Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

To prepare students to learn throughout their lives and in settings far beyond classrooms, we must change what and how we teach to match what people need to know, how they learn, and where and when they learn, as well as change our perception of who needs to learn. Service learning can benefit the education of students in several ways. Values such as diversity, self-determination, accountability, and collaboration can be taught using service-learning methods, which further students’ learning and social work knowledge (King, 2003; Williams & Reeves, 2004). Service learning also promotes professional development. For example, Williams, King, and Kobb (2002) established that participation in the practice increased students’ ratings of their professional self-efficacy. Kropf and Tracey (2002) found that service learning provided both students and social work educators an additional way to monitor professional readiness for student internships.

Geriatric Social Work Initiative

The aging population of age 65 and older is projected to increase by 49% by 2050. According to the Bureau of Labor there is a shortage of baccalaureate-level social workers (BSW) trained in gerontological competencies to provide effective psychosocial care to the growing and increasingly diverse population of older adults and their families (Bureau of Labor, 2015). A report published by the Institute of Medicine in 2008 indicated there are not enough healthcare providers to meet the needs of the growing population of older adults. Social work was singled out as one of the health professions that need to expand the geriatric workforce through training. To address the impending crisis of a growing older adult population being compounded by a shortage of geriatric social workers, the Hartford Foundation began funding the Geriatric Social Work Initiative in 1999.

The aim of the Geriatric Social Work Initiative was to increase the competence of social workers to improve the care and well-being of older adults and their families. The initiative employed innovative strategies aimed at educating social workers in aging issues, recruiting more social work students to specialize in geriatrics, and supporting academic social workers who conduct research and teach. The initiative fostered a growing national network of social work faculty, students, academic administrators, and practitioners committed to gerontological social work and the quality of life of older adults and their families. A component of the initiative was to provide curriculum development grant funding to bachelors and masters social work programs to embed gerontological competencies into the foundation curriculum and the overall organizational structure of social work programs.

Curriculum Development Grant Implementation

Faculty within the Bachelors of Social Work (BSW) program at Johnson C. Smith University were awarded a curriculum development grant through the Geriatric Social Work Initiative to:

  1. Infuse a multigenerational approach in an undergraduate Human Behavior in the Social Environment (HBSE) yearlong course. HSBE course content covers theories of biological, sociological, cultural, psychological, and spiritual development across the lifespan. Part one of the course covers infancy through adolescence and is taught during the fall semester. Part two of the course covers young adulthood through older adulthood and is taught during the spring semester.
  2. Implement service learning as a pedagogy to address a need within the older adult community.

The course was designed to:

  1. Infuse gerontological competencies into the HBSE curriculum. In 1998 the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and Geriatric Social Work Education (GSWE) developed gerontolgical competencies to give students practical opportunities to develop and apply their knowledge, skills, and sensitivity regarding older adults (Rodriguez, Volland, Wright, & Hooyman, 2009).
  2. Demonstrate how a yearlong, oral history, service-learning project can give the elderly a chance to tell their life stories in ways that affirm who they are.

The following research questions guided the project:

  1. In what ways have students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behavior regarding the elderly been influenced as a result of their oral history service-learning experience?
  2. What lessons did students’ learn about older adults and diverse populations through participating in an oral history service-learning project?


Eighteen students were enrolled in the HBSE course over the yearlong project. A unit dedicated to the principles of service learning and how to conduct an oral history project was taught at the beginning of the semester. Faculty coordinated the oral history service-learning project with the volunteer coordinator at a local residential senior center where older adults from diverse backgrounds resided. The volunteer coordinator paired students with an older adult who offered them a real-life context for learning gerontological competencies, including the following: theories and knowledge of biological, sociological, cultural, psychological, and spiritual development across the lifespan; how to advocate for social change and justice; and the ways systems promote or deter social and economic injustices within an underrepresented population. Students and their oral history mentor met twice a month for the school year.

The oral history project’s component assignments were designed to incorporate key HSBE theoretical content. These assignments included a reflective journal, a genogram, an ecomap, and a poster presentation. In their reflective journal students were required to keep notes of their visits and to indicate significant time periods in their oral history partner’s life. Students were encouraged to discuss with their mentors experiences across their lifespans, experiences with poverty, discrimination, and/or oppression. They were encouraged to listen carefully for how these experiences affected their mentor. Using a strengths perspective, they were to ask questions about how their mentor survived and perhaps even thrived through such experiences, including any internal and external resources that sustained them in these times.

At the end of the yearlong project, focus groups were conducted with students assessing what they learned about aging and older adults through their oral history project. The aforementioned research questions guided the focus groups.

Data Analysis

The following themes emerged from the focus groups’ consideration of the lessons they learned about older adults and diverse populations:

I. Changing Stages of Life
Peace of mind is most important; without that money means nothing.
Family is so important.

II. The Wonder Years
Put God first.
Don’t stop until you are done.
Take advantage of things in life.
Older adults are just like young adults, but with some age on them.

III. A Vision of Wisdom
Listen, stay humble, and be grateful to those who have paved the path for you.
Learn to respect those who are older and have more wisdom and experience.
Without sense, people have no social skills or respect.

IV. Ship of Life’s Lessons
Stay in school and do your best because you are a very smart young lady.
Drugs and alcohol: If you take them, watch who you do them with, but to make things easier, just drink a cola.
Relationships with men: Treat them with the best you have; if they don’t act right then cut them loose.
Treat others how you want to be treated in life.
Pick positive paths in life.

V. Understanding How to Live While Aging
Value the time you have with loved ones.
Learn all you can from family what will help you when you are preparing for your own family.
Live a healthy life.
Work hard and never give up.

VI. Aging Beautifully
Always have a backup plan.
Stick close to the aging because through them comes wisdom.
Love yourself and love others because you will never know when you will see them again.

VII. Life with Love and Knowledge
Honesty: Staying connected is the key.
Never give up.
You can learn a lot from your children.

VIII. A Psychological Perspective on Mentoring
Words of wisdom: live by them.
Positive attitude: always have one.

IX. The Life of a Survivor
Believe half of what you hear and most of what you see.
Always be patient and kind.
Never say never.
Don’t give up even when the odds are against you.

X. A True Pioneer
Put God first.
Have integrity.
Love family.
Don’t limit yourself.
Have self-respect.
Value the wisdom of the elderly.

XI. With Age Comes Wisdom
Family love and support.
Saying the word love doesn’t mean nothing; actions are better.

XII. Love Is Kind
Love is always kind.

XIII. Living Your Life Like It’s Golden
Loving and supporting family.
Setting goals.
College education and pursuing a career.
Childbirth to a new generation.

XII. Words from the Wise
Value education.
Family first.


Focus group reflections from the students who participated in this project indicated that the experience was memorable. Students discussed how they bonded with their mentor and how they desired to maintain contact with their mentor. Four students who participated in the project completed an internship working with the elderly. Three of the four students provided case management to their clients and one student worked in an agency providing advocacy and policy development. A “Lesson Learned From My Elders” DVD was composed by the students reflecting on their oral history service-learning experiences. The DVD is used as a gerontological recruiting tool with social work majors.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (2015). Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved from

Institute of Medicine (2008). Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce. Retrieved from

King, M.E. (2003). Social work education and service learning. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 8(2), 37-48.

Kropf, N.P., & Tracey, M. (2002). Service learning as a transition into foundation field. Advances in Social Work, 3(1), 60-71. Retrieved from

Rodriquez, J.A., Volland, P., Wright, M.E., Hooyman, N.R. (2009). Competency-based education: Implications of the Hartford Geriatric Social Work approach. In N.R. Hooyman (Ed). Transforming Social Work Education (pp. 21-50). Alexandria, VA: CSWE Press.

Williams, N. R., King, M., & Kobb, J. (2002). Social work students go to camp: The effects of service learning on perceived self-efficacy. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 22(3/4), 55-70.

Williams, N.R. & Reeves, P.M. (2004). MSW students go to burn camp: Exploring social work values through service learning. Social Work Education, 23 (4), 383-398.

Zastrow, C. and Kirs-Ashman, K.K. (2007). Understanding human behavior and the social environment. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community