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September/October 2013 Issue

Global Partnerships in Social Work Education
By Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 5 P. 22

Educators and students participating in international programs can add experience and depth in the classroom that benefit all students, not only those who study abroad.

Anyone paying attention to the global economy knows that China has emerged as an economic superpower in the past two decades. What may not be as apparent is that this prosperity has been accompanied by rapid social change, and China’s social services infrastructure has been increasingly challenged in addressing issues such as poverty, income inequality, and health care disparities.

In response to these growing social issues, the Chinese government has recognized the value of the social work profession and has encouraged the training of millions of new social workers. It is within this context that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) launched the China Collaborative in 2012. The collaborative has recruited American social work schools to partner with Chinese universities to build social work educational capacity in China.

The collaborative is a sign of a growing trend by American social work educators to establish global partnerships and a growing recognition of global interactions as beneficial to all social work students—even those students who never leave the United States.

“The world has changed so dramatically in the past generation, and social work students know it,” says Darla Spence Coffey, PhD, MSW, president and CEO of the CSWE. “When educators participate in these partnerships, they are able to bring more richness to the conversation of the contemporary practice of social work.”

Creating Connections in China
The China Collaborative is a project of the CSWE’s Katherine A. Kendall Institute, the China Association of Social Work Education, and the International Association of Schools of Social Work. Seven American universities are participating in the collaborative: Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Fordham University, the University of Alabama, the University of Chicago, the University of Houston, and the University of Southern California. Each school has agreed to participate in the collaborative for five years.

Representatives of the seven American universities traveled to China in December 2012 to meet with partner universities. After the entire group spent time discussing faculty development and information sharing, the partners dispersed throughout the country and spent several days visiting universities and initiating discussions about how they could collaborate and share. This fall, Chinese educators will travel to the United States to visit their American partners and attend the CSWE’s annual program meeting in Dallas.

“We wanted to make sure that this was reciprocal and not just the U.S. helping out because we have so much to learn from the Chinese partners,” Coffey says.

The University of Alabama School of Social Work decided to participate in the China Collaborative because the school has had a long-standing relationship with a university in Hong Kong and saw the collaborative as an opportunity to build on those efforts, explains Lucinda Lee Roff, PhD, professor emerita and the school’s interim dean.

The University of Alabama is partnering with Yunnan University in southwest China. The two universities hope to partner on activities such as organizing study trips of students between the United States and China, hosting visiting scholars, and collaborating on research.

“We can learn from them, and they can learn from us,” Roff says. “Social work is strengthened when we learn from our partners around the world. I think we can improve things by pooling our knowledge.”

The China Collaborative is only one of several initiatives designed to build social work capacity in China. About 1 1/2 years ago, the Institute for Families at the Rutgers University School of Social Work in New Jersey was approached by the school’s Huamin Research Center about developing training programs for social workers in China. The institute, which works to build the capacity of human services professionals through training and technical assistance, jumped at the chance to provide its services to social workers in another country, says Andy Germak, MBA, MSW, LSW, the institute’s executive director.

The institute has sent staff to China to train officials from Chinese foundations and nongovernmental organizations, and 30 managers and leaders from China visited New Jersey in May 2013 to participate in classroom learning activities on issues such as social enterprise, management skills, and fund-raising. The Chinese delegation also visited human services officials in government and nonprofit organizations.

“I think that we can learn a lot from our partners in addition to us teaching them. The learning goes both ways,” Germak says. “When we had the Chinese over here, it was surprising to American groups that there was not a vastly organized and funded social services infrastructure but that the Chinese could find other ways to get work done through grassroots efforts and community organizations.”

While partnerships with Chinese institutions provide valuable opportunities for American social work schools, they are not without challenges. Chief among these challenges, Germak says, is the translation of educational activities to the Chinese context. For instance, the Institute for Families training materials include a case example that examines a family and how various family members, including siblings, relate to one another. However, trainers soon realized that Chinese social workers may not relate to the example because of the country’s one-child policy.

“The case study was not connected to their experience,” Germak says. “We can’t simply take a syllabus and think it will work in a context that is so different than ours.”

Travel for Some, Learning for All
Although the sheer size of the need for social workers in China has focused attention on that country, it is not the only country where social work educators are collaborating with their counterparts in the United States. For example, the University of Alabama also has educational exchange and research efforts with Mexico, Lithuania, Hungary, and Brazil.

Rutgers established the Center for International Social Work in 2006 to promote global citizenship and professional action among social work students, educators, and professionals. Among the center’s accomplishments during the past year are developing a case management tool kit for six countries of the former Soviet Bloc, hosting a professor from Liberia, and presenting at a UNICEF conference in India. The center also facilitated study-abroad opportunities to Israel, Romania, and China.

Some schools are trying to make it easier for students to participate in global interactions. A few years ago, faculty at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work in New York decided to alter the structure of field placements to give students the opportunity to do their placements abroad. So far, students have chosen to do international field placements in several countries, including Thailand, South Korea, and Tanzania.

“This is an opportunity for our most exceptional students,” says Laura Lewis, PhD, LCSW, ACSW, director of field education at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. “They know that this is what they want to do and are willing to overcome the barriers. They tend to be a different breed of students—very passionate [and] not easily deterred.”

Relevance at Home
But what about students who never study abroad or who have no intention of working abroad? How do the international travels of their classmates and teachers relate to them? Observers speaking to Social Work Today agreed that educators and students participating in international partnerships and programs can add richness and depth to the classroom experience, benefiting all students.

Educators and students with international experience can attest to the increasing interconnectedness between social issues, says Rebecca T. Davis, PhD, LCSW, director of the Rutgers Center for International Social Work. They can speak firsthand about how problems such as poverty, hunger, and inequality are no longer country-specific challenges. “With globalization, we share human problems. We have issues of human trafficking, disability, and domestic violence. These problems cross borders,” she says. “We can work together to learn about these issues and address them together.”

International partnerships also expose students to how other countries address social problems in ways that are different—and sometimes superior—than ways in the United States. By comparing American social welfare policies to policies abroad, social work students can get a clearer understanding of how the American social welfare infrastructure can be improved and strengthened, Roff says. “We need to think about these things, and be aware and realize that we can get tunnel vision if we don’t see how people do things well but differently,” she says.

In addition, global collaboration helps students recognize how the practice of social work differs from country to country, Lewis says. For example, social workers in some countries have taken up the cause of environmentalism much more than social workers in the United States.

Tim Whelan, MSW, an adjunct social work instructor at Temple University’s Harrisburg, PA, campus, saw the benefits of global education endeavors when he recently joined a group of American social workers on a study trip to Cuba. During the eight-day trip, the group interacted with Cuban social workers and learned about the country’s approach to issues such as health care, sex education, gender issues, and community organizing. He also saw some of the social consequences of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. For example, Cuban social workers struggle to properly serve blind residents because Braille paper and parts to repair Braille machines are produced primarily in the United States.

For Whelan, who also is vice president of community impact at the United Way of the Capital Region in Enola, PA, the trip reinforced his belief that social work education in the United States should place greater emphasis on the profession’s roots in community organizing. “Social workers in Cuba are about helping people engage systems and access social services. It’s not about therapy,” Whelan says. “For me as an educator, the trip reemphasized the value of macro social work and the value of social work’s roots in making communities better.”

Expanding the Definition of International Social Work
At the same time that global partnerships are becoming more common in social work education, students’ attitudes toward international social work are changing. No longer is international social work considered a niche discipline reserved only for those students who want to study or work abroad, Lewis says. Instead, it is a continuum of activities, including doing field placements abroad, providing services to immigrant populations in the United States, and mentoring international students. “And, in my mind, that continuum is always expanding and will expand in ways we haven’t even thought of yet,” Lewis says. “I’m working to expand that continuum to cater to all students’ needs for global perspectives.”

Helping students acquire a global perspective is a good place to start for educators who want to promote appreciation of international social work, Davis says. She teaches an international social work class at Rutgers that attracts students who run the gamut from those who have lived and studied abroad to students who have barely left New Jersey in the course of their lifetimes. For this latter group of students, even helping them use the Internet to connect to international information and resources is an eye-opening experience.

“I really teach the class so they can leave the class and just have a different view of the world,” Davis says. “I teach them how to use the computer and the Internet to learn anything about another country. It opens their world. They get a chance to expand their network professionally. I see that as those relationships build, it creates pride in the profession.”

— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and a contributing editor at Social Work Today.


International Education Looks North
Global social work education initiatives often involve American educators and students partnering with their counterparts in far-flung locales thousands of miles away. However, a program at the University at Buffalo in New York is a reminder that opportunities for international cooperation are closer than you may think.

The university’s Canadian studies academic program was established in 2007 to promote understanding of the cross-border relationship between the United States and Canada. The program offers a 15-credit certificate program available to students in various disciplines across the university, including social work. A master’s degree program in Canadian-American studies, offered jointly with Brock University in Ontario, Canada, is expected to begin this fall.

The Canadian studies program is designed to counteract the lack of knowledge many American students and professionals have about their neighbor to the north. Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner and can offer important insight into approaches to social issues such as education and health care, says Munroe Eagles, PhD, director of the Canadian studies academic program.

“People tend not to think of Canada as foreign, and they assume it is not very interesting. It’s a challenge that anyone teaching about Canada in the U.S. faces to underscore the incredible interdependence between the two,” Eagles says. “But the Canadian studies program is a real opportunity for not only the social work students but the whole university. It’s really instructive to learn about the United States to see how another country organizes itself differently.”

Social work students at the University at Buffalo have expressed interest in the Canadian studies program, but catering to these students’ needs has not come without challenges, according to Eagles. For example, a social work student wanted to do her field placement with a Canadian social services agency but could not get a visa because of the increased border restrictions put in place after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Despite these setbacks, Eagles says he will continue to try to provide opportunities to social work students. “There’s a benefit to everyone to have these types of programs in place,” he says. “You have to learn about other countries to learn about your own.”

— CR