 271 who earned master’s degrees and four who earned doctoral degrees. Eleven students who graduated from the master’s program received named awards for their outstanding contributions in the classroom, the community, and their fields of practice.

After graduates received their diplomas, Jesuit priest and Assistant Professor Alejandro Olayo-Méndez offered a benediction in Spanish and English. 

“May the creator of this vast universe keep you safe as you go forth from this place that has nourished your mind and your spirit,” he said in part. “May the Almighty look down upon you and give you success in all your endeavors.”