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People, Passion and a Career: Social Work

Written by Stacia Allen

Stacia Allen photoA common question I hear on Calvin College’s campus is, “You’re a social work major? Oh... what do they do?”  Not too many students know what the over 100 social work majors and minors in any given year at Calvin actually accomplish after graduation. The social work profession itself is relatively new, formally beginning in the United States in the late 1800s with the advent of the Charity Organization Societies and the Settlement Houses. Further, the social work profession is complex, meeting the needs of a variety of client levels (individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities) and practice settings (mental health, aging, domestic violence, child welfare, and substance abuse to name a few).  Thus, it remains an obscure profession in the minds of many college students with whom I have interacted. 

Among the many sources I have utilized in learning more about social work, Calvin’s website explains the vision of the profession very well. Social work is a profession that “struggles with social concerns as varied as child abuse, drug addiction, housing and homelessness, aging, and mental illness” among other things. Social workers are required to work both with a client in one of these scenarios as well as the client’s surrounding environment in order to empower him or her to make the necessary changes in his or her life (Popple, 2011). It is important that social workers do not act as judges or experts. Rather, a social worker takes the role of a collaborator and leaves the solutions up to the client. The work of the profession is challenging as clients face many barriers in their environments and settings. Nevertheless, social work students at Calvin College work diligently to identify individual strengths and resources in the environment which can help clients reach their goals.

Why would anyone choose such a profession? As Lissa Schwander, a social work professor at Calvin for 13 years, explained in reference to her students, “they are self-selected.” Many students, such as myself, know before coming to Calvin that they want to be social workers; others learn about social work at Calvin and decide to switch majors. For example, David Brussee, a freshman at Calvin, became interested in social work because his best friend was a part of the foster care system, and David desired to help others like his best friend. Laura Diemer, a sophomore at Calvin, said she “always enjoyed the feeling of helping people and being useful” and saw social work as a way to pursue the passion she developed thanks to mission trips during high school. Elizabeth Loerop, also a sophomore at Calvin, is an example of an individual who explored the social work major as a nursing major during the second year of her college career. She enjoys working with people and after a positive experience volunteering with Bethany Christian Services Refugee Program she found social work better suited her strengths. These individuals they have a purpose, and that purpose is to seek the good of others, not themselves. While individuals of any major can share that common purpose, social work students find this an especially driving goal. 
Another unanswered question still lingers: what makes the social work community special at Calvin? At a Christian college, it is not remarkable that many social work students claim a Christian faith. However, it may be surprising that many social work students feel their faith is a big reason for choosing social work as a major. As Elizabeth explained it, the goal of social work is similar to the goal of a Christian: to be like Jesus in serving those around you. David echoed a similar idea when he said, “as Christians we are called to help all the people of all the nations.” This connection of social work and religion is common.  “Historically, one of the major reasons for choosing social work as a career has been personal religious belief” (Popple, 2011, p. 178). One of the things that makes Calvin’s social work program unique from other social work programs is the integration of faith in learning. In addition to taking two required religion courses at Calvin, social work majors often talk about social work from a faith perspective. Our Christian faith allows us to see the inherent dignity of worth in all people as image-bearers of God. We are all, social workers and clients alike, saved by grace and are called to show Christ’s love to one another. As Professor Schwander said, social work students are “willing to encounter a broken world,” and much of that willingness stems from a Christian faith. 
The Calvin College social work program is a great community. It is relatively small, yet comprised of compassionate people, many of whom are driven by their faith. The community can be found both studying on Calvin’s campus, and altruistically volunteering and interning off campus in both the United States and in other countries. The 100 individuals currently in the social work program today, as well as the four full time professors and four part-time professors in the department, create a distinctly Christian, passion-driven community that seek to gain knowledge not for themselves but for a career that empowers others.  It is a community of people who are willing to embrace the challenges of social work in a way that desires to please God. It is a department full of people who dedicate their professional careers to the service of others, and I am proud to call myself a member of this small yet purposeful community.