Disabled Student Scholarship Inspired by Extraordinary Alumna

February 11, 2014
by Eliza Gallo
Helen Levin, center, at the USC School of Social Work Commencement in 1981. Courtesy of Terry Levin.

The USC School of Social Work has established its first endowed Dean’s Leadership Scholarship, supported by the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of California. Awarded annually to an outstanding Master of Social Work candidate who is disabled, the Helen Phillips Levin Dean’s Leadership Scholarship will help such students follow the remarkable example of Helen Phillips Levin, MSW ’81.

Helen was a young mother when she contracted polio, becoming quadriplegic and relying on a wheelchair. Once she had raised her two children, she decided she wanted to get an MSW, and she turned to USC.

“She had virtually no use of her physical capacities but an outstanding mind — a lot of curiosity and a lot of energy. And social work was a way to take advantage of those skills without being disabled by what she couldn’t do,” said her son John Levin, who heads the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of California.

After completing her degree in 1981, Helen  put her skills to work at a suicide hotline, until her death in 1985. Levin noted that it wasn’t easy work, “but it gave her life great meaning and satisfaction” to know that she was helping those in need.

Accordingly, he said the foundation endowed the new scholarship so that “talented individuals in the field may stretch beyond limitations to accomplish more things than some might have thought were possible.”

He noted that his mother attended USC before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and that “USC provided her with a terrific, and at the time very unusual, opportunity.” Many of the assistive aids available to current disabled students, such as note-taking software and high-tech motorized wheelchairs, didn’t exist in Helen’s time, but the university provided the necessary supports.

“USC was extremely accommodating in making the program accessible to her in a number of ways, and we were — at the time and since — quite appreciative of that,” Levin said.

“Helen Phillips Levin was one of the school’s first disabled students, and through her strength and determination, she demonstrated the ability of social workers to transform lives,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “We’re so grateful for the Levin family’s vision in supporting this scholarship, which will not only help some of our brightest students but also the vulnerable populations they will serve,” she said.

The Phillips Levin family has been supporting social work education at USC for many years. In 1993, its foundation established the Helen P. and Jack I. Levin Scholarship Recipients, a scholarship benefitting students at the School of Social Work. And in 1999, the family established the Helen Phillips Levin/Hebrew Union College Scholarship Recipients, a scholarship awarded to excellent and deserving MSW students whose field placement is in a Jewish agency or who have demonstrated a commitment to working within the Jewish community.

“Education and social services are among our family's highest philanthropic priorities,” Levin said. “Our longstanding support of the USC School of Social Work is a powerful way for us to combine those priorities, while at the same time both expressing our gratitude to the school for the opportunities it made available to my mother and honoring her legacy, one that has been so inspiring to our family and many who knew her.”

Their newest contribution to the cause, the Helen Phillips Levin Dean’s Leadership Scholarship, will be first awarded to a disabled MSW student this fall.