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Wilfrid Laurier University Leaf
October 1, 2016
Canadian Excellence


Laurier FSW alumnus publishes first novel

If you'd asked Faculty of Social Work alumnus Michael Ungar what he wanted to be when he grew up, he likely would have said a journalist. As things turned out, he became a social worker. But this past spring, Michael combined his passions of social work and writing to release his first novel, The Social Worker. Based on many of Michael's own experiences as a social worker in juvenile corrections, the book includes actual events and anecdotes (though heavily disguised to maintain confidentiality) that have happened throughout his interesting career.

After completing his MSW at McGill, Michael headed to the East Coast, working in mental health and youth corrections in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. In the early 1990s Michael decided to return to school to do a PhD in social work, choosing Laurier for its strong clinical program. After completing his doctorate, Michael spent the next five years juggling a workload that included youth corrections, university counselling services, sessional teaching at Memorial and Dalhousie universities, research and writing. When it all became too complicated, he took a faculty position at Dalhousie, allowing him to combine everything he was doing under one role. In 2011, Michael was given a five-year Killam Professorship in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of social work research. In 2010, Michael received the Distinguished Service Award from the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and on November 26, 2012, the CASW presented him with the National Award for Outstanding Service.

In addition to academics, Michael continues to be an active researcher. In 2007 he founded the Resilience Research Centre, which he continues to co-direct with Linda Liebenberg, a former doctoral student. The Centre, which brings together researchers from more than 20 countries, looks at social environments, such as schools, policies, access to social services, justice systems etc., to determine what factors help high-risk, marginalized youth overcome adversity. The Centre also develops measures and research protocols that they provide for free to other researchers.

Writing has always been part of Michael's career. To date he has written 11 books, including three for parents, and more than 100 articles and book chapters. But writing a novel was a different experience. "I've always had curiosity about people and their stories", Michael said. "Throughout my career I've found that if you give kids in the justice system half a chance to tell their stories, their behaviours make more sense than it first appears. There were things I wanted to say and stories I wanted to tell that I couldn't put in my academic works or my books for parents."

In 2003 Michael decided to try his hand at writing fiction. He entered a story in a Toronto Star contest and won. His prize was $10,000, plus a $4,000 scholarship to attend Humber College's six-month creative writing course. During that course he was partnered with David Adams Richards, an award-winning Canadian author who became a mentor to Michael. It took five years to write the book and get it published. The Social Worker tells the story of Joey, a young boy in the youth corrections and child welfare systems who becomes a social worker and uses unconventional methods to help his clients.

Is there another novel in Michael's future? "My initial reaction after I finished The Social Worker was never again", said Michael. "But, bit by bit a new character is starting to reveal himself to me and there's another story I'd like to tell. I have a sabbatical year coming up in two years so I might start again."

For more information on Michael, or for a list of his upcoming presentations (including several in Ontario), visit his website at