Sofia Hiort-Wright earns diversity lifetime achievement award

Headshot of Sofia Hiort-Wright
Sofia Hiort-Wright (B.S.W.’98/SW; M.S.W.’99/SW; Ph.D.’06/E)

It’s only been 20 years, but that is enough time for Sofia Hiort-Wright (B.S.W.’98/SW; M.S.W.’99/SW; Ph.D.’06/E) to have made a lifelong impact in VCU’s athletic department. 

She received the 2022 President's Inclusive Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award from VCU, where she is senior executive associate athletic director and senior woman administrator. 

Working in a collegiate athletic department may not be a typical setting for a social worker, but Dr. Hiort-Wright says she applies a social work lens to much of what she does.

“It may not be something that people traditionally think of, but across the country, there are some athletic departments that have a social worker on staff,” she says. “It might not be (social work) in the traditional sense what we thought about years ago.”

VCU athletics administrator Sofia Hiort-Wright with two graduating student-athletes.
Sofia Hiort-Wright with two student-athletes at a May 2022 graduation celebration.

Today’s student-athletes, she says, are more likely to take advantage of what social workers can offer, including mental health support. “The stigma is going away, and this generation of college students, more of them are willing to be open about it. It’s great that people are talking about it. 

“I would say the last few years, and in the next five years, that’s an area where athletic departments around the country have and will put resources. You have a sports psychologist, you may have mental health clinicians, you have social workers. All students should have a place where they can be completely open and share their thoughts and feelings.”

Dr. Hiort-Wright played varsity tennis at VCU, and as a student-athlete, she had access to an academic advisor in the athletic department. After she earned her M.S.W., a contact in the athletic department recruited her for that same advising job.

Bridget Lyons had the job I have now, and she encouraged me to apply for the advising job. She really thought my social work background would play well here. That’s why I started here and, you know, 20 years later. …,” Dr. Hiort-Wright says with a laugh. “I’m thankful for the opportunity, it’s been a nice journey.”

Every day I hope to make a difference in people’s lives, and all of us in social work want to do that. VCU is a special place. People can find themselves here.

Dr. Hiort-Wright now oversees academic support and student welfare in athletics, including working with international athletes – she came to VCU from Sweden as a student-athlete herself. 

As a social worker, she says, she uses active listening that she learned in the M.S.W. Program and focuses on being empathetic and open-minded. “Meeting people where they are is incredibly important. Learning from others and appreciating that diversity. … Hopefully I had some of that with me, but you learn more about it in the (social work) program. At VCU, we speak about the diversity we have and are able to celebrate that, and it’s very similar in athletics.”

VCU athletics administrator Sofia Hiort-Wright with the VCU men's basketball team and coach Mike Rhoades.
Sofia Hiort-Wright at the PACME awards ceremony, with the VCU men's basketball team and coach Mike Rhoades.

Dr. Hiort-Wright has seen strides in equity among men’s and women’s student-athletes at VCU, a benefit of longevity in the department, she says. When it comes to transgender athletes, “we follow the NCAA policies, guidelines and recommendations. When we have a transgender student, we would support them in every way possible and make sure they are able to participate. Here at VCU we want to ensure that every student feels welcomed and accepted." 

Her VCU lifetime achievement award, part of the Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment (PACME), was a “huge surprise and so humbling,” she says. “I’ve been here a long time and seen the PACME awards. The people who have won it are very inspirational, and to be part of that group is really an honor.

“Every day I hope to make a difference in people’s lives, and all of us in social work want to do that. VCU is a special place. People can find themselves here.”

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