Dorothy M. Pearson (MSSW ’60, Ph.D. ‘73) found no shortage of challenges in her lifetime, but always met them with passion and perseverance. From her beginnings in the legally-segregated South, Pearson worked her way to becoming the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from the UW-Madison School of Social Work. In order to give back to a university where she excelled, Pearson established the Dorothy M. Pearson Graduate Fellowship Fund supporting African-American graduate students.
Originally from Mississippi and Louisiana, Pearson wondered what she was being held back from by the segregation that permeated society. She grew curious to find a different world that she could explore. On a visit to her brother in Madison after her graduation from Southern University, Pearson discovered that world. She was struck first by the difference between the hot, relentless Louisiana weather and the cool Lake Mendota breeze. She knew Madison was different from what she knew, and made up her mind to pursue her social work education here.
Pearson enrolled in the master’s program at the UW-Madison School of Social Work, and worked for a time for Milwaukee social services. She continued on to the Ph.D. program at the School, where she found it thrilling to work with such famous professors as Alfred Kadushin and Martin Loeb. In 1973, within three years of beginning the doctoral program, she became the first African-American to whom the School conferred a Ph.D.
In 1975, Pearson joined the faculty at Howard University, where she established a doctoral program in Social Work. She retired from the university in 1999. After a distinguished career in social work practice and education, Pearson was designated a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers.
The Dorothy M. Pearson Graduate Fellowship Fund supports an African-American Ph.D. student each year. Pearson believes knowledge and experience from the doctoral program raises students to a new level of thinking about society and its problems. She established the fund, motivated by the thought that she could open the door into another world for another kid like herself, trying to overcome a challenge and break into a new world.