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USC sets out to build social work program in China

School teams with Beijing Normal University to enhance its Master of Social Work program

Kristen Zaleksi's class in China
Kirsten Zaleski taught social work practice in China last summer. (Photo/Courtesy of Kirsten Zaleski)

Suh Chen Hsiao wasn’t sure what to expect from students when she taught a class at Beijing Normal University (BNU). She thought they might act like “traditional” Chinese students who listen intently to lectures without much interaction with their instructors. After some coaxing, these Master of Social Work students quickly proved her wrong.

They asked questions, talked to Hsiao about their lives and careers, and even engaged in role-play to learn skills such as motivational interviewing and reflective listening.

One student — the only male in the class — put these newly learned skills to work at his hospital field placement and excitedly recounted to the class how he had a breakthrough with a client.

“A lot of the students said they have difficulty engaging the parents of the kids they work with, and this student successfully engaged a parent in talking about her child’s illness,” said Hsiao, clinical associate professor and assistant director of field education at the USC School of Social Work. “In China, people want therapists to tell them what to do. It’s not so much about getting clients to say what they want to do. I approached this issue by asking students how what I was teaching could fit into their culture and could be applied to their lives. We were problem-solving together.”

To help Chinese social workers develop skills that will enable them to better serve their clients, faculty from the USC School of Social Work are working with the School of Social Development and Public Policy at BNU to enhance its MSW program using the innovative curriculum at the School of Social Work as a model. USC is a founder of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, which works to foster cooperation in education and contribute to the economic and scientific advancement of the Pacific Rim.

“This is perhaps one of the deepest and most complete collaborations we as a school have ever undertaken with a Chinese university,” said Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work. “It involves true cultural exchange and integrated building of faculty capacity at the same time we prepare a unique curriculum — one with culturally relevant MSW courses that draw upon Western expertise integrated with Chinese experience and scholarship.”

Working it out

The multiyear project, led by School of Social Work Executive Vice Dean R. Paul Maiden and Research Assistant Professor Hsinyi (Cindy) Hsiao, as well as Suh Chen Hsiao, includes faculty visits to and from BNU, with USC faculty teaching intensive foundation and advanced department courses in China. Hsinyi Hsiao has been instrumental in creating faculty training programs for both BNU and USC professors that include lessons on cultural differences between the East and West.

A cultural orientation for our faculty helps them better understand and partner with their Chinese counterparts for cultural adaptation of the curriculum.

Hsinyi Hsiao

“A cultural orientation for our faculty helps them better understand and partner with their Chinese counterparts for cultural adaptation of the curriculum,” Hsinyi Hsiao said.

The main difference between how social work is practiced in China and how it’s practiced in the United States is that China emphasizes the collective, while the U.S. caters to the individual.

“China is in the social development phase of its social work life. They’re not thinking about face-to-face engagement as much yet,” said USC Clinical Assistant Professor Kristen Zaleski, who traveled to China last summer to teach social work practice. “They’re learning to advocate in ways that don’t invade the government realm. The way we do social work in the U.S. is not how China is going to do social work. We’re providing the scaffolding for them to design what this is going to be for them.”

Hsinyi Hsiao, along with several other USC faculty, including Zaleski, Martha Lyon-Levine, Annalisa Enrile, Juan Araque, Erik Schott, Shannon Mayeda, Renee Smith-Maddox, Seth Kurzban, Ann Katz and Murali Nair, have been spearheading the development of both coursework and field education. The latter has proved especially challenging.

Suh Chen Hsiao, who is leading the development of the field education component, said agency preceptors (the staff members who work directly with student interns) aren’t usually MSWs so they don’t quite know how to maximize student potential, which then makes it hard to evaluate their work. Chinese agencies also tend to focus on how many people have been treated and not on skills learned by interns.

“As a profession, social work is still emerging. The field is fragmented, and MSW programs are not necessarily designed by social workers. Many people think you can just ‘do’ social work. They don’t understand that professional social work is a defined set of theories, concepts and skills applied in a community setting,” Maiden said. “Our goal is to bring professional social work practice and the heart and soul of social work to China.”

Looking ahead

The USC-BNU project doesn’t stop at curriculum development. The intent is to turn this into a true partnership with the establishment of a 1+1 program, in which Chinese students begin their MSW studies at BNU and finish at USC, earning degrees from both institutions. There are also plans for an online version of the program, as well as a research collaboration on aging, which would ultimately become part of the MSW program at BNU.

To further expand the School of Social Work’s presence in China, the school, under the leadership of Maiden, Hsinyi Hsiao and Suh Chen Hsiao, has recently partnered with the Guangdong University of Technology in Guangzhou on a three-year project to develop several topic-specific curricula and field education units, including courses on drug and alcohol abuse, social work and business, and disaster management and response.

“We expect to be a leading part of the expansion of social services in China,” Flynn said.

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