The first college-level social work class in the U.S. was offered in the summer of 1898 at Columbia University in New York City. Today, social work is studied in colleges, universities, and online colleges across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers “help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.” Social workers are part of an increasingly popular and in-demand set of professionals, with jobs expected to grow at a rate of 16% by the year 2026. This is significantly faster than the projected national average growth rate for all occupations.
In addition to the career social workers who study at our schools and serve in our communities, there are some very famous people who also got their start as social work majors. The following ten socially-conscious celebrities studied public service, outreach, and activism before going on to great fame in their chosen fields.
Read on to “meet” these Ten Famous People Who Majored in Social Work. You may have more in common with them than you think!
Jane Addams — Social Worker, Activist
(September 6, 1860-May 21, 1935)
Jane Addams is perhaps the most famous social worker. She is often called the “mother of social work” for her pioneering efforts in the field. Addams graduated as valedictorian in 1881 from Rockford Female Seminary, and was retroactively granted a bachelor’s degree when the school became accredited the next year as Rockford College for Women. Addams was still unsure of what she wanted to do with her life after graduating. She briefly studied medicine, was hospitalized for poor health, travelled and studied in Europe for 21 months, and spent two years reading, writing, and considering her future. More than six years after her college graduation, at age 27, Addams visited a settlement house in London. She was inspired to return to the U.S. and open a similar house in Chicago.
Addams opened this settlement house, Hull-House, in 1889 with her friend Ellen Starr. Their goal was to “provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.” Addams passionately led Hull-House, serving thousands of poor people in Chicago. She went on to later successes and fame, becoming the first woman to ever receive an honorary degree from Yale University. In 1931, she became only the second female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Though it took Addams several years to figure out what to do with her degree (a conundrum many of us can relate to!), she went on to a very successful career as a social worker and activist.
Notable Quotable (on Unemployment)
"Of all the aspects of social misery nothing is so heartbreaking as unemployment."
Barbara Mikulski — Politician, US Senator
(July 20, 1936-Present)
Barbara Mikulski is a former U.S. Senator, and the first female U.S. Democratic Senator who was not elected as a replacement for a spouse. Previously a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mikulski was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. She went on to represent the state of Maryland until 2017 and currently holds the title as longest-serving female senator.
Mikulski earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1958 from Mount Saint Agnes College in Baltimore, Maryland. Today, Mount Saint Agnes is part of Loyola University Maryland. As a student, Mikulski was inspired by Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. However, Mikulski realized she enjoyed social work more than chemistry or the sciences. Upon her graduation, Mikulski began working for several social service organizations in Baltimore, with a specific focus on drug addiction and caring for the elderly. Even as she worked to served her community, Mikulski returned to school in 1965 and earned a master’s degree in social work.
Notable Quotable (on Sexism)
"You know what we [women] find when you break the glass ceiling? You end up living in a glass office. Where everything you do is scrutinized."
John Amos — Actor
(December 27, 1939-Present)
John Amos is an actor, famous for his role in the CBS TV series, Good Times, and for his Emmy-nominated role in the miniseries Roots. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Amos headed west for college, originally enrolling at Long Beach City College in California before ultimately graduating from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. He earned a degree in sociology with qualifications to do social work from Colorado State University, where he also played football. After graduating in 1964, Amos signed a free agent contract with the Denver Broncos. He was released on the second day of training due to an injury, and went on to play for several professional and minor league teams in the US and Canada.
Amos also worked as a copywriter and a social worker at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York before discovering his talent for professional acting. In addition to his roles in Good Times and Roots, Amos also appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Gordy the Weatherman, co-starred in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America, and played a number of other notable television and theatre roles.
Notable Quotable (on Racism, Slavery, and Roots)
“I think everybody, regardless of what side they fell on — liberal or conservative, racist, bigot, whatever — everybody was affected by Roots. Everybody knew that something special had happened, that a side of our history as America and as Americans that had never been divulged before was being exposed…The atrocities that were committed during the slavery periods...unbelievable. Unbelievable horrors. So, yes, America did take Roots to heart for awhile, and then, as time went by, other priorities took place.”
Alice Walker — Writer, Activist
(February 9, 1944-Present)
Alice Walker is a novelist, poet, and activist, perhaps most famous for her book The Color Purple, which earned Walker the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Her writing also includes several books of poetry, 10 other novels, children’s books, and multiple books of nonfiction. Much of Walker’s writing deals with race and gender issues; her activism and social work have focused on similar issues.
Walker began her college career in 1961 with a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the first historic black women’s colleges in the U.S.. During her college years, Walker studied under radical historians Howard Zinn and Staughton Lynd, and became active in the civil rights movement. Frustrated by the restrictions at Spelman College, Walker secured a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. There she changed her focus and began to study poetry and writing. Upon graduation from Sarah Lawrence College, Walker worked briefly for a welfare office in New York City and then as an employee of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There, she met and married civil rights lawyer Melvyn Leventhal, and moved on from her social work career into motherhood, writing, and teaching.
Notable Quotable (on Activism)
"Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet."
Martin Short — Comedian, Actor, Singer, Writer
(March 26, 1950-Present)
Martin Short is a Canadian-American comedian, actor, singer, and writer. He is most famous for his work on Second City TV (SCTV) and Saturday Night Live. In 1971, Short graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario with a bachelor’s in social work. Upon graduation, Short took a year off to try comedy and acting before pursuing a career in social work. And, as we know, the rest is history. Short still works in comedy and media, and has most recently starred in a Netflix special with fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin: Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life.
Short's comedy and acting work spans television, film, and the stage. In 2014, Short released a memoir about his 40+ year acting career, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend. Though he never pursued a career as a social worker, Short has invested in society as a philanthropist, supporting organizations including the Women’s Cancer Research Fund and Artists Against Racism.Notable Quotable (on Service)
"I'm totally aware of how lucky I am. I have health, family, children. I do work that gives me total joy and allows me to make a living, and maybe, if I'm lucky enough, I'll feel I've fulfilled a little bit of service to society because I brought other people some laughter."
Stedman Graham — Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur
(March 6, 1951-Present)
Stedman Graham is an educator, author, speaker, and businessman, best known as Oprah Winfrey’s longtime partner. Graham earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas in 1974. While studying social work, Graham played for the Hardin-Simmons University basketball team. He went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana in 1979.
Graham has written several books, including Identity: Your Passport to Success, Diversity: Leaders Not Labels: A New Plan for the 21st Century, and You Can Make It Happen: A Nine Step Plan for Success. He’s also spent 30+ years teaching in colleges, working in communities, leading nonprofits, and speaking at workshops around the world. He now runs a program called “Identity Leadership,” that teaches a methodology for personal and professional success. Graham has been in a relationship with Oprah Winfrey since 1986.
Notable Quotable (on Education)
"To pursue success effectively, you must build supportive relationships that will help you work toward your goals. To build those relationships, you need to trust others; and to earn their trust, you in turn must learn to be trustworthy."
Suze Orman — Financial Advisor, Writer
(June 5, 1951-Present)
Susan Lynn “Suze” Orman is a financial advisor and writer. Orman, born in Chicago, Illinois, attended an in-state school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Orman studied social work, but left school without completing her degree in 1973. She moved to California, where she eventually completed her remaining credits at Hayward State University. She graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. Orman also received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009.
After graduating, Orman worked as a waitress for several years before taking out loans from friends and family to open her own restaurant. She lost the money in a high-risk investment fund, but eventually went on to work in investment and finance herself. She’s written multiple books, hosted The Suze Orman Show, and founded the Suze Orman Financial Group. Though in many ways her career has been successful, many in the financial industry are dubious about Orman’s financial advice, seeing it as overly simplistic or generic.
Notable Quotable (on the US Economy)
"They’re all saying that the recession is already over. They're all saying the economy is doing great. I'm saying, I don't care. I'm still looking at people who are seriously underwater in their homes. I'm looking at people who are still not able to get a job. I'm looking at credit-card companies that are consistently increasing their interest rates. I'm looking at older people who are trying to live off their fixed income, and they don't know what the hell they're going to do. I'm looking at an economy that is on financial steroids because of the amount of money that we pumped into it and that nobody knows how we are going to pay back."
Alana De La Garza — Actress, Model
(June 18, 1976-Present)
Alana De La Garza is an actress and model, most famous for her role as Connie Rubirosa on Law & Order, Law & Order: LA, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. De La Garza was born in Colombus, Ohio, and moved to El Paso, Texas when she was nine years old. She attended the University of Texas at El Paso for several years, studying social work and physical therapy. Before completing her degree program, De La Garza moved to Orlando, Florida. She took some college classes while there and also began modeling. She modeled for Maxim, did several photo shoots in South Africa, and was named a spokesperson for cosmetics company, Garnier. She did several commercials, as well as live tv spots on the Home Shopping Network. Eventually she decided to pursue modeling and acting full-time and moved to New York City.
De La Garza has starred in a variety of roles — everything from music videos for artists like Brooks & Dunn and O-Town to CSI. De La Garza is Latina and speaks Spanish. She sees representing her culture and ethnicity as a very important part of her work.
Notable Quotable (on Anthony Bourdain’s Suicide)
"Today and every day, hold each other close, spread love, be kind, be tolerant."
Frances Perkins — Sociologist, Advocate, U.S. Secretary of Labor
(April 10, 1880-May 14, 1965)
Frances Perkins served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945. She was also the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1902. She majored in physics with minors in chemistry and biology. Though Perkins did not major in social work, she earns honorable mention on this list for both studying the subject and working in the field. During her senior year at Mount Holyoke, Perkins took a course in American economic history that required students to visit the mills along the Connecticut River to observe working conditions.
Perkins was horrified, particularly at the conditions facing working women and children. She wrote of the experience, “I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at east doing what I could, to help change those abuses.” In 1907, Perkins accepted her first position as a social worker, for the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. She went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology and economics from Columbia University in 1910, and continued her prolific career in sociology and advocacy before eventually moving into political office.
Notable Quotable (on Education and Police)
"To one who believes that really good industrial conditions are the hope for a machine civilization, nothing is more heartening than to watch conference methods and education replacing police methods."
Samuel L. Jackson — Actor
(December 21, 1948-Present)
Samuel L. Jackson is famous for his roles in some of our favorite movies. He entered stardom in the early 1990s with movies including Goodfellas, Jungle Fever, and Jurassic Park. He has also collaborated frequently with noted director Quentin Tarantino, most notably on Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight . Today, he may be best known as Agent Nick Fury, a fixture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe mega-franchise.
Although many lists similar to this one claim that Samuel L. Jackson earned a degree in social work, in fact he did not (therefore, he only gets an honorable mention in this article). He was however employed as a social worker in Los Angeles. He actually majored in drama (after switching his major from marine biology and again from architecture) at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1972.Notable Quotable (on Martin Luther King Jr.)
"We’ve come a long way in our thinking, but also in our moral decay. I can’t imagine Dr. King watching the Real Housewives or Jersey Shore."
If you’re inspired by these ten famous people who majored in social work, you might consider a career in public outreach or advocacy. Check out some of the very best associate, bachelor's, or master's in social work and find the best school for you.