EMU's social work program makes a difference for 40 years

by Pamela Young, Published July 13, 2010

Faculty and staff in EMU's School of Social Work pose

40 YEARS AND COUNTING: Faculty and staff in EMU's School of Social Work pose during a recent reception in the school's honor that took place at University House. Eastern Michigan has the largest undergraduate social work program in the state, with approximately 470 students.

As Eastern Michigan University's School of Social Work celebrated its 40th anniversary recently, the program's mission remains intact, a steadfast "commitment to the oppressed and underserved for social justice."

Marjorie Ziefert, professor of social work at Eastern, said she is proud of that mission, which was developed when the program began in 1969. The program's 40-year achievements were recently recognized with a reception at University House.

"Many social work programs have lost sight of social work's historical mission while we have stayed true, by staying focused on preparing students to work with poor and underserved populations," said Ziefert, who joined EMU in 1980. "We train our students in public and community-based, nonprofit agencies where these populations are served."

Eastern Michigan has the state's largest undergraduate social work program in the state, with approximately 470 students. The master's program has 200 students enrolled, with classes scheduled in the evening and on Saturdays at EMU Livonia. The graduate program is designed for students with professional or volunteer experience.

"Social work is one of the up-and-coming fields," Ziefert said. "People always need social workers."

In its Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010-2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the need for social workers is expected to increase 16 percent between 2008-2018, faster than the average for all occupations. For example, the growing elderly population will create a strong demand for social workers specializing in gerontology. The need for child, family and school social workers also is expected to increase.

"I chose social work because my dream was to work with children," said Eric McClure, 32, of Saginaw, who recently graduated with a master's degree in social work.

While at Eastern, McClure worked with patients at the Eisenhower Center, a rehabilitation facility for people with traumatic brain injuries. He also completed an internship at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where he worked with cancer patients. McClure's internship experience — and his own bout with esophageal cancer — convinced him to work with cancer patients after graduation.

Today's social work professionals find themselves addressing problems such as violence, mental illness, drug abuse, racism, poverty and ageism, said Ann Rosegrant Alvarez, director of EMU's School of Social Work.
Many people claim that today's society faces new problems compared to those in the past, Alvarez said. But experts disagree, saying the issues are similar, although the severity of a problem may differ.

"Given the current economy, there is an especially strong need for social workers and human services," Alvarez said.

Don Loppnow, a professor of social work and former provost at EMU, agrees with Alvarez. He cites domestic violence as one example.

"Twenty years ago, the media wouldn't have covered domestic violence," Loppnow said. "Now, you see it in the news."

Other notable changes have occurred over the past 40 years, according to Loppnow.

"The field of social work has changed with societal changes," he said. "There are more third-party payers (for insurance coverage). Practitioners are more dependent on fundraising and fee-for-service. Even the public sector is charging a fee."

That's why EMU's faculty is committed to serving the oppressed and underserved populations, said Ziefert.

"We look for students that demonstrate a commitment," she said.

One innovative program where the school of social work is making a difference is the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Program, which is part of a nationwide initiative, said Ziefert.

Social work students and their faculty supervisors work closely with mentally or physically disabled prisoners who are released on parole. They help clients build or update employment skills, and secure employment and housing in an effort to successfully reintegrate them into the community. The goal is to reduce the number of persons returning to prison.

Social work faculty and students also are making an impact at Eastern's Autism Collaborative Center. They serve as part of an interdisciplinary team, along with nursing, occupational therapy, nutrition and other healthcare students, to provide supportive services to children and families experiencing autism.

A recent $1 million grant to Eastern Michigan, Wayne State University and the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency will help implement the most effective practices for mental health care, and provide educational and development opportunities for health care workers in nursing homes and other programs. Joan Abbey, a research scientist in the school of social work, coordinates EMU's efforts.

"Our students come out of our program well prepared to do the things that clients need," Ziefert said. "We teach them to partner with their clients and work with them to make the changes that are needed to improve the quality of their lives."

"What that means varies from client to client and day to day. Sometimes, it is advocating with a landlord to clean up an unsafe yard; sometimes sitting with a grieving mother, or sometimes working on a resume for a job search."

That good work ethic is why agencies are "crying" for Eastern graduates, Loppnow said.

"Our alumni are working in local community agencies. They often serve as supervisors of current students while others are agency directors," added Ziefert. The number of Eastern Michigan social work graduates over the years is roughly 3,000, or about 15 percent of the 20,000 licensed social workers in Michigan, according to Alvarez.

"We have had a huge impact on the social services network in the state," she said.

Pamela Young

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