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College of Social Work

Meet Our Ph.D. Students

Students like you pursue a doctorate in social work at Carolina seeking the knowledge, skills and experiences that will help you tackle the tough issues facing our communities through research and teaching.

Learn more about the impact of our Ph.D. students’ work in South Carolina and beyond.




Tori Charles received her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in sociology in 2008 and a Master of Social Work degree in 2010 from Winthrop University. After graduation, she worked in a community mental health clinic developing treatment groups and conducted individual counseling.

Charles later returned to Winthrop and worked in the Center for Social Welfare Research and Assessment as a project coordinator, performing program evaluation services for the Bureau of Long Term Care and Behavioral Health Services at the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She also served as an adjunct faculty member in the Winthrop Department of Social Work and was selected as a member of the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work Pre-Dissertation Initiative 2014 cohort.

Charles' primary research interest is examining how social networks impact quality of life for older adults. In addition, she explores the development, implementation and evaluation of programs, and examines person-centered, self-directed care in home and community-based services. Charles is developing methodological expertise in social network analysis and multilevel modeling. Her mentors are Associate Professors Bethany Bell and Kirk Foster.


Timothy Cross received his bachelor's degree in social work at Western Carolina University in 2000. After completing his Master of Social Work degree at the University of South Carolina in 2002, he joined an Asheville, N.C.-area non-profit organization as a family preservation specialist. Working closely with the state's Department of Social Services, Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and local mental health providers, Cross worked for two years in the field as an in-home worker with children at-risk of being placed out of home. He was also the program's coordinator for five years.

Cross returned to the USC College of Social Work in 2010 as a doctoral student to advance his studies. He is currently working towards a graduate certificate in Women & Gender Studies. Cross's dissertation concerns the representation of voices in online media during the government shutdown of 2013, particularly the presence or absence of typically marginalized groups in online media reporting of the event. Associate Professor Ronald Pitner chairs his dissertation committee.





Kim DeCelle received a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Georgia and a master’s of divinity degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary. She joined the Ph.D. program after nearly a decade of psychotherapy practice, including working with juvenile sex offenders in a residential treatment setting and serving patients in a community mental health clinic in Athens, Ga.

DeCelle's research interests include trauma treatments and interventions, non-traditional families, stigma and cults. She is also interested in exploring larger questions of human suffering and collective responses to pain and suffering in the world. DeCelle returned to school to think creatively about the challenges she encountered in clinical practice.


Sara English received her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Columbia College and her master’s in social work from Winthrop University, where she worked for the Center for Social Welfare Research and Assessment. She has worked in the fields of aging, palliative care and long-term care administration.

English's primary research interests are mental health concerns, the creation of meaningful connections, and the relationships created and maintained within institutional settings, with an emphasis on how grief is experienced by professional caregivers. She has been selected for the 2016 cohort of the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work Pre-Dissertation Initiative and serves as an appointee for the South Carolina lieutenant governor’s Office on Aging alzheimer’s advisor board.

English is a graduate assistant for her academic adviser Terry Wolfer and is mentored by College of Social Work Professor Sue Levkoff and Richard Woodrow of New York University Medical Center.


Andy Flaherty received a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from the University of Sheffield in England and a Master of Social Work degree from California State University, Chico. He worked for several years in the mental health field, specializing in psychotherapeutic treatment for adolescent males.

Flaherty's research interests include men in social work education, substance use recovery, and the Bible and social work. Flaherty is currently a research assistant in the Field Education Office, where he helps to conduct formative research into student perceptions of substance abuse recovery needs. This research is contributing to the development of the Gamecock Recovery Initiative. Flaherty's research mentor is Director of Field Education Melissa Reitmeier and his academic mentor is Associate Professor Aidyn Iachini.


Tamara Grimm received her bachelor’s degree from Miami University of Ohio, where she double majored in psychology and comparative religion, and minored in women's studies. She earned her Master of Social Work from the University of Cincinnati. 

Grimm is a licensed independent social worker and worked for approximately three years at a community mental health agency in Cincinnati that served adults with severe and persistent mental illness. She supervised a traditional case management team and an interdisciplinary assertive community treatment team that served severely mentally ill adults on probation. Next, Grimm worked for the Veterans Health Administration as lead women veterans program manager for the VA Healthcare System serving Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. In this role, she was responsible for network-wide program development related to the healthcare needs of women veterans. She served in this capacity for approximately eight years.

Grimm's research interests include sex and gender related health disparities (particularly within military and veteran communities), women's mental health (especially psychosocial, complementary and alternative medicine prevention and treatment strategies) and the impact of gender socialization on women's mental health. Assistant Professor Nikki Wooten serves as her research mentor and Assistant Professor Christina Andrews is her academic mentor.



Jeong-Suk Kim received a bachelor's degree in communication arts and sciences from Handong University and a Master of Social Work from Ewha Women’s University. Both institutions are located in South Korea. 

Kim's research centers on identifying factors associated with intimate partner violence. Specifically, her research examines the effect of contextual and situational factors on dating violence perpetration and victimization among college students. Other areas of research include, bystander intervention of intimate partner violence and school violence, and mindfulness intervention for violence survivors. 

Prior to starting the doctoral program, Kim researched women and child welfare at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. She has also co-authored a several research books and articles using national representative data sets. 

Kim is currently part of the research team at the Spirituality and Psychoneuroimmunological Outcomes in Breast Cancer Survivors and works with Dr. Jennifer Hulett in the nursing department. She is also  an adjunct faculty member in the Bachelor of Social Work and MSW programs at the College of Social Work. Her advisor is Associate Professor Naomi Farber.


Karen Leon is from Lima, Peru, where she earned her bachelor's degree in psychology. In 2015, she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Master of Social Work degree and a graduate certificate in drug and addiction studies.

Leon's research focuses on domestic violence and Latino immigrants and is interested in studying the use of power and control within the domestic violence shelter system and its impact on Latino immigrants' journey to remain free from violence. She has worked as a bilingual eligibility screener for the autism division at the USC School of Medicine's Center for Disability Resources as a program evaluator in a Latino community-based organization and an early intervention counselor in a local domestic violence organization.

Leon is passionate about gender inequality, immigration and environmental issues. She currently serves as a volunteer for Lutheran Services Carolinas in the division of refugee resettlement.



Amanda Stafford McRell received a Bachelor of Social Work and a bachelor’s degree in political science, public policy from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. She also earned a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in international nonprofit management from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Prior to pursuing her doctoral education, McRell worked as the executive director of Reach Out Orphanage Ministries (ROOM), an international agency providing abandonment prevention, orphanage support and family placement programs for children in non-parental care in Central America and Southeast Asia. Her research interests include child well-being, international social work and human service organizational management. 




Trang Nguyen received her bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University in Hanoi, Vietnam. After graduation, she worked at the university for four years as a social work instructor and researcher.

Nguyen's research interest is the adjustment process and influential factors on the adjustment process of older adults with cognitive disabilities and their family caregivers in the Asian population. 


Sarah Pace received her undergraduate degree in sociology from Claflin University, with minors in Spanish and gerontology. She earned a Master of Social Work degree and a graduate certificate in drug and addiction studies from the University of South Carolina.

Pace is bilingual in English and Spanish and served as a volunteer in Lima, Peru, for one-and-a-half years. As a licensed master social worker, Pace has experience working with adults living in community and institutional settings and has served as guardian ad litem for adults taken into emergency protective custody.

Pace's research interests relate to the use of social marketing and mass communication to promote evidence-based practice for a global audience. She is also interested in policy changes that ensure social justice for competent adults who, against their will, are placed in assisted living and long-term care facilities, brought into emergency protective custody, or denied their right to self-determination in other settings.


Mary Ann Priester received her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and her Master of Social Work degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She was named a fellow in the inaugural cohort of the USC Graduate Civic Scholars Program and was a 2016 recipient of the Breakthrough Graduate Scholar Award. In addition, she earned a Support to Promote Advancement of Research and Creativity Graduate Research Support to Promote Advancement of Research grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research and a Preparing Future Faculty program award.

Priester has served as the student representative on the college's doctoral program committee. She taught part-time in the Bachelor of Social Work program and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the MSW program at UNC-Charlotte.

As a health services researcher in training, Priester has more than 10 years of experience working with underserved and vulnerable populations, particularly individuals who are homeless or involved with the criminal justice system. These experiences have fueled her commitment to improving access to behavioral health services for vulnerable populations and informed her research focus. Specifically, Priester is interested in structural and behavioral processes that contribute to barriers to behavioral health service access and utilization by persons exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences. She is also interested in behavioral health and social trajectories of persons exposed to ACE and working to develop theory-driven, trauma-informed interventions and service delivery models to affect the processes, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities.


Parthenia Luke Robinson earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Furman University in 2007. After graduation, she worked as a service coordinator with both the Pickens and Greenville Counties’ disabilities and special needs boards.

After graduating in 2011 with a Master of Social Work from the University of South Carolina, Robinson worked as a case manager with New Foundations Home for Children, then as supervisor of the community-based prevention services program at Specialized Alternatives for Families & Youth of Greenville. Parthenia is interested in the processes by which we, as a community, protect and bolster the children most at risk for maltreatment, as well as their families. With strong ties to Liberia, West Africa and the Caribbean, Parthenia is especially interested in developing methods to strengthen community-based prevention of child abuse and neglect in African and Afro-Caribbean communities that have experienced trauma. Parthenia’s research supervisor is Cynthia Flynn, director of The Center for Child & Family Studies, and her academic adviser is Cheri Shapiro, interim director of the Institute for Families in Society.


Raymond Smith received his bachelor’s degree in social work from North Carolina A&T State University, and then attended the advanced standing master’s of social work program at the University of South Carolina. Prior to earning his degrees, Raymond gained a host of work experiences that ranged from the U.S. Army, corporate team management, the medical field and the judicial system at the state and federal levels. He is interested in studying the process of identity formation, identity maintenance and the transition to new identities. Specifically, Raymond desires to study the stigmatized identity and the process of removing internalized barriers for the purpose of increased social function. Raymond’s current research adviser is Ronald Pitner.


Stacy Smith received a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology from Belmont Abbey College and a master’s of social work degree at Winthrop University.

Before enrolling in the Ph.D. program, Smith worked in direct services and management at a non-profit community health center. As a youth employment and job skills development case manager, she worked with local businesses to secure summer employment for youth in foster care and impoverished backgrounds. In the housing and neighborhood services division of municipal government, Smith worked in policy analysis, program development and evaluation. In the field of child protection, she provided direct services to children and families, in addition to policy analysis, program development and evaluation.

Smith is a Spanish interpreter certified by the university’s Interpreter Qualification Project and translator and has served in various settings as an interpreter. She began her research training at Winthrop University’s Center for Social Welfare Research and Assessment. From there, she moved on to an evaluator role with the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

Smith works with Maryah Fram as a research assistant. Her research interests include social work’s unique position to address the intersections of individual experience with issues of food insecurity, poverty, economic exploitation and environmental degradation. 


Weizhou Tang received her bachelor’s degree in sociology in mainland China in 2009 and her master of social work degree at the University of Hong Kong in 2011. Through her mentorship with Sue Levkoff, she was awarded a scholarship by the South Carolina Healthy Brain Research Network doctoral scholars program.

She is currently working as both a scholar member and research assistant for Daniela Friedman (principal investigator of SC-HBRN) and also enrolled in the health communication certificate program. Weizhou’s current research interests center on family caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, with an emphasis on using quantitative research methods to understand caregivers’ mental health across ethnic populations, and the relationship to coping skills, perceived social support and patients’ symptoms. In addition, she hopes to promote public awareness of cognitive health through health communication.


Melissa Westlake received her bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology in 2013 from the University of South Carolina, where she also competed as an NCAA Division I student-athlete on the equestrian team. She also earned her Master of Social Work from USC in 2016. During her time in the MSW program, she worked with college faculty to develop the university’s first collegiate recovery program, Gamecock Recovery.

Prior to starting her Ph.D. studies, Westlake worked as the project manager on Assistant Professor Christina Andrews National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded award, analyzing the impact of Medicaid expansion on the development and access of substance use disorder treatment in general practice settings. She has also been involved in multiple supplement projects from a National Institutes of Health funded-award. For example, Westlake is currently examining the scope of health care benefits and limitations for substance use disorder treatment and recovery services across all Medicaid managed care organizations in the United States.

Westlake’s research is focused on the impact of health care and social policies on access to and quality of substance use disorder treatment. She is also interested in the availability of social, financial and clinical supports for the relatives and caregivers of individuals struggling with substance use. Her research advisor is Assistant Professor Christina Andrews.


Betty Wilson received her bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in criminal justice from Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. and her Master of Social Work from the University of South Carolina. Wilson’s combined background in criminal justice and social work make her a strong advocate for social justice and community engagement, with a goal to develop positive relationships and leveraging resources for community improvement.

Wilson is the founder of Community Connect, a community-based initiative in Denmark, S.C. Community Connect coordinates outreach projects addressing issues such as, access to healthy food choices and nutrition education in rural communities. Her research interests are in racial injustice and the psychological trauma experienced by those who experience or witness law enforcement misconduct.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.