Eastern's social work program celebrates 40 years of making a difference

by Pamela Young, Published July 28, 2010

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."

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

Eastern Michigan has the largest undergraduate social work program in the state, with approximately 470 students. The master's program has 200 students enrolled, with classes held 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."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the need for social workers is expected to increase by 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.

Today's social work professionals often find themselves addressing problems such as violence, mental illness, drug abuse, racism, poverty and ageism, said Ann Rosegrant Alvarez, the school's director.

Many people claim that today's society faces new problems compared to those in the past, Alvarez said. But experts disagree, saying while the issues are similar, 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.

Other notable changes have occurred over the past 40 years, according to Don Loppnow, a professor of social work and former provost at Eastern.

"The field of social work has changed with societal changes," Loppnow 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.

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 nation-wide 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 overall 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 health care students, to provide supportive services to children and families experiencing autism.

"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."

The number of Eastern 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," Alvarez said.

Pamela Young

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