Finding Strength in Challenging Times

PhD; Social Work; Students

“I think it’s vitally important that we view our work after graduation through a social justice lens.”

That is part of the message that graduate student speaker Donald Gerke will share with the Class of 2018 at Washington University in St. Louis’ 157th Commencement May 18.

Gerke, who will receive a doctorate degree in social work from the Brown School, has focused his research on HIV risk and prevention and associated psychosocial and environmental factors, including mental health, substance use and violence in vulnerable populations.

“My dissertation examined the relationships between different types of violence exposure and HIV risk behaviors,” Gerke said, “and the roles that substance use and mental health play in that relationship, in black and white, young, gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.”

Broadly, Gerke’s speech will focus on the importance of perseverance, finding strength to continue working in challenging times, and the importance of continuing to push for social justice throughout students’ lives.

Gerke, who is from Missoula, Mont., earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Seattle University in 2004 and a master’s of social work degree from the Brown School in 2005.

He worked for about six years at a nonprofit AIDS service organization in Seattle, delivering behavioral HIV prevention services, before returning to the Brown School in 2011 to begin the PhD program.

“I have been so fortunate during my time at the Brown School to have the opportunity to work with mentors, peers and students who are excellent thinkers and fabulous human beings,” Gerke said. “I’ve expanded my professional network, received top-notch training, taught several classes and participated in some fabulous research projects.”

Gerke said he loves the work he does, but it’s the Brown School community that most endears him. “Throughout all of those experiences, the relationships that I have built are what I most enjoyed about my time in the PhD program.”

Following Commencement, Gerke will move to Denver to begin a tenure-track appointment as an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver.