Renee Cunningham-Williams named first Watts Endowed Professor

Cunningham-Williams is a recognized authority in challenges facing young people, particularly African American youth

December 16, 2021

Social workers often help young people navigate through poverty, mental health and substance use disorders, sexual risk-taking, criminal justice involvement and family violence issues, to name a few.

A lesser-known challenge that may not come up in many conversations about youth, however, is problem gambling. Portrait of Renee Cunningham-Williams, ASU's first Watts Endowed Professor Renee Cunningham-Williams is Arizona State University's first-ever Watts Endowed Professor. Photo courtesy of Renee Cunningham-Williams Download Full Image

Renee Cunningham-Williams, the first-ever Watts Endowed Professor of Social Work at Arizona State University, has dedicated a large portion of her research over the last 25 years to the prevention and intervention of all of these concerns in her efforts to help youth make a successful transition into adulthood.

Cunningham-Williams, who is currently on faculty in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, is joining the faculty of the ASU School of Social Work next year. She is an internationally recognized authority in the study of problem gambling, substance use and abuse and mental and behavioral health, particularly among African American youth and emerging adults.

The new Watts Endowed Professor, who also is director of a National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded Transdisciplinary Training in Addictions Research pre- and post-doctoral training program at Washington University, will start her new position in August 2022, according to Cynthia Lietz, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and a President’s Professor of social work.

Cunningham-Williams is the first of what will be five Watts Endowed Professors, Lietz said. In 2018, Mike and Cindy Watts, owners of the Phoenix-based Sunstate Equipment Co., made a $30 million investment in the college, which today bears their last name. Funding for the endowed professorships is from the gift.

Lietz said Cunningham-Williams “exemplifies a commitment to advancing the field of social work. She is impacting the field through the impact of her own research and through her commitment to mentor and support the next generation of social work scholars. I cannot think of a better person to be associated with the first Watts Professor appointment than Dr. Cunningham-Williams.”

Cunningham-Williams’ research has centered on the epidemiology and diagnostic measurement of problem gambling among young adults and how it relates to substance abuse and mental health disorders.

Young people can have their first gambling experience early, Cunningham-Williams said, some as young as 10 years old. She said studies she has conducted and those by others have established the prevalence of problem gambling and disorder. These studies have made significant inroads in advancing understanding of certain risk and protective factors for these youth and young adults — especially for the most vulnerable among them.

Cunningham-Williams will also become the School of Social Work's first-ever associate director for faculty development, said Elizabeth Lightfoot, school director and Foundation Professor.

“One thing I noticed immediately when I came to the School of Social Work is that we had developed a great infrastructure in our school for our academic programs and had grown substantially, but we had little formal supports for our faculty researchers and educators,” Lightfoot said. “They were managing to be fantastic on their own, but we really needed to provide more formal supports for them.”

Lightfoot said it was important to her that the new faculty development position be held by a senior scholar, and Cunningham-Williams turned out to be a perfect fit.

“She is a strong, internationally-respected researcher who has extensive experience mentoring emerging scholars, particularly scholars of color, through her work at Washington University and at our national social work associations,” Lightfoot said. “I can't tell you how excited I am to have her join us here at ASU.”

Cunningham-Williams said ASU’s longtime designation by U.S. News & World Report as the nation’s top university in innovation impressed her.

“It speaks to where ASU has come. It’s also a call, a challenge, to be creative, to be open to creating new things and being innovative, and says the university will support that. If you have an idea, there will be the support to make it happen,” she said.

Cunningham-Williams said she was “just blown away” by the School of Social Work's high number of research centers and the productivity of the faculty there and throughout the Watts College.

“I felt immediately that this is a place whose ground is fertile for new ideas and doing your best work,” she said.

Cunningham-Williams said in her ASU faculty development position she will apply experience gained from her role as an associate dean for doctoral education and her leadership in pre- and postdoctoral education at Washington University. During eight years as associate dean at the Brown School, and 25 years in pre- and post-doctoral education at both the Brown School and School of Medicine, she mentored doctoral and post-doctoral students, particularly women and people of color, helping to build individual and institutional capacity for their success.

At Washington University she increased the number of African American students pursuing a PhD degree and post-doctoral education. She said she was passionate about this as she is a first-generation college graduate who went on to earn a doctoral degree from the Brown School before completing her own post-doctoral fellowship in psychiatric epidemiology at Washington University School of Medicine.

“I emphasized to ASU my passion for mentorship in this area. ASU embraced this, saying it was wanted and needed,” Cunningham-Williams said. “It’s a labor of love for me.”

Cunningham-Williams earned three social work degrees — a Bachelor of Social Work from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a Master of Social Work and a PhD in social work from the Brown School. She also earned a post-graduate master’s degree in psychiatric epidemiology from Washington University School of Medicine. A lifelong learner, she recently completed her faculty sabbatical year as a Dean’s Scholar in the Juris Doctor degree program at St. Louis University School of Law.

Cunningham-Williams’ work spans the disciplines of social work, public health, psychiatric epidemiology/nosology and biostatistics. She has more than 25 years’ experience in academic leadership, emphasizing social work doctoral education quality and capacity-building for early- to mid-career scholars, as well as scholars traditionally underrepresented as researchers and college educators.

She has been a consultant for the National Institutes of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Singapore government and on national elected boards, such as the Society for Social Work and Research and the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education, among others. Because of her outstanding career accomplishments and leadership, she was inducted this year as a fellow in the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


image title

61 young Afghan women arrive to begin new life as Sun Devils

December 16, 2021

Refugee group landed at Phoenix airport after months spent at Wisconsin base; they will receive a range of support from ASU

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

Sixty-one young women from Afghanistan arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Wednesday night after fleeing the chaos of their homeland and waiting months at a military base in Wisconsin to begin their new lives as students at Arizona State University.

It has been a long journey for the women, whose resettlement is being co-sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and ASU in a unique partnership. Through private donors, ASU also is providing scholarships and housing.

The women smiled, waved and called out “Hello! Hello!” as they walked into the airport.

“Hello, ASU!” one of the young women said. “We are so excited.”

A small contingent of students and staff from Global Launch at ASU cheered and clapped and waved maroon and gold signs as the women walked out of the security area at the airport. The women from Afghanistan cheered back.

The young women are eager to resume their lives as students. They had been studying at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to close and they had to return to Afghanistan. When the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan last summer, the Taliban took over the country.

Amid chaos at the airport in August, all 148 Asian University for Women students from Afghanistan managed to fly out of Kabul, traveling to Saudi Arabia, then Spain and Virginia and finally Wisconsin, where they were among 13,000 Afghan refugees being processed for resettlement at Fort McCoy.

An ASU team began working months ago to bring some of the students, all of whom speak English, to Arizona. The 61 who arrived Wednesday joined three other women who came separately, for a total of 64 students.

Their arrival on Wednesday was the result of a massive coordination of effort and donations, led by Pam DeLargy, executive director of Education for Humanity at ASU. She and the team spent weeks managing the details of the women’s travel, including finding suitcases for them.

“It’s been a long time that we’ve been waiting for you to come,” DeLargy told the young women at a reception at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus after their airport arrival.

“And we got so impatient, we decided just to go and get you.”

After working for months trying to get the women to Arizona, ASU alumnus Justin Firestone stepped in to help ASU secure a charter Delta flight to bring them here. The flight was generously funded by a grant from Intel Corporation of America. On the flight, the women napped, watched “Finding Nemo” and followed their progress to Arizona on the flight map.

“Intel was thrilled to have been asked to help get these inspiring Afghan women here to Arizona,” said Liz Shipley, Intel Arizona public affairs director. “For decades, Intel has invested in strengthening the Arizona community, and we're happy that Arizona State University and the state government of Arizona are helping these talented women continue their education and build their futures here in our state.”

Many people have played a role in the initiative, which has received much community support, including donations in cash and in kind from the Virginia G. Piper Trust, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Honeywell and businesswoman Sharon Harper, among others.

“When I look at all of you, I think you’re so brave and so strong,” Harper told the women at the reception.

“You’ll always have your beautiful history and your country, but you’re now going to have a second place, another home here in Arizona.”

For Faheem Hussain, the arrival of the young women is especially meaningful. He was a founding faculty member of the Asian University for Women and taught there from 2009 to 2014. He went to the reception to greet them.

“It’s like a full circle for me,” said Hussain, now a clinical associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. “I’ve been following their escape, so it’s very emotional and personal to me.”

Hussain said that they will begin the hard work of transition now.

“These are all very strong young women with a very good education background,” he said.

“What we’d really like to see is how they transition into ASU, but more importantly how they can get the best out of this amazing university.”

At the end of the reception, DeLargy stood on the stage and held her arms out to the young women.

“We know it’s been extraordinarily difficult for you,” she said. “We want to say that you are a treasure to all of us at ASU, and we will keep you safe and will help you succeed and keep you close to all of our hearts.”

Everyone cheered.

What’s next

The women have a busy few weeks ahead. Global Launch, which helps international students with English language instruction and other support, is in charge of the logistics for their transition to life at ASU.

“We work with individual students but also with universities and government partnerships around the world, in particular from the Middle East,” said John Deal, assistant director of program operations for Global Launch.

“We are very familiar with cultural sensitivities, dietary sensitivities and complexities from sensitive regions.”

After the reception Wednesday night, the women were bused to a nearby hotel, where they received gift baskets of snacks, including fruit, tea and American candy such as M&Ms.

“We talked with a lot of Afghani students and asked, ‘What would you want in a basket?’ And we put that together,” Deal said.

The women will receive Dell laptops, donated by Intel through Welcome to America, as well as phones provided by the Mayo Family Foundation.

Global Launch typically schedules programming over term breaks for international students who stay around, and the women will have a lot to do, including orientation and workshops on safety, how to ride the light rail and how to access health care and other services.

Global Launch worked with Aramark to keep a dining hall open over break for the women.

They will be encouraged to work on their English, so Global Launch will set up conversation cafes and karaoke and video game get-togethers. They also might go on field trips to “A” Mountain, an ASU basketball game and the movies. Sun Devil Fitness will set up women-only classes for them.

“Some things they’ll be required to do, but we’re also leaving space in their schedules for optional activities, and we’ll provide entertainment so they don’t feel stuck at the hotel,” Deal said.

Studying at ASU

Academic counseling will be a big part of their transition.

“The decisions of how fast or how slow their academic progress is will be up to each person,” Deal said.

Some might want to start with taking Global Launch’s non-credit English proficiency classes, while others might jump into a full-time degree program this spring.

“Education is a universal component of building a better life and creating self-sufficiency and success,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Arizona State University is deeply committed to that principle, and it is our responsibility to come together as a community, and with the generous support of partners and donors, to be of service at this moment.”

Through private donors, the women will receive scholarships to study at ASU. Their credits from the Asian University for Women will transfer into their degree programs at ASU, which they’ll decide on in the next few weeks.

Before leaving Afghanistan, they were studying in a variety of subjects — economics, philosophy, politics, business, education and health sciences. At ASU, they’ll decide what to major in based on interest and programs in which they can apply transfer credits. Which ASU campus they’re on will depend on their majors.

They will be able to use all ASU services, including academic counseling, as well as access to trauma counseling.

Resettlement in Arizona

Arizona is expecting to welcome about 1,600 Afghan refugees in total, with about 1,100 coming to Phoenix, but the new ASU students are a unique group, according to Aaron Rippenkroeger, executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Arizona.

“We’ve welcomed Afghans to Arizona for many years, and we have Afghans on staff, but this is a different scale. Most of them are coming as family units — parents with children,” he said.

“This group is very different, coming as university students. They will be thrust right into an education experience.”

Many people who come from Afghanistan already speak English very well because they’ve worked with the U.S. military.

“They’re often quite remarkable, and folks can be pretty highly qualified with work experience. That said, we do observe a significant (difference) in language capacity between men and women,” Rippenkroeger said, adding that the IRC often tailors its services to ensure that female family members have an opportunity to thrive.

“This is a group of female students arriving with a unique skill set.”

The IRC provides many kinds of help to refugees, including support with business startups, home loans, partnerships with school districts and services for survivors of human trafficking or torture.

“I’d love to say that the hardest days are behind them in terms of everything they’ve been through, but there will be hard days to come, whether it’s an exam or their accommodations or paperwork or, one day, their citizenship test,” he said.

“It’s a huge life transition. Our view is that it always works best when you have a communitywide approach to support folks through that process. We feel this group is well situated for that, with such a generous outpouring of support.”

After their arrival Wednesday, the young women met Rangina Hamidi, the former minister of education in Afghanistan who also fled the country in August. She is now a professor of practice in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU.

She told them: “Your education here, your journey here, while it is your own individual journey, at the same time, you are the representation of a country that is broken.

“One day I want you guys with your bachelor’s degrees and hopefully master’s degrees and for some maybe PhDs, to be able to return and build that nation because by then I’ll be old, but you’ll be the future women leaders of Afghanistan.”

Hamidi told the young women that she would be their symbolic mother while they’re here.

“I’m here if you ever miss home, miss your mother, miss your sister, miss your parents. I’m here to guide you, to help you, to make you feel at home.”

HOW TO HELP: For those interested in supporting the women in this story or other Afghan refugees coming to ASU, please visit

Top photo: A female Afghan refugee holds up a pitchfork after arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Wednesday. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News