November 06, 2018 | Hannah Ebeling

Three students walk away from the camera past a wide expanse of green space toward a campus building

“Social work looks where people are being oppressed or are vulnerable and seeks justice,” said Kristen Alford, social work professor. “It really is just equipping our students to be good citizens in God’s Kingdom.”

Integrating faith and learning

Calvin College recently received recognition for its outstanding social work program, ranked in the top 40 programs nationwide by The Best Schools, among others such as University of Georgia, University of Washington, and University of Texas at Austin.  According to The Best Schools, social work programs were selected based on the quality of program and range of courses provided, as well as school awards, rankings, and reputation.

“Our emphasis on faith integration makes us unique among other liberal arts programs,” said Alford. “In addition, compared to many larger colleges, we have much more opportunity for applied and experiential learning.” Classes within the social work program allow students to go out into the community and apply their knowledge to actual examples, she explained.

“I hope that the faith perspective we integrate into our teaching provides a space for students to attach their motivations to enter the social work field with God's call to justice and mercy as well as God's desire for human flourishing,” said Rachel Venema, social work program director. “I believe that the knowledge, values, and skills they learn in the program help prepare and sustain them in this important, but difficult work.”

Serving community and beyond

In addition, something that sets Calvin’s social work program apart is the network of alumni in Grand Rapids and beyond, said Alford. “We have links to nearly every local social service agency,” she explained. “Our alumni are very gracious in hosting our students in field education, as well as coming to speak to our classes and serving on our advisory board.”

“Because of the size of our program and the advising we do with them, we know our students well, and can match them with internships that fit their interests,” said Venema. “We're very accessible—during their time at Calvin and after graduation.”

The social work program also has strong ties to Calvin College Rehabilitation Clinics and the Handlon Prison Initiative, allowing students even more opportunity to serve the community.

Professors are involved in a number of projects ranging from sexual assault prevention to clean water access to racial reconciliation, all with opportunities for students to get involved. Among many other initiatives, individuals in Calvin’s social work program played a hand in developing the first BSW program in Liberia, which is now running independently, said Alford.

Equipping agents of renewal

Most social work programs are embedded within a specific department of a school, Calvin’s program intentionally belongs to the department of sociology and social work, explained Alford. “We believe this gives our students a unique ability to see people within the context of larger social structures and social systems,” she said.

Alford believes the mission of the social work program fits hand-in-hand with that of the college. “Our mission flows out of Calvin’s mission, particularly in the aspects of reformed Christianity,” she explained. “How we teach is very much true to Calvin’s institutional context.”

“In the social work program, we are heeding God’s call to protect the vulnerable and fight against oppression, working to live justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord,” said Alford. “We are following the call of Christian service through our values as social working professionals.”

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