National foundation honors Latter-day Saint woman as ‘pioneer’ of social work

Shirley Cox worked in social work for nearly 60 years, including 25 years teaching at BYU, and is a mother of four. The 83-year-old currently serves as a service missionary

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be honored with a prestigious “pioneer” award for her decades of service as a leader, researcher, teacher, mentor and advocate in the field of social work.

Shirley E. Cox will be recognized as a “newly elected pioneer” by the National Association of Social Workers Foundation at its 2023 annual program and luncheon in Washington D.C. on Oct. 14.

The 83-year-old has worked at the local, state, national and international levels of social work for nearly 60 years and “was a pioneer in preserving and expanding NASW through difficult times in the 1970s,” among other accomplishments, according to her biography in a news release.

Cox was surprised to be honored and downplayed the award, but she said she hopes it means that she made a difference in many lives.

“I’m still thinking they might have the wrong person,” she said with a smile. “Hopefully it means what I put together, which is still maintained and even grown, has made a contribution. ... It is one of those things where you think, ‘You just work, submit your projects, and do whatever you need to do.’”

Who is Shirley Cox?

Cox was born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in the area of Idaho Falls, Idaho, as the daughter of a dentist father and an elementary-school-teacher mother. She attended Brigham Young University, where she received degrees in English and Sociology in 1962. She also received graduate degrees from Howard University (1967) and the University of Utah (1986). She was a professor in the BYU School of Social Work from 1995 to 2015 before opting to retire.

Cox has received numerous awards over her long career, including Social Worker of the Year (1991) and Social Work Educator of the Year (1992).

She is the mother of four children and has been a member of NASW since 1965.

After retiring from BYU in 2015, Cox served missions in Brazil, Texas and California. She is currently serving a mission with the Church History Department at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. She started this mission in 2020 and plans to continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Shirley Cox sits on a couch.
Shirley E. Cox, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be honored in October 2023 by the National Association of Social Workers Foundation for decades of contributions to her field. | Trent Toone, Church News

English teacher to social worker in one day

How Cox got into social work is a unique story.

While receiving her college education, Cox wanted to be “the world’s greatest English teacher.” She had lined up her first high school English teaching job when she received a frantic phone call from the teacher she was replacing.

The woman explained through sobs that her husband was just seriously injured in an accident. She begged Cox to give up her teaching contract so the woman could have her job back.

Cox wasn’t sure she could do that. Her husband was preparing for law school and she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

“I don’t know why I didn’t just say no,” she said. “I had to figure this out.”

Cox was walking through the BYU Bookstore when she saw one of her professors. She explained her situation to him and he asked how soon she needed a job. “Right now would be nice,” she said.

The professor made one phone call, which led to a new job in social work with double the pay. The new employer told Cox she already had a good foundation of what she needed to know by taking classes from the professor and she could learn the rest on the job.

Needless to say, the other teacher was delighted to have her old job back.

“That’s the miracle of how I got into social work,” Cox said.

Blessings and miracles

Serving others over the course of her career and in more recent years as missionary has strengthened Cox’s faith and testimony of the gospel.

“I thought I had a good testimony before,” Cox said. “The miracles happen over and over again. Being my age and not being able to multitask, remember names or dates quickly, I should be a disaster. But I have help every single day. I know that He is with me. I know He has blessed my children.”

Related Stories
The power of partnering with Jesus Christ for mental health
Episode 137: Commissioner of Family Services on importance of mental and emotional health
Youth and missionaries of the Church and mental health
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed