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A Conversation with Boston College GSSW Dean, Alberto Godenzi

Alberto Godenzi (Photo via Suzanne Camarata)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Apr. 24, 2014

What do you see as GSSW’s mission, both as an institution in its own right and as a part of Boston College?

Whatever schools of social work do always has to have meaning for the lives of real people and communities, especially those at the margins. The unique identity and value proposition of the GSSW flows from BC’s Jesuit, Catholic mission. The tenets of Catholic social teaching and the Jesuit Social Apostolate widely correspond with the ethics code of the social work profession. All three frameworks emphasize principles such as solidarity, justice education, and empowerment.

What are the primary ways the school fulfills that mission?

We challenge our students to imagine a more just world and provide them with the tools to effect positive change. Our students thrive in the midst of opportunities for transformative change. Our faculty’s research is measured by its impact in the real world. Will their studies and writings promote policies and practices that benefit the marginalized? We believe that our work will be more effective if we keep our ears to the ground through experiential learning and immersion experiences.

Talk about some of the more immediate goals and objectives of GSSW.

A top 10 school faces fierce competition. Peer institutions ahead of and even behind us have more resources available than we do. Our distinctive assets are people, ideas and initiatives. Some folks think that rankings do not matter. The opposite is true. A top ranking attracts the best students, faculty and staff. It is an open question if we will be able to sustain our current rank of no. 10. Four factors would help in our steady pursuit of excellence: a name for the school, an undergraduate program, endowed professorships, and a home on campus that matches our standing to that of our peers and to our contribution to BC’s mission.

Long-term, what do you see as priorities and projects for GSSW?

Long-term, the school has the potential to cement its reputation as the most innovative and most exciting social work program in the nation. We are more like Apple than Microsoft. While market share is crucial for revenues, our uniqueness is based on excellence, innovation, and BC’s identity. We strive for the same kind of brand distinction that the Kennedy School or the Wharton School enjoy in their respective fields of governance and business. In response to [Jesuit Superior General] Adolfo Nicolás’ call, GSSW has developed a highly rewarding network of partnerships with Jesuit institutions worldwide. This is a foundation and asset that no other school of social work will be able to replicate.

What do you see as the most significant changes in the social work field over the past few decades?

Social work has always dealt with intractable problems, i.e. challenges that have no easy solutions and may in fact never be entirely resolved. Think of poverty, hunger or inequality. In order to address such complex issues, you have to have a long-term perspective. Real change may take decades, if not centuries. But people often expect immediate results and have zero tolerance for failure. Social work has therefore moved towards a more evidence-based approach. Our actions are increasingly guided by scientific evidence rather than good intentions. The shift towards a stronger link between research, policy, and practice may well be the most significant change in our field.

GSSW has become increasingly active in areas such as global practice, immigration, and aging. Why are these issues important to the school and the social work field?

Globalization, human migration, and longevity are key challenges of the 21st century. Our faculty, therefore, choose to focus on these areas, in addition to more traditional fields such as child welfare, health, or mental health. Our students have a leg up in the job market because they acquired the skills to work effectively with immigrants, refugees, and the elderly. They learn about the effects of globalization on almost every facet of their practice, whether or not they ever leave the Boston neighborhoods.

What are facts about GSSW that might surprise people?

GSSW is a laboratory that never stands still. Imagination, innovation, and impact are our drivers. We established a network of global internships before any other school of social work. We teach required and elective social work courses in Spanish to respond to the demographic changes in the US. Our amazing students provide 275,000 service hours per year to hundreds of social service agencies. Our social work faculty includes scholars from neuroscience, public health, sociology, psychology, pastoral counseling, and public policy. And we are blessed by an unrivaled combination of distinguished teachers, researchers, and former CEOs of large social service agencies.

Read our next "Conversation" with Connell School of Nursing Dean Susan Gennaro