Distinguished Alumnus Takes Troubled Teens to Heart

Thomas Rourke

Against a backdrop of national civil unrest and daily news reports from the Vietnam War, a young Thomas Rourke stepped onto the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington in 1969, curious about the world around him.

General studies courses gave way to Liberal Arts classes, which led him to pursue an undergraduate degree in sociology. Volunteering off campus with trouble teens eventually led Rouke to pursue his master’s degree in social work from UT Arlington and led him down a career path he’s remained on for more than 30 years.

It’s no wonder then a passion for community and youth led to Rourke winning a 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award from the university this fall. He and seven other former students will be recognized at an Oct. 16 gala in the E.H. Hereford University Center.

“[During college] I got involved with a youth services agency that collaborated with the Arlington police department, working with kids in the community,” said Rouke from his Fort Worth home. “That got me interested in issues related to young people, and that led to me selecting sociology as my degree.”

After graduating, Rourke began working as a counselor at a youth treatment center in Fort Worth. When UT Arlington began offering a master’s degree in social work, Rouke went back to school part-time to focus on behavioral disorders in youth. Eventually, he would move from public service groups to the private sector. But he maintained a desire to improve the lives of Tarrant County youth.

“Services [for teens] have grown over the years … and the climate is different for treatment alternatives for behaviorally troubled youth,” he said. “When I got started, there wasn’t a lot available on the private side. We didn’t have a concept called ‘managed care.’ There were only public programs and kids referred [to treatment centers] through our courts and schools.”

Rourke said a “proliferation of private programs” and additional funding paved the way for better treatment options and more access to those in need. As vice president of development at Ascend Health Corporation, he is working to find cost-effective treatments for youth from all different walks of life.

“There’s limited dollars available whether it’s public or private,” he said, “so we create efficiencies and get the care and services to the ones truly in need.”

When Rourke began his education at UT Arlington, the school was changing mascots, moving from Rebels to Mavericks. He credits professors like Dr. Karen Holmes, a Sociology instructor and social worker, with helping him move past the rebellious attitudes of the late 1960s and early 1970s and focus on the road ahead.

“[Dr. Holmes] mentored me, steered me and kept me focused,” he said. “I always look back at her as someone who helped me through the undergraduate program.”

Rourke has endeavored to show that same support to newer generations of Mavericks with his volunteer work with the School of Social Work. He has served on the school’s advisory committee for a number of years and last year was named an Esteemed Alumni for Social Work. That honor led to this year’s Distinguished Alumni award.

“UTA is a very important resource for education and research,” Rourke said. “The success the university has had … [and] the impact students have had on the community is incredible. It keeps me motivated.”

[Story by James Dunning, jdunning@uta.edu]

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