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As a college student at the University of Hawaii, Jorge Delva envisioned a career as an electrical engineer working in China.

That plan changed as he became increasingly concerned about anti-immigrant sentiment in the Reagan era and about the paucity of resources available to help impoverished native Pacific Islanders.

“By junior year, I was sitting there looking at my homework and thinking, what am I doing in this field?” Delva says. “There is so much suffering—how can I help reduce it?”

More than 30 years later, Delva still wants to help, whether the issue is life after prison, addiction, or racial health disparities among the most marginalized populations worldwide. The 51-year-old became the new dean of the School of Social Work on January 1, 2018, after a nationwide search begun fall 2016 when Gail Steketee announced she was retiring after eight years as dean.

In addition to helping people, Delva says, he wants to help the school, currently ranked 12th nationally among best social work programs out of more than 200 rated by U.S. News & World Report, become the school of choice for students pursuing a top-notch education in social work research and practice.

Delva comes to BU from the University of Michigan’s number oneranked social work program, where he was the Kristine A. Siefert Collegiate Professor of Social Work and director of the Communities Engagement Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research (a National Institutes of Health center). He was also a faculty associate in the American culture department’s Latina/o studies program.

Jean Morrison, University provost, says Delva is recognized as a high-impact scholar by the fellows of the Society for Social Work and Research because of his research and publishing track record.

“We are excited to welcome a scholar and leader of Dr. Delva’s caliber in the field of social work to Boston University,” says Morrison. “Throughout his career, Dr. Delva has been an innovator in both education and practice, with an exceptional publication history and a track record of impact working to improve the lives of low-income and racial and ethnic minority populations. He brings with him extensive experience, a strong global reputation, and the strategic and collaborative approaches we believe are essential to guide the School of Social Work to continued excellence in the years ahead.”

Delva has authored more than 130 publications and given 200 presentations, most of them focusing on the most economically disadvantaged populations in the United States. Much of his scholarship has helped highlight some of the cultural and psychosocial mechanisms related to addiction among Hispanic, African American, and American Indian populations. This year, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, an honor society of scholars and practitioners. He has also been editor-in-chief of Social Work, the flagship publication of the 130,000-member National Association of Social Workers.

Born and raised primarily in Chile by parents who were elementary school teachers, Delva left Chile with his mother and sister at the height of the Pinochet military dictatorship, after waiting four years to receive a US visa. The visa allowed him to live with his aunt, a flight attendant in Hawaii. There he began practicing aikido and studying Buddhism and Tibetan culture. He also began learning Mandarin, partly in preparation for his original plan to become an electrical engineer and move to China.

After earning a master’s in social work and a PhD in social welfare at the University of Hawaii, he was accepted to a postdoctoral program at Johns Hopkins University, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study drug epidemiology.

He has been at the University of Michigan since 2002, where he was a founding board member of a program that pairs long-term prison inmates with mentors after their release to help combat high recidivism and loneliness.

Another long-term project was a study of children living in homes with undocumented parents in the Ann Arbor area. Delva, the father of two, says that research may have been his most emotionally challenging work. It involved hours of interviews with young children who were afraid their parents might suddenly be deported. Many children said they didn’t go outside except to go to school, because they were nervous someone might report them to immigration authorities.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Delva says. “When I would do that work, before I went home, I would have to stop somewhere to decompress for at least an hour.” For him, that meant a cup of coffee and comfort food, like a donut, along with quiet time to clear his head and think about strategies to help.

Judith G. Gonyea, an SSW professor, has been interim dean since Steketee retired and was chair of the search committee for the new dean. She says Delva’s priorities match the school’s commitment to promoting social and economic justice through education, research, public service, and policy advocacy.

“Dr. Delva’s transdisciplinary research centered on reducing health disparities and improving the lives of vulnerable populations and disadvantaged communities locally, nationally, and globally aligns strongly with our school’s mission,” she says. “Under his leadership, the school can further strengthen its capacity to promote effective solutions to the human problems of the 21st century.”

Delva says he plans to work with advocates at the National Association of Social Workers and with other allied organizations to promote writing policy briefs and testifying in front of legislators when needed about best practices in areas he has studied. As a professor with tenure, he will also teach and he says he will listen to faculty and students’ ideas about new ways for the program to address society’s most pressing problems. For example, he envisions creating stronger partnerships with leaders statewide to build opportunities to help disenfranchised groups.

“The faculty here are accomplished researchers and educators, and they care about diversity and progressive social reforms,” Delva says. “This is an opportunity to try something different, to be a dean at a really exciting place.”

Meg Woolhouse can be reached at