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University of Iowa News Release

May 26, 2006

UI Professor Leads China's Social Work Pioneers

Ed Saunders spent the fall semester teaching and motivating some of today's social work pioneers. And yes, there are pioneers in a profession that is more than 100 years old, especially if you're a social work student living in mainland China.

Saunders, associate professor and director of the School of Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa, recently returned from China where he taught social work practice skills to Wuhan University's first graduate-level students. His wife, Jeanne, also a social work faculty member at Iowa, joined him for part of his stay.

"We were the first American professors of social work to teach a full semester in mainland China," said Saunders. "Social work education is still very new. Most of our students were assigned to the major, and few knew what it was."

When Saunders described the type of work that social workers do -- home visits to talk with clients about an aging relative, financial problems or a disability -- they explained that it sounded like what they call "volunteering," since friends and family typically fill these roles in the Chinese culture.

Until the late-1980s, the government did not recognize the social work discipline and the need for professionals, even though homelessness, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS and mental illness -- common issues treated by social workers -- existed. During the 1990s, mainland China's first social workers began working in Shanghai.

Wuhan University, located in a city of 7.5 million people in east-central China, has 50,000 students living and studying on a campus where traditional Asian-style buildings with green, curved rooftops are situated among modern steel and glass structures. Saunders and his wife lived in the foreign expert guesthouse of the university with other visiting professors.

Together they taught four social work courses to 88 students, including an advanced practice skill class to graduate students. While there, the Department of Sociology/Social Work left the College of Law to become an independent program.

Since the social work major was first introduced at the university in 2001, students have trained with sociology faculty members who concentrate more on theory, making it difficult for students to learn practice skills. Recently, faculty members have begun training with social work faculty from Hong Kong, where social work education has existed since the 1970s.

In addition to bureaucratic hurdles, Saunders faced other challenges such as unheated classrooms, language barriers and the task of cheerleading the profession to students who don't have many job prospects since private practice and nongovernmental social work organizations do not yet exist.

"As much as our students were interested in knowing what social workers do, they were equally interested in what jobs they would find after graduation," said Saunders. "Few jobs exist outside of Beijing or Shanghai, but the prospects are improving."

The Chinese government is beginning to acknowledge that social work is an effective way to resolve the problems created by the surge in Chinese economy, Saunders explained. Adults in Chinese society traditionally are responsible for caring for their parents and extended families. As adults leave the rural areas and their children and aged parents to find work in larger cities, the family unit breaks down leaving a need for services and support. In addition, social services increasingly are needed to help millions of adults flooding into cities to find work.

Saunders believes the economic upturn also is creating a society of "have and have-nots," which has prompted a need for assistance.

Neighborhood social service centers are cropping up in cities like Wuhan, where 883 centers are planned. The center staff members will provide help to anyone who can benefit from their services, for example, those who have physical and mental health problems, or need employment training.

Once they are built, some of these centers may provide jobs for social work graduates. In the interim, many are planning to pursue work in civil service jobs to try to effect change for the field while working for social justice and common good.

"When the students asked what brought us here, we told them we wanted to meet the future leaders of the social work profession in China," said Saunders. "They already embrace the values of social work, and they are learning to identify and address their country's social problems. China is fortunate to have their help."

Saunders is writing and speaking about his experiences in China. He will return in 2007 for an International Social Welfare Conference in Shanghai to discuss social work in China and other developing countries.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Lesly Huffman, 319-384-0077, or Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011,

High resolution images:

Saunders_students.jpg - Saunders and his wife with Wuhan University's sophomore sociology/social work students.

Saunders_clinic.jpg - Saunders and his wife toured neighborhood social service centers in Wuhan and discussed common issues with staff members.

Saunders_deping.jpg - Saunders presented Xiang Deping, chair of the social work program at Wuhan University, with a book about Iowa.