Passing the torch

School of Social Work alumna funds scholarship for M.S.W. students interested in children, families

By Kyra Molinaro

As a child, Joanne Kerbs Caramanica (M.S.W.’85/SW) and her family attended a holiday charity event for children in foster care in New York City. As she watched the children open their gifts, it dawned on her they would have had no presents if not for the donors and realized for the first time that not everyone has the same privileges. “Since I was a little girl, I have been sensitive to and drawn to the needs of people who didn’t have what I had,” she says.

That compassion inspired Caramanica to pursue social work as a career. A New Jersey native, she had been working with foster children in Prince William County, Virginia, when she decided to enroll in Virginia Commonwealth University’s newly formed Master of Social Work program in the early 1980s. She was married, with a 4-year-old child, so she was grateful she could take classes remotely from locations in Northern Virginia. 

After graduating and earning her clinician license, she began a 23-year career with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board as a mental health therapist, supporting mental health services for younger children and adolescents. She retired in 2008. “There were painful parts of my career, but there were moments that were gratifying,” she says. “Sometimes clients would come back and thank me for making a difference in their lives. It meant a lot.”

In 2017, Caramanica decided she wanted to help future generations of social workers, establishing the Joanne Kerbs Caramanica Scholarship for M.S.W. students who plan to focus on children, adolescents and families in a clinical setting. In 2019, Carson Hanna (M.S.W.’20/SW) was selected as the inaugural recipient.

“The scholarship really took a weight off of me,” says Hanna, 24. “The beginning of the school year is always stressful, with buying books and paying rent, so it relieved a lot of that stress while affirming the vocation I’ve chosen. The scholarship really shows how dedicated Joanne is to the School of Social Work and this career field.”

As part of the graduate program, Hanna worked as a clinical intern at the nonprofit UMFS in Richmond, Virginia, which provides foster care and residential treatment for high-risk children. She was also a member of the Child Welfare Stipend Program at VCU, a specialized training program that prepares social work students for careers in child welfare, and was part of the School of Social Work’s Innovation in Child and Family Wellness Research Group. The scholarship assistance allowed her to focus on academics and extracurricular pursuits such as these rather than worrying about finances.

She also had more time to bond with her peers. Hanna earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware, so she arrived at VCU not knowing anyone. Most of the other students in the program had been undergraduates at VCU. “I felt like a bit of an outcast at first,” she says. “The scholarship gave me the ability to get to know my community better.”

Caramanica is happy that she can make a difference in the lives of students like Hanna and urges M.S.W. students to be courageous. “Speak up and speak out,” she says. “In clinical work, you have to speak not just with your knowledge but with your instincts, too. Assert yourself and always be an advocate.”

To learn more about the School of Social Work, contact Mary Riddick, director of development, at (804) 828-7166 or