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Dean’s Award ’22 – HHS: Leon Burns turns his hard experiences into a powerful force to help others

Instead of succumbing to his significant challenges, HHS Dean's Award recipient Leon Burns overcame them and used the experience to launch his efforts to help others. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Leon Burns found a life of purpose and passion at Sacramento State following years of struggle with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration.

Those challenges fueled Burns’ desire to learn from his past, overcome adversity, and help others gain sobriety and independence.

Burns earned three associate degrees from American River College before transferring to Sac State in 2019. The degrees in Chemical Dependency Studies, Human Services, and Social Science provided a strong foundation for his coursework at Sac State and his role as a registered alcohol drug technician.

Leon Burns and Robert S. Nelsen
President Robert S. Nelsen presents the Health and Human Services Dean's Award medal to 2022 recipeint Leon Burns during ceremonies on April 1, 2022. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Burns, who is graduating with a bachelor’s in Social Work, is the recipient of 2022 Dean’s Award for the College of Health and Human Services. It is an honor given each year at Commencement to one student from each of Sac State’s seven academic colleges. 

“My interest in the field of social work stems from my own challenges with addiction and related issues,” said Burns, who has been sober for more than 14 years.

“While I was struggling with the misery of addiction, I encountered remarkable social workers who encouraged me to figure out who I am and who I wanted to be. I ultimately discovered that I needed to be in social work and be an agent of change.”

Burns experienced incarceration and homelessness following four years as an operations specialist in the U.S. Navy. He is keenly aware of the challenges that can prevent many from leading a stable and productive life.

“For this reason, I have worked with veterans and men in recovery as a registered drug and alcohol counselor at the D&A Detox and Treatment Center in Rancho Cordova, and Scotty’s House Men’s Detox and Treatment Center in Roseville,” Burns said.

At each facility, Burns conducts client intakes, assessments, screenings, and case management and facilitates recovery groups for alcoholism, drug addiction, and family reunification. 

Danita Sands, executive director of Pathways Recovery, receives feedback from men and their families who return to visit or call to update her on their progress.

“What I hear so often is how Leon specifically was, by far, the most influential counselor to them in their recovery process,” Sands said.

Burns is not only an excellent counselor, she said, but also has high integrity and leadership skills that include diverting and de-escalating potential issues, while using any challenge as a teaching opportunity.

Mary Maguire, interim dean of the College of Health and Human Services, echoes the sentiment.

“Leon is not only an outstanding student academically, he also uses his life experiences as inspiration for others in need,” Maguire said.

Burns’ dedication to serving others also shows through his internship with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in Sacramento, which helps formerly incarcerated juveniles transition to life outside institutions.

“While I was struggling with the misery of addiction, I encountered remarkable social workers who encouraged me to figure out who I am and who I wanted to be." - Leon Burns

At Sac State, he also is a member of Project Rebound, which provides legal assistance, school materials, and other support to formerly incarcerated students.

“I have leveraged my lived experiences and classroom learning at Sac State into a life serving the Sacramento region,” Burns said.

“What I found at Sacramento State was a blessing that filled my heart. A whole community of people who are dedicated and motivated to help others.”

Burns plans to pursue a master’s degree in Social Work at Sac State to continue developing skills and expertise to support people in need.

2022 Deans' Awards

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About Anita Fitzhugh

Anita Fitzhugh, at Sac State since 2015, is public information officer and writer. She has more than 20 years of experience as a broadcast journalist/producer and PR consultant. Anita often can be found enjoying the American River Parkway or on a new adventure with her family.

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