Alumna Sheila Oliver, First Woman of Color Elected to Statewide Office in NJ, to Serve as Graduation Speaker

February 21, 2019 @ 9:37 pm

The Columbia University School of Social Work has announced that New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Y. Oliver will serve as speaker for its 2019 graduation ceremony. Oliver received her MSW in Community Organization, Planning and Administration from the School of Social Work in 1976.

“We are so proud to count Sheila Oliver as a distinguished alumna. From her early career in educational opportunity and youth services, to today in her role as lieutenant governor of New Jersey, Oliver continues to be a trailblazer and a true public servant,” said Interim Dean Irwin Garfinkel. “Our students have been granted a wonderful opportunity to learn from her insights and experiences.”

Oliver’s career includes many “firsts.” When she and her running mate, now-Governor Phil Murphy, won the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial election, Oliver became the first woman of color ever elected to statewide office in New Jersey. This also made her the first Black woman Democrat to become a lieutenant governor in the United States.

Upon taking office in January 2018, Governor Murphy also named Oliver to head the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which provides local governments, organizations, and businesses with support and financial aid to help improve the quality of life for New Jerseyites while also addressing issues of public concern. Murphy’s choice of Oliver was due to her reputation as a trail blazer in community leadership and the mark she had already made on the state in the area of social welfare.

Oliver was a state-level legislator before her ascendancy to the executive branch, serving in the New Jersey General Assembly from 2004 until 2017. In 2009 she was elected unanimously by Democrats to serve as Speaker of the Assembly, a move that gave her control over which bills came to the floor and how billions of dollars were spent. She was the first Black woman to serve in that role in the state and only the second Black woman to lead a state house in all of the United States.

In the Assembly, Oliver made good use of her School of Social Work training. As Chair of the Human Services Committee, she oversaw bills that impact low-income individuals and families, as well as those with mental illnesses, disabilities, and addictions. Her other committee appointments included Labor, Higher Education, and Women and Children.

Oliver’s long list of firsts reaches all the way back to 1997, when she became the first woman ever to launch a competitive campaign for mayor in the City of East Orange, NJ. That race she lost by a mere 51 votes.

Clearly, Oliver has long had a calling to work on issues of social welfare. It was this passion that drew her to the Columbia School of Social Work for her MSW. After graduating in 1976, she served as the director of the Office of Youth Services and Special Projects for Newark, NJ, where she grew up. In that role she helped youth and young adults prepare for higher education and workforce entry. Later, she was appointed as the development director for the Newark Literacy Campaign. She also worked at Caldwell College in Caldwell, NJ, as the Coordinator of Career Guidance.

Oliver has also taught college courses and worked as the Director of the Essex County Division of Community Action, a poverty-fighting program.

Along with her MSW, Oliver holds a BA in sociology from Lincoln University.

The 2019 graduation ceremony will take place on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, at 2:00 p.m. This year, graduates will walk the stage at Lincoln Center.