A Bridge to China

SSA shares ideas with Chinese university colleagues about curriculum, field education.

By Julie Jung

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


It is an unseasonably chilly November day, and eight faculty from universities in Mainland China, along with SSA Lecturer Stanley McCracken and Director of Field Education Nancy Chertok, are visiting the Chinese American Service League (CASL) in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. As they disembark their bus, the group settles into the warmth of the cheery foyer and are soon joined by SSA field instructor and CASL’s Manager of Elderly Services Department Yick Lun Mo, who will introduce them to this expansive social service agency.

China Skyline


To help address the needs of more than 1 billion citizens, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to educate and professionally train almost 1.45 million new social workers in the next five years. Chinese universities have turned to the international social work community for guidance and inspiration and have helped create the China Collaborative, which has partnered with SSA and six other U.S. social work schools. With visits between faculty from universities in Mainland China and SSA, an increase in Chinese students at the School and more, SSA is working to share its model of social work education and research.


Mo guides the tour down a colorful hallway decorated with paper cutouts, craft projects and beautiful scrolls of Chinese calligraphy. At the first stop, a visit with seniors participating in the Adult Day Service program, Mo tells the group about CASL, a 36-year-old institution that provides services such as pre-school, a chef training program, immigration and ESL classes to more than 17,000 people of all ages annually.

“Our visit to CASL was very informative and impressive,” says Yuegen Xiong, professor and director of the Centre for Social Policy Research in the Department of Sociology at Peking University, who is leading the Chinese social work educator delegation visiting CASL. “We learned a lot from social work colleagues there. I was very surprised by the ideas and approaches that the CASL’s social workers used to build their social work practice models with Chinese culture in American society.”

Xiong and his colleagues—representing Peking, Nankai, Shandong, and Shanxi Medical universities, China Youth University for Political Sciences, Minzu University of China, and the University of Science and Technology Beijing—came to Chicago for a week to learn more about the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration's field education model and how SSA faculty integrate theory and practice with classwork and field work. They met with clinical and administration faculty and with field education staff, visited field agencies like CASL with SSA student placements, and talked with the growing number of Chinese students studying at SSA.

All this is in service of a big goal: collecting ideas to advance the establishment of social work education in China. As the country continues to grow and urbanize, the Chinese government has ambitious plans to train a professionalized social work workforce while developing social welfare services on a massive scale. With its established history and programs, SSA is one of a handful of social work schools that is actively providing insight and consultation to guide these developments in China.

“We listened to our Chinese counterparts and shared with them our experiences and the pedagogies of our schools,” says Stanley McCracken, who participated in many of the week’s meetings and site visits. “SSA has made itself available to help, but we’re not here to proselytize. China is a different country, with different needs. We adhere to the ‘person in environment’ guideline of meeting clients where they are, and this is the same approach we need to take in sharing ideas about social work education. What works in one place may not work at all in another. China needs to find its way and it will.”

“We are trying to figure out a strategy for social work education,” says Fengzhi Ma, professor and director of the Social Work Division in the Department of Sociology at Peking University, who participated in the visiting delegation, “not only for our own universities, but for all of China, integrating Western ideas with our culture.”

To help address the needs of more than 1 billion citizens, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to educate and professionally train almost 1.45 million new social workers in the next five years. Xinhua, the official government news agency of the PRC, reported that there would be 500,000 trained social workers in Mainland China by the end of 2015, up from about 200,000 in 2012.

To compare, the United States, with a population of 331 million, currently has 650,000 people with either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate social work degree, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and about 23,000 master’s students graduated from one of the 228 schools of social work in the U.S. in 2013, according to the U.S. Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Social work first arrived in China in the 1920s, informed by Westerners involved in its growth as a profession in the United States and Europe and by Chinese academics trained and educated in the West. But in the early 1950s, the Communist Party decided that social work was “no longer needed,” and it was not taught in universities for thirty-some years. In 1988, the Chinese government formally recognized social work as a discipline, but only a small number of academic programs were developed in the 1990s.

Over the last decade, though, the Chinese government determined that social workers will be able to help with both challenges that are inherent to the human condition and those that are emerging due to China’s rapid development. To achieve this ambitious goal, the Chinese Ministry of Education formally approved Master of Social Work programs in 2009 with the first students graduating in 2012. Today there are almost 300 bachelor’s and more than 70 master’s programs throughout the People’s Republic of China that offer social work education and training, according to the CSWE.

“By realizing social work is a scientific, practice-based and helpful profession toward solving individual, community and societal problems, the Chinese government made a huge plan to rebuild the profession in order to echo the fundamental objectives of building a harmonious society,” explains Xiong. “They initially used a roughly calculated ratio between social workers and the general population, using a very broad definition of social work and set a goal to educate 3 million but have since revised their goal to 1.45 million social workers with a master’s degree and professional certificates.”

University leaders in Mainland China recognize that rebuilding the profession means they must address issues that are limiting the education of current students: There are few professionally trained social workers to teach them while in school, few agencies at which to gain experience, and too few trained professionals to mentor them. Professors who teach social work in Chinese universities are usually sociologists and psychologists—and the few who have a social work education usually attended a school in Hong Kong or the West.

One of the biggest challenges in developing Chinese social work education lies in field-based education (internships). “Here at SSA, students learn clinical and administration and policy skills in the field and in the classroom side by side,” explains Robert Chaskin, an associate professor at SSA and the deputy dean for strategic initiatives. “Theory and practice and the experience of the field placements are all tightly integrated into our curriculum, but in China, fieldwork is not yet integrated into classroom instruction.”

Not only do very few professors in China have experience in fieldwork as part of their own education, but there are a relatively small number of agencies at which to train. Prior to the economic liberalization that has been occurring over the last several decades in China, social services were a state function.

Now, non-governmental agencies and social work education—including field education—are developing at the same time.

To build the social work education system, Chinese universities have turned to the international social work community for ideas, looking at models across the world, as near as Hong Kong and as far away as the United States and Europe, including former Eastern Block countries such as Poland, which are also facing the challenge of reintroducing social work. “Chinese political culture and policy approaches tend to more or less focus on the interests of the collective more than that of individuals, which explains why macro practice (e.g. social policy and planning) has been better developed than clinical practice,” Xiong says. “The use of personal networking in solving individual problems is prevalent in Chinese communities, where formal rules sometimes fail [to provide a solution].”

The China Collaborative, a project of CSWE, the China Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), is helping to develop social work education in Mainland China. Partnered with Peking University in Beijing and a set of schools in the north (see “An Education in Hong Kong”), SSA joined the China Collaborative in 2010, one of seven participating U.S. social work schools.

Group of migrant workers in China


Migrant workers wait for a bus as they arrive at the West Railway Station with their luggage in Beijing, China.



“The most valuable information that SSA can share with Chinese universities is how you integrate theory, cutting-edge scientific research and practice in response to individual, group and community problems. The ‘SSA Model,’ with its built-in macro-micro link is a superbly excellent example of social work education that Chinese social work educators can learn to enrich their own experience of teaching, research and practice,” Xiong says.

There is no intent, though, of simply duplicating U.S. practices. For one, every country’s issues are unique. Pressing concerns in China include the internal “refugee” movement of poor, rural Chinese workers moving to the cities and the growing population of adults over 60, which is projected to double over the next few decades, exacerbated by the country’s “4-2-1” problem (one working-age person for every two parents and four grandparents), caused in part by the country’s “one-child” policy.

There are also notable differences in social work and social welfare programs. Non-government organizations in Mainland China are quasi-state run operations that have state approval. Some receive funding from international funders outside of China; others are run as businesses that sell social services. These NGOs often have a narrow and specific community focus, rather than addressing a specific issue or large-scale national concern.

For social work education, Mainland Chinese master’s programs require students to write a thesis in order to graduate, something that most U.S. schools do not require (SSA does not). Chinese universities strongly believe that students should start a master’s program directly after earning a bachelor’s degree instead of gaining a few years of work experience. Chinese faculty were also surprised to hear that SSA, as well as most other schools of social work in the U.S., admits students from a range of disciplines broad enough to include theater and finance. 

The relationship between SSA and Chinese academics started many years before the School joined the China Collaborative. Chaskin formed a working relationship with Xiong several years ago when he first visited China, and before SSA joined the collaborative, he returned with Professor Colleen Grogan to visit Xiong and Peking University, where they gave a talk to social policy students at the School of Social Work, Sociology and Social Policy and began to outline areas of future collaboration.

In 2012, Chaskin and Grogan brought SSA’s Chinese colleagues together at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing with other international partners through a symposium with faculty from Peking University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, and Seoul National University in South Korea. Chaskin, Dean Neil Guterman and SSA professors Mark Courtney, Colleen Grogan and Charles Payne presented their work. Sessions at the International Perspectives on Social Policy and Urban Programs symposium examined the impact of urbanization, globalization and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across four different policy domains: urban poverty and development, health policy, child welfare, and education.

“[Our Chinese colleagues] were very interested in learning about the public/private balance in the U.S. health system. I believe they were most surprised to learn the degree of reliance on public-funding, which is much more than one would presume given the repeated framing of the U.S. health care system as ‘predominantly private,’” says Grogan, an expert on health policy and politics, including Medicaid and Medicare.

Later that year, Chaskin represented SSA at the official opening conference in Beijing for the China Collaborative, organized by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Civic Affairs, Professor Lizhong Xie, the chair of the Department of Sociology at Peking University, and Professor Sibin Wang, Department of Sociology, Peking University and president of the CASWE. Faculty from the seven U.S. social work schools shared their expertise in master’s level social work education with faculty from around China and explored strategies to advance university collaborations in the coming five years.

SSA then organized a conference and workshop in Beijing with colleagues at Peking University and the China Association of Social Work Education in January of 2014. This focused solely on professional master’s-level curriculum design. Chaskin and McCracken traveled to Beijing (Tina Rzepnicki, SSA’s David and Mary Winton Green Professor, participated virtually) to present the SSA curriculum and ideas about social work classroom teaching to social work faculty from throughout China. McCracken says they fielded questions about topics such as the mechanics of state licensing of mental health professionals and how the state makes decisions about structure and rules. Chinese professors also expressed a great interest in developing research projects and curriculum about topics including the relationships between non-profits/NGOs and government agencies and child welfare and protection.

While SSA and Chinese faculty have been traveling back and forth between the two countries, SSA has been brainstorming about options for sharing information. “One of the many things we’re trying to figure out is how to offer our colleagues a type of continuing education so that faculty and social workers in China can have access to mentors and other professionals in the U.S.,” Chaskin says. “This way, they can ask questions and bounce ideas off of them when developing curricula and field programs.” Adds Nancy Chertok, SSA’s Director of Field Education, “paraprofessionals (called task supervisors) who are on the front line in working with individuals and communities may be able to provide a potential and partial solution to the lack of field instructors. One idea is to provide ongoing training and supervision for task supervisors—as we do with field instructors at SSA—and they, in turn can mentor students.”

As SSA’s relationship with colleagues in Mainland China grows, the number of SSA students from the country is rising, too. Currently, 17 students from Mainland China are in the master’s program, up from just a few two years ago. Yudong Zhang, a second-year student on the social administration track who attended Renmin University of China in Beijing for her undergraduate degree in sociology, is particularly interested in reproductive health. “SSA places good emphasis on methodology. This is important to me as I wish to pursue a doctorate degree,” she says. “At SSA, I learned how to be a professional social worker.” (Read more about Yudong.)

“Because of the lead relationships we have developed and our growing visibility in China, SSA has quickly become a ‘go-to’ destination for Chinese students seeking a rigorous professional social work education,” Guterman says. “As has been our experience across several other nations, many will return to help build the social welfare system in their home country. A little more than a century after SSA helped to give birth to the profession of social work in the U.S., we are excited to now be playing an important role in fostering the birth of modern social work in China.”