Most people who know Tracy Soska like to joke that he’s never met a challenge or a request that he could say no to. Whether it was working late into the night wrapping presents for kids; planting trees in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood; or driving to Bradford, Pennsylvania, to help start a social work program on the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford’s campus, Soska seemed to find time for everything.
Until his retirement at the end of August 2019, Soska was a clinical associate professor and the continuing education director in Pitt’s School of Social Work as well as the chair of the Community, Organization, and Social Action concentration in the school’s Master of Social Work program.
Soska’s commitment to community activism dates back to his time as a teenager, when he marched against hunger and was an anti-war activist. After his work with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America; now AmeriCorps VISTA), Soska realized that he could make a career of his passion: helping people and communities to achieve their best. Because of this, he enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1974 and a master’s in social work in 1978. After working as a community organizer and human services manager, he returned to the school in 1988 as a lecturer and took over as Community, Organization, and Social Action (COSA) program chair in 2006. This was especially meaningful for Soska, who had been greatly influenced by COSA legends like Moe Coleman (MSW ’60) and Jim Cunningham.
However, moving into academia did not mean that Soska was disconnecting from the communities he had spent so much time supporting. “Every time there was a big event happening in the community, Tracy was there,” says Aliya Durham (MSW ’02), a faculty member at the School of Social Work. “He just knew everybody, and he was always looking for ways to strategically connect people, to connect students. And just as much as he was out there in the community, he also brought the community into the classroom, and he helped his students see just how wide open their career possibilities are.”
Soska continued to be a nonprofit and human services sector advocate in the Pittsburgh region and was a major driver for the professionalization of the sector.
“In my 29 years of learning from and working with Tracy as well as seeing his impact, he will always be known for three major aspects of influence in our sector,” says Dave Coplan (BASW ’91, MSW ’93), friend and executive director of the Human Services Center Corporation.
He taught us all to build a network and connect with others. He has been and continues to be a significant mentor to emerging and established leaders in the field. And there is no doubt that Tracy is the ultimate servant leader.
Dave Coplan (BASW ’91, MSW ’93)
Soska’s commitment to community engagement and servant leadership has not gone unnoticed. In 1999, he was recognized at Pitt for his strong community commitment with a Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award; in 2008, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named him Social Worker of the Year; in 2017, he accepted the ACOSA Career Achievement Award; and in 2018, he was awarded the Council on Social Work Education Service and Leadership in Social Work Education Award. In one of the most touching moments, he was honored with the 2017 University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics Coleman Award, named for one of his closest mentors, the late Moe Coleman.
Speaking for many of his supporters, former Community Human Services (CHS) chief executive officer Adrienne Walnoha (MSW ’99) had this to say about Soska when he was honored with the 2011 CHS Community Ally Award: “We could not think of a person who more genuinely embodies the spirit of civic engagement, community development, and relationship building than Tracy. In these challenging times ... it is people like him who inspire us to dig deep, stand our ground, and bring the best of ourselves to work each and every day.”
One need not look far to find examples of how Soska has inspired others. His former students are now leading organizations in areas such as community development, human services, immigration, and higher education.
“Tracy has been a friend and mentor since I first stepped into the Cathedral [of Learning] as a graduate student 18 years ago,” says School of Social Work Associate Dean for Student Success Keith Caldwell (MSW ’02). “His commitment to and impact on our school, our community, and our profession is something for each of us to aspire to.”
“Tracy was instrumental in my orientation to Pittsburgh as a new dean,” says Betsy Farmer. “He knows everyone and is so generous in sharing his network and time. We spent a lot of time driving around to give me a good sense of the who’s who of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Everywhere I go, I run into people whose lives have intersected with Tracy’s. He made everyone feel special and valued, in a way that made them want to play that same role in others’ lives. Tracy is the real deal!”
Soska will continue to remain involved with the school and is currently working on advancing library social work and interdisciplinary education between social work and library science at Pitt. He also is working with the Hillman Library archives on developing a community/ neighborhood archive that will include some of his papers, including those related to the Pitt Community Outreach Partnership Center and other University-community engagement materials. “There might be [the opportunity to write a] book in there someplace,” he says. Knowing Soska, he has many more stories to share.
In 2019, with a small group of Pitt Social Work alumni and friends taking the lead, more than 50 donors raised more than $21,000 to create the Tracy M. Soska Endowed Fund in honor of Soska. Now that the fund is public, others are invited to contribute to growing the fund. Go to giveto.pitt.edu, click on the Give Now button, select Choose Area to Support, check the Other box at the bottom of the pop-up window, and type Soska Fund into the text box to make an online contribution.
From left to right: Alicia Andrews (BASW ’01, MSW ’03), David Coplan (BASW ’91, MSW ’93), and Tracy Soska (BASW ’74, MSW ’78) as seen in the spring 2008 edition of Bridges