Riaan van Zyl
Riaan van Zyl

The Kent School of Social Work’s associate dean for research since 2000 – Riaan van Zyl – is heading south to become director of the University of South Florida’s School of Social Work.

Since joining UofL, he has helped Kent’s faculty and staff collaborate to solve community problems and position the school to be one of the fastest growing in attracting federal research dollars, even as he continued to work on his own research and HIV/AIDS prevention projects half a world away in his native South Africa.

His work garnered him the MOSAIC (Multicultural Opportunities for Success and Achievement in our Community) award last year from Louisville’s Jewish Family and Career Services. The honor recognizes new or first-general immigrants and refugees making significant contributions to their professions and in the community.  

Before starting his next job in Tampa Aug. 1, he took time to discuss with UofL News his academic career, the importance of social work research and his life in the United States after gaining his education and initial work experience in South Africa.

UofL News: From Johannesburg, South Africa, what attracted you to UofL’s Kent School of Social Work? 

Riaan van Zyl: The associate dean of research position and the upward research trend at UofL. Also, I worked on Living Systems Theory with a previous president (James Miller) at the university.

UofL News: What inspired you to choose a career in social work education?

Riaan van Zyl: The potential for impact on students and through them on the lives of the most vulnerable in society. Also the impact of research directly on people. In social work, our research happens in communities and we implement innovations without a long translational process.

UofL News: How has social work education changed within your career?

Riaan van Zyl: Today, social work education is much more evidence (science) informed than ever before and the fields of specialization are more diverse.

UofL News: What is your best advice for your students?

Riaan van Zyl: Science-informed interventions are often also the most ethical course of action.

UofL News: Much of Kent School’s research seems to be community-engaged and collaborative. Why is that important?

Riaan van Zyl: Social work adds value to knowledge created in laboratories by implementing it in real life situations and in systems that are far from perfect. Collaboration is key to quality improvement in these systems and community-engaged practices keep us true to our mission while simultaneously securing sustainability.

UofL News: Do any research projects stand out to you as particularly impactful?

Riaan van Zyl: Our work on healthy relationships led to impactful innovations in different areas such as teenage pregnancy prevention, intimate partner violence reduction and improved educational outcomes for children (PI’s Anita Barbee and Becky Antle). Also, the school and family based interventions for young children developed by Andy Frey and his team have far reaching positive effects.    

UofL News: What has been your favorite thing about working at UofL? Living in the city of Louisville?

Riaan van Zyl: I was part of a great school and I enjoyed working as a member of multiple teams with great colleagues. I also enjoyed teaching and getting to know so many wonderful students. Louisville is a great city with so many wonderful people and cycling opportunities, one cannot help but to be happy here.