A new online program in the Boston College School of Social Work is designed to prepare students to work in the humanitarian aid and development sectors, helping to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Launched this month, the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Humanitarian Assistance program is located in BCSSW’s Center for Social Innovation as part of the Global Practice Program’s initiative on Migrations, Refugees, and Social Interventions. Besides BCSSW students, the certificate is open to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at BC in affiliated fields—such as nursing, education, and global public health—as well as to staff employed at international non-governmental organizations, or INGOs, who need basic introductions to core humanitarian assistance competencies.

The ICHA curriculum, developed in partnership with INGOs and building on BC’s academic strengths, consists of eight modules that give students a grounding in core, interdisciplinary competencies of global humanitarian assistance. Each module, program organizers note, reflects a pressing social, political, and health challenge: Migrants and Refugees in the Global Landscape; Basics of Refugee Determination; Community-Based Psychosocial Support; Introduction to International Child Protection; Climate Change, Displacement, and Human Rights; Gender-Based Violence; Public Health in Violence; and Education in Emergencies.

BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama

BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama (Chris Soldt)

“Humanitarian crises are increasingly an outcome of complex emergencies,” said BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama. “The Interdisciplinary Certificate in Humanitarian Assistance is a coherent and well-researched suite of modules that will increase the knowledge quotient of humanitarian assistance professionals and ensure they are responsive to such complex crises.  And these modules are also available to our undergraduate and graduate students at BC to prepare them to understand global humanitarian assistance.”

While the immediate impetus for the ICHA has been the COVID-related disruption in post-graduate education, and in particular the difficulty in sustaining international collaborations and partnerships, program organizers say there is—and has always been—a long-range vision for the initiative.

“The ICHA is a statement that the social work perspective is valuable for humanitarian work,” said Professor Thomas Crea, director of BCSSW’s Global Practice Program, who developed the ICHA with part-time faculty member Maryanne Loughry and Assistant Professor Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, S.J.

“Through social work, we assess the well-being of individuals in the context of their overall environment. We look at the immediacy of their needs, but also take a longer, wider view: What are the broader issues and problems that not only contribute to a person’s struggles, but also pose an obstacle in ensuring that person has the supports and services he or she needs?”

The ICHA is not focused on building skills, Crea said, so much as helping program participants become aware of the skills they need.

Portraits of the three faculty members who developed the program

Thomas Crea, Maryanne Loughry, and Alejandro Olayo-Mendez, S.J., are the architects of the BC School of Social Work Interdisciplinary Certificate in Humanitarian Assistance. “The ICHA is a statement that the social work perspective is valuable for humanitarian work,” says Crea.

“ICHA’s purpose is to provide foundational knowledge, whether for someone who is working at a refugee camp or as an administrator at an NGO in London—or for a student who is interested in humanitarian work. Those who go through the program learn about international standards for humanitarian assistance, best practices, common responses, and other aspects of the field. It provides a solid base that is useful in and of itself, while also creating a pipeline for potential future areas of academic and professional development.”

“These introductory modules are designed to prepare graduates for an understanding of the basic frameworks that inform practice as well as international standards, guidelines, and policies,” said Loughry.

Ironically, said Loughry, even as COVID caused numerous complications in education and training across disciplines, it pointed the way to an innovative approach for the ICHA.

“In the original planning for a program in humanitarian assistance, we had envisioned in-person training,” she explained, “but COVID helped us to see that online learning, done right, is possible and effective.”

BCSSW Assistant Director for Global Field Education Lyndsey McMahan said the online format offers other advantages.

“Course costs can be prohibitive for a lot of the world and we have been very intentional in trying to design a program where the content is relevant and timely, but also accessible to practitioners working in low- and middle-income countries. Most importantly though, we wanted to make sure the content was from a social work lens which differs a bit from traditional international development and humanitarianism—which I think will help build out the field of global social work, and also increase name recognition for BCSSW among NGOs and other organizations.”

Creating a program that could be useful to such an array of constituencies, including both undergraduate and graduate students, took careful planning, the co-organizers noted—“threading a needle,” as Crea put it. The ICHA, he said, is of a piece with other areas of interest among this generation of college students, such as global public health and climate change, that are now reflected in the BC undergraduate curriculum and service opportunities.

Added Loughry, “We recognize that at BC we have both undergraduate and graduate students engaged in immersion programs as well as internships, and we wanted to ensure that both groups can be equipped with an introductory understanding of some of the core topics on international humanitarian assistance.”

Fr. Olayo-Méndez noted that the earlier initiative from which the ICHA later emerged— in-person teaching complemented by a set of online modules—was funded by a grant and received design support from the University’s Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, and involved discussions across BC academic units. Those efforts coincided with another project to develop a humanitarian training institute, funded by the BCSSW, but that plan was scuttled by the pandemic.  

“This exemplifies the benefits of collaboration, whether within or outside the University,” he said. “An idea can begin, grow, and evolve, but there is always the need to keep fostering dialogue and bring together different skills and expertise.”

Crea said the program is an affirmation of the global vision of social work BCSSW has cultivated for years. “One of our great strengths as a school is our international partnerships, and the ICHA is an ideal way to leverage these in a way that can benefit professionals in the humanitarian aid and development fields, and those who may wish to follow that path.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | May 2022