If there's an overarching theme of the International Social Work (ISW) conference, hosted by the Boston College Graduate School of the Social Work for the past two years, it's this: approach international social work responsibly.
At colleges and universities across the United States, a whole range of programs qualify as "international work," everything from undergraduate Alternative Spring Break trips to long-term graduate field placements in developing countries.
When GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi was appointed co-chair of a national task force on international collaborations, he proposed to organize a series of conferences with faculty and administrators from social work programs—and figure out "what works and what doesn't work" in terms of effective and sustainable international programs.
Representatives from more than 90 programs and 35 states attended each of the first two conferences. They discussed good practices to serve the educational needs of their students while making valuable, long-term contributions to struggling international communities.
"Our approach is driven by the needs of the communities abroad and by our capabilities as a program to meet those needs," says Godenzi. "We're not telling them, 'This is what you should do.' We're listening to them. Then we figure out if we can engage with them in a relationship that is sustainable."
Sustainability was the theme of the 2008 International Social Work conference. And although it sounds a little strange at first, says Godenzi, some of the most important conversations during the three-day conference weren't about how to run a sustainable international social work program, but to what extent is it even possible.
The answer is "yes," says Godenzi, but we can't rely solely on one or two dedicated faculty members to carry the weight of an entire international program. It requires a "serious investment of resources," in Godenzi's words, "both locally and abroad." A few programs decided to hire a full-time administrator whose task is to initiate and coordinate international initiatives.
At the GSSW, that person is Eileen Ihrig. Ms. Ihrig works closely with students to help them prepare for a career in international social work through advising and matching with international field placement opportunities. She also works closely with faculty to assist with the integration of international content into the foundation coursework as well as assist and support international courses, student and faculty exchanges and cross-national collaborative projects and research.
Find out more about past ISW conferences and the International Program at the GSSW.