Social work attracts idealists: people with an acute awareness of human suffering and injustice, and people with a strong commitment to reduce that suffering and injustice. Some issues that engage us endure over time, others change. Early social workers fought to outlaw child labor and to provide universal social security. Their successors struggle to prevent child abuse and community violence, to aid homeless or mentally ill individuals, to reduce poverty and social inequities, or improve the quality of life of older adults.

The central commitment to helping those in need and working to bring about effective social change—locally, nationally, and globally—remains constant. To people who have this kind of commitment, graduate training in social work offers two things: First is the opportunity to explore, in the disciplined and intellectually rich environment of the University, the dimensions of social need and response. Second is the opportunity to acquire, through class and fieldwork experiences, the skills for effective action.

SSA's Master of Arts program, a two-year program, has been continuously accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and its predecessor organizations since 1919. We prepare master's students for advanced professional practice. And for over 100 years, SSA has provided advanced training for those interested in pursuing academic careers in social work and social welfare in the doctoral degree program.

SSA’s diverse array of course offerings features quality instruction and substantive exploration of clinical practice, community development and organizing, program management and policy issues. Classes are intended to challenge and engage students in the dynamic interplay of theory, research, and practice. Students gain an understanding that whatever the focus of their practice, from the clinical micro-level to the policy macro-level, their activities are guided by an appreciation of service in society and informed by a rigorous evidence and conceptual base. The concept of alleviating need has also been broadened to include prevention as well as treatment.

A Global View

As social problems become ever more globally interconnected, SSA has adopted a strategic commitment to and begun the deliberate implementation of a robust international social welfare program agenda. Our program presently includes a significant focus on international social welfare by integrating cross-national and comparative content into our curriculum, developing study-abroad and internship placement opportunities for students, organizing lectures by international scholars visiting Chicago, and promoting scholarly and student exchanges in partnership with peer institutions abroad. With support provided by the University’s Provost’s Office, SSA has undertaken a permanent expansion of its faculty ranks, with a strategic focus placed on bringing in faculty with explicit expertise in global and international social welfare. Our first of several faculty hires in this emerging domain joined us in July 2012; since then, SSA has hired additional faculty members, taking SSA’s expertise on global questions to an unprecedented level, and allowing the School to forge a defining role in the globalization of social welfare concerns and problems. We now have a full cadre in place that takes up social welfare policy and practice across Asia, Central/Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and Africa, which also complements work in Europe. SSA faculty also serve on the Steering Committee of the University’s Center in Delhi, the University’s Beijing Governance Committee, and the international advisory board of the Indian Journal of Social Work. We are completing our third year of a concentration in international social work, which builds out field experiences in India, China, Hong Kong, and through the University’s Human Rights program. In addition, we are beginning to develop a global social policy and practice certificate for a more substantive cluster of courses and fieldwork.

One outgrowth of our growing visibility on the global stage is a new acceleration of our international student enrollment, which reached an all-time high this year.

We run an annual, intensive, one-month study-abroad program on urban poverty and community practice for our master’s students in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, India, the oldest established school of social work in that country. This program combines classroom instruction, field experience (pairing SSA with TISS students in a small set of community placements), seminar discussion, and informal engagement with students and faculty from both schools. The program includes a reciprocal exchange in Chicago, in which TISS students engage in a parallel program to the one in India, strengthening comparative learning across institutions and countries and building meaningful peer relationships. This work has also begun to generate research collaboration among faculty at both institutions.

In China, SSA has established a relationship with colleagues at Peking University (PKU), the home to mainland China’s oldest and most well-established social work program. We have hosted PKU faculty at Chicago on two separate occasions and have visited PKU to share insights and orientations to social work curriculum and field education as well as to explore common research interests. We are also partnering with PKU as part of the China Collaborative, an effort jointly sponsored by the Council of Social Work Education in the United States, China Association of Social Work Educators in China, and the International Association of Schools of Social Work to foster the advancement of social work education and the professionalization of social work in China during a time of rapid development. In addition to co-organizing with PKU two workshops in Beijing, SSA hosted, in fall 2014, a delegation of faculty from some of China’s leading social work programs, introducing them to a weeklong immersion in SSA’s robust educational fieldwork-classroom integration.

We established, in 2013, an intensive Institute in China in partnership with Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) which focuses on responses to social exclusion in Hong Kong, mainland China, and the United States. The annual program allows students from SSA and PolyU to learn from and gain perspectives from each other. The intensive institutes have included local site visits in Hong Kong and Mainland China, where students have from examined local social welfare issues facing migrants, asylum seekers, and tenant farmers, including housing shortages, health inequality, and economic development policies. As with the TISS program, this exchange program is designed to maximize interaction and learning between students from Hong Kong, China, the U.S., and elsewhere, through a range of formal curricular, field-oriented, and informal interactions, and to leverage the comparative perspective such an exchange might provide to think critically about social work practice and social welfare.

SSA, with our counterparts at Peking University, co-sponsored and hosted a scholarly seminar and strategic planning workshop in June 2012 with support from the University of Chicago’s recently established Beijing Center. The seminar explored international perspectives on social policy and urban problems. It brought together scholars from China, the United States, India, and South Korea to also explore knowledge about, policy responses to, and enduring questions focused on urbanization and globalization across particular substantive themes—education, health, children and youth, and poverty and development—as they are playing out across these four national contexts. Following the seminar, a strategic planning workshop was held to discuss the possibilities for both dyadic and multilateral exchanges and institutional relationships among participating institutions. The seminar and workshop were grounded in our developing relationship with PKU and were expanded to include key relationships and potential partnerships with two other peer social work schools in other parts of Asia, TISS in India and Seoul National University in South Korea. A follow-up workshop was held in 2014, and another in June 2015 in Mumbai, India.  

Further galvanizing our efforts is the Collaborative Exchange Program, launched in 2016, which establishes an endowed joint social work educational exchange program in partnership with PKU and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Working together, the three universities seek to promote the development of graduate social work education and research in China; facilitate international collaborative graduate education and research among the participating universities; and improve the quality of social work education in China, promoting a rigorously professionalized, effective, and ethical social work workforce and service system.  Initially, the Collaborative Exchange Program will establish a Visiting Fellows Exchange program that will provide a platform for distinguished scholars to hold lectures and seminars, and to carry out intensive study to engage in meaningful cross-national and cross-university exchanges.  The program also will host An International Study Exchange Program for master’s and Ph.D. students that develop professional and academic leaders who further professionalize the social work field within China, and establish enduring institutional cross-national partnerships.

In addition to these developing relationships, the presence of the University of Chicago’s Beijing Center and the recent opening of the University’s Center in Delhi open exciting opportunities to provide continued support for ongoing cross-national exchanges, seminars, and conferences, including hosting students and scholars from China, India, the United States, and other countries for varying periods of time.