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Four alumni honored with SSW Distinguished Alumni Awards

October 5, 2018

Three School of Social Work alumni were presented Distinguished Alumni Awards at the SSW All-Class Reunion Lunch on Friday, October 5, 2018.

The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes School of Social Work alumni whose achievements exemplify the values of the School of Social Work and who have made an exceptional impact on the profession, the community and/or Social Work education.

Learn more about the Distinguished Alumni Award »

2018 Recipients:

John Abenojar, PhD (MSW'05)


John Abenojar was honored for his distinguished career in senior care, as Director of Social Services for the international network, Sunrise Senior Living. Three hundred–plus Sunrise communities throughout North America and the United Kingdom dedicate themselves to a superior quality of life for their seniors. Dr. Abenojar’s Nominator for the Distinguished Alumni Award says, “John built up from adversity to victory and has dedicated his career to empowering people at all life stages.”

Dr. Abenojar was also honored for his establishment in 2009 of the Napo Difference Initiative, helping children born into poverty in his hometown of Napo, Philippines (on the island of Cebu) with scholarships, food and supplies. He has been invited many times to speak at schools of social work in the Philippines. Dr. Abenojar came to the United States from the Philippines in 1992 and earned his Master’s in Social Work from our School in 2005. He recently completed a PhD in Health Services from Walden University. 

SSW Experience

“I had a remarkable experience here. My professors were very involved. I will never forget them teaching me to apply academic knowledge in my real-world experiences. My social work degree from Michigan has helped me tremendously on my career path. Being educated at this institution is very highly respected, especially in the field of aging.”

“The theme of Michigan Social Work, ‘Reach Out, Raise Hope, Change Society,’ has always given me a sense of purpose. I am an advocate for my senior residents. I am there to empower them despite their being vulnerable. I also want the children of Napo to be inspired and to know that poverty does not have to be a hindrance for someone to succeed in life. I am very thankful and fortunate to have had the opportunity to be educated by this distinguished institution. Wherever I go—here or back home in the Philippines—knowing that I graduated from here makes a big impact.”


Robert Ellis Ennis (MSW'74)


Bob Ennis was honored for his career in helping children and families in crisis. His Nominator for the Distinguished Alumni Award said, “Robert establishes a lifelong connection with those that he has helped. “

Mr. Ennis received his Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan in 1974, and in 1978, founded Ennis Center for Children, Inc. with a loan from a friend. Ennis Center’s stated mission is: “With the support of the community, we preserve families when possible and create new families when necessary.”

Ennis Center has been working with abused and/or neglected children, including those with special needs, for over 40 years, with their services reaching over 3,500 Michigan children and families in crisis annually. On any given day, the Center helps over 400 children in its foster care program alone. Ennis Center also works with delinquent teens, helping them stay safe, in school, and on a path toward a productive adulthood.

“I always wanted to do things with kids,” Mr. Ennis says. “My parents were divorced, so I was an unofficial foster care kid, raised by grandparents and aunts and uncles. Helping kids and families is my life and it has always been my life. I have tried to retire three or four times and I have always come back! My path and my ministry have always been kids. We care about kids and families and advocate for them and help them to do for themselves.”

SSW Experience

“The University of Michigan cared about me; I wasn’t just another student to them. If you are around this school, you have to do things with excellence. We always want to be number one in what we do. The School taught me something I bring to my work every day. It’s what the legendary Michigan football coach, Bo Schembechler, always said, ‘It’s the team, the team, the team.’ I’m proud to be a Michigan man!”


Stephanie Robert (MSW'93, PhD'96)


Stephanie Robert was honored for her long career in health equity, gerontology and social work education. Dr. Robert’s Nominator for the Distinguished Alumni Award said, “Stephanie cares deeply about students and strives to teach them skills that will make a difference.”

Dr. Robert received her MSW from the U-M School of Social Work in 1993, and her PhD from their Joint Program in Social Work and Social Science in 1996 (her degree was joint with Sociology). “I wanted to do research that would make a difference in people’s lives,” Dr. Robert says, “and I wanted a program that covered different disciplines, not just one area, so the University of Michigan’s top-rated Joint Program in Social Work and Social Sciences was an excellent option for me for my PhD.”

After receiving her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1996, Dr. Robert did postdoctoral study in health policy research at the University of California at Berkeley. She then took a job as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became Director of the School of Social Work in 2015, and has now served the School for over twenty years.

SSW Experience

“The U-M School of Social Work was so important in the foundation of my career. For many years I ran an interdisciplinary training program for postdoctoral fellows. I would not have been able to do so had I not had such wonderful interdisciplinary training at Michigan. Currently, I am training faculty across the country to improve their mentorship of doctoral students. I would not be doing this work if I had not had such excellent mentors and role models in mentoring at the University of Michigan.”

“I have had the career I wanted for myself because of the time spent at Michigan Social Work.”


Cassandra "Dr. Cass" St. Vil (MSW'06)


Cassandra St. Vil was honored for her career helping youth and promoting the visibility of people of African descent the world over. Dr. St. Vil’s Nominator for the Distinguished Alumni Award said, “Dr. Cass has combined her training as both a social worker and Africanist to affirm the cultural inheritance of Black and Latino urban students and to promote academic achievement.”

Dr. St. Vil received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan in 2006 and her PhD in African Studies from Howard University in Washington, DC. In her life and work, Dr. St. Vil has taken her childhood home of Jackson Heights, in New York City, as a model. Of that diverse Queens neighborhood, Dr. St. Vil, the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the United States says, “In Jackson Heights, you get to be you, I get to be me and we celebrate that. We don’t limit who anyone can be.”

Dr. St. Vil’s path has been to bring this message to young people, including a stint with Teach for America in the Bronx and a master’s degree in education from New York City’s Hunter College. Currently, Dr. St. Vil heads a team founding a cultural immersion high school, Amateka College Prep, in southeast Washington, DC. which aims to welcome 100 ninth graders in the fall of 2020.

SSW Experience

“I drew on many U-M School of Social Work contacts to help me figure out how to combine a commitment to young people with  leadership, identity development, and a celebration of black identities.”

“Social work intertwines many fields and roles, as we come up with solutions to issues involving youth, leadership, identity and so on. Whatever role I am in, I use the social work lens to navigate. I am an example of how social workers can show up in life. It’s nice to come back and hear, ‘Hey, you’ve done well.’ I might not have noticed myself! Now I can use this award from Michigan Social Work to fuel my work with young people.”


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