Department of Social Work: Focusing on the Social Determinants of Health for 50 Years

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Though things have changed since Mason’s Department of Social Work began 50 years ago, one constant is its focus on the many aspects that impact health and well-being: housing, work, physical health, mental health, finances, and social support. 

social work students

As Mason’s Department of Social Work celebrates its 50-year anniversary, several faculty members reflect on how the department and field have changed—and how they have stayed the same. The College of Health and Human Services is proud that social work was one of the founding programs at Mason and to celebrate social work's golden anniversary along with the University's golden 50th anniversary.

“The profession of social work has the same strengths, advantages, and appeal that it has always had. It continues to attract people who are really passionate about helping others and there are many routes to doing that. It is one of its great strengths,” said Sunny Harris Rome, professor of Social Work, who has been with the department since 1994.  

The term “social determinants of health” started to come to popularity in the early 2000s as the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. These are the key elements that social workers (and Mason faculty) have always been addressing. 

With the College of Health and Human Services transitioning to a College of Public Health soon, having Social Work as part of the College provides a unique interprofessional lens for students, faculty, and the community. Though not many schools of public health include social work, Emily Ihara, chair of the Department of Social Work, believes they go together well.  

“Social work and public health have a lot of similarities as far as the social justice aspect of the professions. Social workers have always been working on the social determinants of health—the things that really affect people’s health, so we fit perfectly into public health. We’ve been fighting inequity at all levels, not just in health, since the beginning of our profession. We’re looking forward to the partnership to advance health equity,” said Ihara. 
social work students

Mason has always integrated the micro (working with people one-on-one) and the macro (working on policy and with organizations that help people) aspects of social work. Faculty approach social work topics from an integrated viewpoint to understand the client’s whole picture—from their environment to their living situation, their family and available support, their social circle, their job, their economic situation, and more—and then find ways to support clients so they can be successful. This is public health. 

What started as a Bachelor of Social Work program 50 years ago is now a thriving department that ranks #79 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of social work programs. 

The department began in 1971 with 20 students and three professors. Since then, social work practice has become licensed in every state; it is now a recognized and well-respected profession. As society has realized the benefit social workers bring across fields and populations, social workers have been welcomed into more spaces, including hospitals, libraries, Capitol Hill, and more. And Mason prepares students for it all.  

Though still true to its core of improving the lives of marginalized individuals and groups, there has been plenty of change over the past 50 years of Mason Social Work. 

As the World Changes, Social Workers Adapt 

As the world has changed, the social work profession has adjusted with it to continue to meet the needs of the underserved. Mason has kept up with the changes to keep our students and graduates ready for what the world needs. 

“At Mason, we’ve grown our curriculum to meet the new societal challenges. We have to adapt to what is happening and incorporate different make the education we're providing students relevant to their careers in multiple ways,” said Ihara. “They may not always realize it or appreciate it in the moment but, hopefully in the long run, students remember learning something in a class that they can apply to their job that really can help contribute to the solution.” 

Social work students

Compared to when she was a student, Harris Rome observes that students today have many more obligations to focus on, in addition to their education. She applauds all the students balancing jobs, families, and other interests. She believes this has made students more focused and goal-oriented. 

Though Harris Rome always noticed an age variation in her students—from those straight out of undergrad to those starting a second career, she believes the student body is much more diverse in more ways now.  

“There's a lot more diversity now in terms of backgrounds, social-economic status, and race/ethnicity. This diversity enriches the experience for everybody,” she says. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is students’ interest in clinical practice and working directly with clients. 

“It has been more a clinically-oriented profession. When I was in school in the late 70s, a quarter of the students were involved with macro practice and now it is less than 10%,” said Michael Wolf-Branigin, a professor who teaches on the macro side of social work that specializes in social work policy and working with organizations.  

“We graduated students who can practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro level. Our faculty fought very hard to make sure that students have the whole range of social work practice,” said Miriam Raskin, retired professor of social work who started as the third faculty member in 1973. Hear more of Miram’s reflections in our Social Work Stories series. 

Growing the Department 

Mason 50 logo

The numbers have certainly increased in five decades—the department graduates more students and has more faculty; those faculty produce more research, which gives Mason and the Department more external recognition, and that in turn helps students gain internships and jobs.  

The increase of the student body attracted more faculty with a wide array of research interests. This expanded elective offerings, giving students more choice and access to a variety of specialties and opportunities. By being exposed to so many faculty, students expand their understanding of social work and are willing to take more chances to try fields or populations they may not have originally been drawn to. 

The number of programs has increased too. In 2002, the Department added a Master of Social Work (MSW) program and in 2019 it added a fully online MSW option. The department hopes to expand to include a doctorate program in the future. 

With the growth and recognition of the field, accreditation standards also expanded, which required the department to teach more. Though the topics have expanded over the years, Wolf-Branigin says a lot of the pedagogy is similar.  

“The current term is a flipped classroom, and I think social work has always taken that approach. Our classrooms have always been much more activities-based and that has remained the same,” said Wolf-Branigin, who started teaching at Mason 20 years ago. “There are foundational skills that students are supposed to learn that can really be generalized across different populations, and social work education as a whole has done a good job to remain true to that approach. You can move from one population and another but those same skills apply, such as engaging clients, assessing them, and determining if was what you did was effective with that family or organization.” 

Learn more about the Department of Social Work here and register for the Fifty and Flourishing: 50 Years of Social Work event here.