A burgeoning relationship between U.S. and Chinese social workers is helping ensure that the world’s most populous nation can deal with its growing pains at the same time that it’s coming of age.
The problems vary widely – from helping victims of the recent Sichuan earthquake cope with trauma, to managing the impact that China’s one-child policy and a booming elderly population are having on the nation’s social fabric.
Such tasks aren’t made easier by the fact that social work as a discipline is still quite new in China and the number of trained professionals is relatively low.
To help address the issue, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work has formed a partnership with the School of Social and Public Administration at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. The two institutions recently formalized the relationship with a five-year joint “memorandum of understanding.”
The international partnership, a first for the UNC school, evolved from a series of collaborative efforts between Chinese governmental ministries and universities and comes as China’s marketplace economy continues to expand – as does the country’s need for some form of social services system.
“China is moving quickly to develop social work services, and they are developing practice and policy innovations from which we are learning,” said UNC School of Social Work Dean Jack M. Richman, Ph.D., who welcomed the joint venture. “This is a real win-win collaboration.”
Over the past several years, UNC faculty and Chinese professionals have worked together on research and training, while a study abroad program with East China University is now in its second year.
And in May, the relationship took on new meaning, when a devastating earthquake struck central China, killing tens of thousands of people.
The disaster coincided with the visit of a UNC delegation on a previously arranged visit to East China University. Arriving just days after the quake, officials there requested their UNC counterparts’ assistance on training for disaster relief and response.
Richman, along with faculty members Mimi Chapman, Rebecca Brigham, Shenyang Guo and Daniel Hudgins, quickly pulled together a lecture series. Social service agency personnel, potential earthquake volunteers and students attended the workshop. The presentation focused on the effects of traumas, especially on children, and the need for a social support process. But it also allowed UNC faculty the chance to further demonstrate the vital role that social workers play in communities, especially during times of crisis, Richman said.
During the visit, the UNC delegation – which included 30 students – also met with Chinese faculty members, students and others to discuss Chinese social policy, unemployment and migrant worker needs. From those conversations, UNC officials said they discovered they have just as much to learn from their Asian counterparts. “International collaboration forces us to look at old problems in new ways and allows us to see new possible solutions that were not evident previously,” Richman said.
For example, Shanghai is now developing a comprehensive plan to assist its growing elderly population. Of China’s 1.3 billion people, more than 10 percent are older than 60, a proportion that’s expected to rise more than 31 percent by the year 2050. The percentage of residents over 80 is growing even faster. The increase is largely attributable to China’s one-child policy, which was introduced in the late 1970s to help control the country’s booming population.
Shanghai’s aging plan, which didn’t exist last year, includes services that would enable most older residents to be cared for in the home, a “very progressive” move for a communist welfare system, said Hudgins, program coordinator for the school’s Center for Aging Research and Educational Services.
“I’m not aware of any state that’s done it, and the U.S. certainly hasn’t done anything like this,” he said.
Based on the rapid growth of social work programs at Chinese universities – nearly 200 exist today compared to just more than two dozen 20 years ago – there is an increasing broader interest in addressing the country’s social problems, including the health-care needs of migrant workers, Richman said.
“School faculty are excited about the opportunity to work more closely with the educational institutions in China, though cultivating a deeper relationship and trust will take time.”
Richman said the partnership with East China University opens up greater opportunities for Chinese university educators to receive training at UNC and for School of Social Work faculty to visit and train at some of China’s higher educational institutions. It should also offer further valuable possibilities for students as well. Officials are looking at developing an exchange program that would give UNC students field opportunities in China and give Chinese students the chance to pursue a masters or doctoral degree at UNC.
At least two Chinese students are starting classes this fall at the UNC school, one of whom is enrolling as a result of the international partnership.
Radio interview with Dean Jack Richman (mp3)
Radio interview with faculty member Dan Hudgins (mp3)