Social work professor splits time between class, service

Mark Hammontree

Debra Nelson-Gardell, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, has been selected as the faculty recipient of the Morris L. Mayer Award, one of the premier awards given out by The University of Alabama.

The award commemorates Morris Mayer, a longtime UA professor of marketing. The honor is designed to recognize a student and a faculty member who have shown integrity, selfless service and leadership at the Capstone while making efforts to improve the quality of life on campus and in the community.

Nelson-Gardell graduated from Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts before completing her Master’s degree and Ph.D. in social work at Florida State University. She has been teaching at the Capstone since 1995, almost 20 years, although she said that was not her plan.

“I finished my Ph.D. at Florida State, came here and didn’t leave,” Nelson-Gadell said. “I didn’t anticipate it.”

Nelson-Gardell was nominated for the prestigious award by her colleagues and said she was very surprised by the news.

“I was on my way to a yoga class and saw I had a missed call from a University number, so I called it back,” she said. “It was Mark Nelson telling me that I had won the award, and I just kind of burst into tears, because I had no idea.”

Nelson-Gardell, who came to the University three years after Mayer retired in 1992, said she never had the privilege of meeting the beloved professor, who passed away in 2008.

She said she has heard a great deal about him however, and considers the award a huge honor.

“I looked up what people had said about him and what kinds of things he had done, and I’m not even close to being in his league, so it is very much honor for people to say think I should get the award,” she said.

Nelson-Gardell, who serves as president of the board for Tuscaloosa’s One Place, says her service and research focus tends to be on children and child maltreatment. She has also been a key part of the partnership between Alabama’s School of Social Work and Shue Yan University in Hong Kong where she has traveled many times.

Nelson-Gardell said she considers herself both a teacher and a social worker, so the award’s emphasis on service and improvement of quality of life are her job description.

“Social workers have as part of their ethical duty to provide service,” she said. “So the award is in line with how I try to live my life; it’s what being a social worker is about.”