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Head of Pitt's social work master's program says a little help can make big difference

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 7:55 p.m.
Psychiatric social worker Lynn Coghill of Stanton Heights is director of the social work master’s program at University of Pittsburgh.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Psychiatric social worker Lynn Coghill of Stanton Heights is director of the social work master’s program at University of Pittsburgh.
Psychiatric social worker Lynn Coghill of Stanton Heights stands for a portrait at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Coghill directs and teaches at the school's Master's of Social Work program while maintaining her own practice.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Psychiatric social worker Lynn Coghill of Stanton Heights stands for a portrait at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Coghill directs and teaches at the school's Master's of Social Work program while maintaining her own practice.
Lynn Coghill (left) as ZoZo and Keith Martin as Danilo perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 1981 production of 'The Merry Widow.' Coghill was a ballet dancer before becoming a psychiatric social worker and director of the University of Pittsburgh Master's of Social Work program.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Lynn Coghill (left) as ZoZo and Keith Martin as Danilo perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 1981 production of 'The Merry Widow.' Coghill was a ballet dancer before becoming a psychiatric social worker and director of the University of Pittsburgh Master's of Social Work program.

As she approached 30, Lynn Coghill, a dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, knew her days in professional ballet were coming to a close.

She knew she wanted a life in which she would be able to help others. Unsure of what that would be, Coghill applied to the master of business administration and the master of social work programs at the University of Pittsburgh and was accepted to both.

Choosing was difficult.

But nearly three decades later, Coghill, who was honored last month as Social Worker of the Year by the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, is confident she made the right choice.

Today, she is director of the school's social work master's program.

But the title doesn't begin to describe her work.

It has taken her into hospitals and schools throughout the Pittsburgh area, where she has created programs and counseled those seeking help for a variety of problems.

It has taken her to New Orleans, where she counseled Hurricane Katrina survivors as a mental health disaster worker with the American Red Cross. She's been to Uganda, where she worked with former child soldiers and sex slaves who survived that nation's bloody uprisings. And in September she was in Philadelphia, where she was on call for 12-hour shifts to help those overcome with issues during Pope Francis' visit.

“I've always been very lucky. When I was 14, I knew I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, and at 16, I knew I wanted to help people after I retired from ballet,” Coghill said.

Along the way, the Stanton Heights resident, who at 61 still dances, developed a private practice as a licensed therapist with offices in Shadyside and Monroeville that she continues to maintain.

Fifteen years ago, she took over as director of Pitt's master of social work program, where she wants to pay her good fortune forward, training the next generation of social workers for a rapidly expanding field that ranges from clinicians to program managers.

In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected the field will grow by 19 percent by 2022, establishing a need for 114,100 social workers in a field that boasted employment of 607,300.

Toya Jones, who earned her master's in social work at Pitt and works with children and families at the Center for Victims in East Liberty, wasn't surprised to hear Coghill's work had been recognized.

Studying with a teacher who was active in the field provided special insights into dealing with those in crisis, Jones said.

“Anytime I saw she was teaching a class, I took it. I remember watching her — she is so thorough, works super hard and handles it all so well — and thinking I want to follow in her footsteps,” Jones said.

Coghill's colleagues at Pitt echoed those sentiments.

“She's always trying to make herself available as a social worker. I think she works 60- or 70-hour weeks. She'll be here on weekends and do programs to recruit students. She's trying to bring expressive arts to working with trauma. That whole aspect of her life — finding ways to merge social work and creative arts to help people — is important. She's an innovator. She inspires other social workers,” said Tracy Soska, director of continuing education training and professional development at Pitt's School of Social Work.

While many baby boomers have long since abandoned or seriously question the idealism that drew them to certain professions decades earlier, Coghill said she has never felt that way.

“I really do believe I can change the world and make a difference. It doesn't have to be a big, splashing thing. Just helping one person at a time is like throwing a pebble in a lake. You never know where the ripple is going to go,” Coghill said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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