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UNC faculty, students share expertise in China

Exchange knowledge on suicide prevention, social issues and culture

By Susan White

UNC’s School of Social Work maintained an active presence in China this spring and summer. Students and faculty returned to the world’s most populous country in May and June to learn more about the nation’s developing social work policy and practice, to address growing challenges in the workplace and to exchange ideas for global social progress.

In late May, 11 students – including two from UNC – traveled to Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou as part of the School’s fourth study abroad program to China. This year’s trip also included students from social work programs in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland and offered participants a chance to examine social problems, policies, and programs in China. Delegates also visited community groups, service providers, and governmental and non-governmental organizations, including a child welfare institute, community health center and a residential home for the elderly. Photo gallery

“Some of them knew only a little about the country before they went there,” said Shenyang Guo, a School professor who has helped lead each of the School’s “study China” programs. “So when they actually got there, saw the people, visited with the agencies and talked with the social work faculty, I think they developed more of an understanding about the culture and social work practice and what it means. They also learned more about globalization than what they would read in a book.”

East China University of Science and Technology has hosted the UNC delegation for the past four years. In between the various lectures and agency visits, participants toured numerous historic attractions, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

For Jean Livermore, a School clinical assistant professor and co-leader of this year’s program, the cultural immersion was educational. “Cultural competence goes far beyond knowing the details; it means grappling with an entirely different way of thinking,” she said. “Study abroad teaches us as much about ourselves as about the countries we visit.”

As the study abroad delegation returned to the states in early June, School Dean Jack M. Richman was just starting the first leg of his trip in Shenzhen, China. Richman and Guo were originally scheduled to deliver presentations on social work practice to a group of mental health social workers and university students. But the duo quickly altered their topics after receiving a last-minute request to address a problem that has been gaining much public attention in recent months: suicide.

Although suicide is the fifth leading cause of death in China, this year alone, 10 workers – all employed at the same Taiwanese-owned technology factory – have died from suicide; three others have been injured, according to media reports. Workers’ rights groups have attributed the tragedies to low pay and grueling work.

“This company mostly hires (migrant workers) from rural areas,” Richman said. “They work cheap. They have no medical, no housing, no benefits and no support group.”

Interest in understanding the risk factors for suicide and how to prevent it has grown with each death. Nearly 60 social workers and more than 300 freshmen from Shenzhen University attended presentations by Richman and Guo on crisis intervention and prevention.
“It’s been a big event in China,” Guo said, “and there are many, many implications. It just shows the many social problems that they’re facing.”

From Shenzhen, the duo headed to Hong Kong, where both had papers accepted as part of the Joint World Conference on Social Work and Social Development. The conference, which focuses on innovation and solutions to ever-changing social needs, attracted more than 2,000 professionals, academics, practitioners, social planners, policy makers and advocates from around the world.

“There are lots of researchers and lots of practitioners, and they’re all looking for ways to be more effective in what they do,” Richman said. “These are people hungry for new information.”

Richman presented a paper on intervention research, which grew from a book he co-authored with Mark Fraser, the John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need; Maeda Galinsky, a Kenan Distinguished Professor and Steven Day, a research assistant professor. The paper suggests that there is a greater need for universities and social work practitioners to work more closely together. Traditionally, the two have operated independently and relied on publications to bridge the gap between academic research and field practice.

“But we really can’t work separately,” Richman explained. “Practitioners have the clients, and we have the cutting-edge ideas and methodology and how to test it. So what we’re suggesting is a partnership from the very beginning, where knowledge can be generated between the work of an institution and an agency.”

Guo presented a paper on Making Choices China, a behavior education program designed to help young children improve their social skills. Fraser, Galinsky and Day originally developed the Making Choices curriculum; Guo helped adapt the program for use in China. A treatment manual was also recently translated into Chinese.

Schools, parents and others will soon get the chance to learn more about the program. Chinese officials recently agreed to publish the manual, which should be available to the public within a year, Guo said.