Syracuse University Magazine

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Llewellyn Cornelius '82

Fostering Equity and Well-Being

From the beginning of his education, teachers were the key for Llewellyn Cornelius. He grew up in a struggling family in a Harlem tenement and attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. A teacher at Cardinal Spellman, who was engaging and enthusiastic, piqued Cornelius’s interest in the subject of psychology. When Cornelius landed at Syracuse University, he was happy to find professors who were similarly inspiring. “Teachers should be excited about what they teach,” Cornelius says. “The best teachers I had—in undergraduate, in graduate school—you could tell they were really into what they were doing. You get the feeling from them—I am doing this because I love to do this.”

Now Cornelius shares his enthusiasm for his expertise—social work, social justice, and civil rights—with undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Georgia, where he is the Donald L. Hollowell Distinguished Professor of Social Justice and Civil Rights Studies. He loves the challenge of connecting with students—who refer to him as “Dr. C”—and training a new generation of social workers. First and foremost are the basics. “Everyone, whether they are in an underserved community or not, wants to work with someone who has heart, who is compassionate,” he says. “They want to know that you are there and you care. That is the most critical piece.”

Cornelius focuses his research on racial and ethnic health disparities in the United States, research methods, and social determinants of health. He is one of the most frequently cited African American scholars in the field of social work. An important issue he addresses in his classes and in his research is the fact that the large majority of social workers today are white, middle class, and female—and that profile does not match the majority of the people needing services.

He speaks of the importance of “cultural humility” on the part of social workers, underscoring the need to be respectful of different cultures, attitudes, and ways of life. Social workers also need to be keenly aware of their communities. “An intervention that is being developed in Central New York may not work in Miami,” he says. Cornelius is also concerned with improving the lot of social workers, who he says need to take care of themselves before devoting themselves completely to their clients. There is also a gender issue to be addressed: Men entering the field, he says, are more likely to move into management, while women “do the front line.”

Cornelius came to Syracuse University in 1977, enrolling in the College of Arts and Sciences eager and open to new experiences. He thrived in his classes, in both psychology and African American studies, and also became involved with WAER radio, which at that time was student run. He worked on the 360 Ebony Degrees program, which featured alternative music. Most of the other students committed to the station attended New­house, planning careers in broadcasting. Cornelius chose a different path—to head to the University of Chicago. There, he completed two master’s degrees, in social science and social science administration, and a Ph.D. degree in social science administration. His dissertation, “The Impact of Medical Delivery on the Outcome of Care for Minorities and the Poor,” started him on a career to explore the complex issues of health care delivery, and work to address them.  

Cornelius has kept in close touch with Syracuse over the last few years, as his nephew, Gordon George, is a College of Visual and Performing Arts student who graduates in December. While Cornelius says he didn’t exactly steer his nephew toward his alma mater, he was very happy when he made the choice.      —Kathleen Curtis