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UNC School of Social Work doctoral student remembered as role model

	Teresa Ilinitch

	- Courtesy of UNC School of Social Work

Teresa Ilinitch

- Courtesy of UNC School of Social Work

She posted the picture on Facebook Feb. 1.

A proud grandmother spending time in the park with one of her beloved granddaughters.

When the 50-year-old doctoral student posted the photo, she was doing more than sharing a moment — she was highlighting one of the most important parts of her life.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she is in the doctoral program, and here she is totally proud and making time for her granddaughter,’” said Kim Strom-Gottfried, a professor in the School of Social Work.

Teresa Ilinitch, a clinical instructor in the UNC School of Social Work, died Feb. 3.

She passed away in her sleep unexpectedly, said Rebecca Brigham, a professor at the School of Social Work.

“The shock of such a beautiful, young, vibrant person in the peak of her career, who was just alive and so excited by the students she was working with, the shock of it has been terrible,” Brigham said.

Ilinitch was viewed as more than just a coworker in the eyes of her colleagues; she was a role model and an empathetic individual always willing to listen.

“She would often refer to herself as the mother of our cohort,” said Todd Jensen, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work. “There are three others of us in her cohort, and in a very real way she kind of played that role in terms of being a confidant, someone who is older and wiser who could give us reassurance and an authentic pat on the back.”

Ilinitch frequently shared inspirational quotes on Facebook: “Do one act of kindness each day of the year, and change 365 lives,” she posted this year.

The night before she died, Ilinitch posted an article about why she was a social worker, which Sherry Mergner, a professor in the School of Social Work, said represented the true essence of who she was.

Ilinitch was interested in a variety of issues within social work, including working with survivors of sexual abuse. She taught master’s level courses before deciding to begin her doctoral work. Jensen said her influence was far-reaching because she engaged with the faculty, master’s students and graduate students.

“Teresa was one of the most affirming people I have ever known,” Brigham said. “She made you feel like you were the most special person on earth. So if you were having a good day she would laugh with you, and if you were having a struggle she was there for you to listen.”

Many of Ilinitch’s colleagues attested to her invisible acts of kindness and her contagious energy that permeated through a magnificent smile.

“Her smile, her essence. You look at that smile, and you just know who she is,” said Mergner. “She treated everyone with such love and care, and I’ve never met a person who was more loving and bright.”

Despite Ilinitch’s many responsibilities as a doctoral student and dedicated family member, she put others at the forefront of her priorities and lived in the moment, Strom-Gottfried said.

“I think the biggest thing that I’ve been thinking about this week is her ability to be really in the moment with people,” Strom-Gottfried said. “She was as busy as anyone I know, but when she was with her granddaughters, she was crazy about time with them. When she was in a meeting, she was in that.”

Professor Marty Weems said Ilinitch would be missed by everyone in the School of Social Work.

“There aren’t many workplaces where people feel that sense of connection with somebody and that sense of loss.”

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