A master’s degree in international social work may be an excellent option for people looking to travel the world, learn about and from different cultures, and serve the most disadvantaged populations.
This article profiles master’s in international social work degree, concentration, and certificate programs and explains what can be expected when applying to and completing this type of program.
IN THIS GUIDE
- What is international social work?
- Options in international social work
- International curriculum
- Field experience
- Program preparation
- Graduation requirements
What is international social work?
Often when one considers international social work, an image springs to mind of living in an area far from home, working side by side with individuals and communities that look and sound different to solve some of the most complex problems facing poor and disadvantaged regions. This is certainly an accurate image. Yet international social work can also involve working in one’s own community with refugee and immigrant populations.
International social work also entails working in the headquarters of an international organization raising funds, conducting research, or creating and implementing policies that affect individuals around the world. The beauty of international social work is that it is multifaceted and, while challenging, can be an extremely rewarding career field.
For additional details on how to prepare for this exciting career, check out our career guide on how to become an international social worker.
MSW degree options in international social work
The master of social work (MSW) degree is a terminal degree for professional social work practice. The degree prepares graduates to tackle complex social problems at the micro, mezzo and macro level. Students interested in pursuing international social work can take individual courses in international topics, complete a concentration in international social work, or earn a certificate in global social work.
What is a global or international social work concentration?
Concentrations, also called specializations, are sometimes offered within graduate-level social work programs. Concentrations are similar to a major completed in undergraduate education.
Completing courses and electives within these concentrations provide focused education and experiences in that area of interest. International social work concentrations or specializations center around courses and field placement opportunities working with global populations such as refugees or with native populations in their home countries around the world.
The completion of a concentration within an MSW program is often marked on a diploma and may read something like “Master of Social Work Degree: Concentration in International Social Work.”
What is a global or international social work certificate?
Certificates are concentrated studies that provide useful skills and knowledge about a specific topic. Certificate programs consist of approximately 15 credit hours of coursework, and certificate programs can be completed separate from, in conjunction with, or as part of a degree program.
Additionally, while the focus is on clinical practice with refugees here in the United States, the Certificate in Refugee Services Clinical Practice from Boise State University may be of interest to students.
Even more schools offer interdisciplinary graduate-level certificates in global topics. These certificates combine courses from a variety of disciplines including social work, medicine, public health, law, and education to provide a holistic education in global population topics. Examples include:
- Global Human Rights Certificate from the University of Pennsylvania
- Global Health Certificate from Ohio University
- Certificate in Cultural Competency from Fresno State University
International social work curriculum
Accredited social work programs require MSW students complete foundational courses in human development, theory, social work practice methods, social policy, and research methods. Schools with a focus on international social work may weave international perspectives and examples into each of these foundational courses in addition to offering electives and advanced concentration level courses in international development. In addition, students must complete between 400 and 1,000 hours of field experience placement, of which at least some hours can be completed in an international setting.
Just as the issues facing individuals, families and communities around the world are diverse, so are the courses available in international social work. Here are a sample of classes you could take if studying international social work:
Social work with immigrants and refugees: This course focuses on international/national policies, theoretical premises, and practice skills for prospective social workers working with immigrants and refugees in the United States. Macro and micro perspectives on immigration issues, ranging from trends and policies that influence service delivery to psychosocial experiences by immigrants and refugees, such as pre- and post-migration traumas and acculturation are discussed.
Power in the global context: This course introduces students to an understanding of power in the global context and helps students develop a critical and reflexive understanding of how such power informs social work practice, utilizing decolonizing and social justice-oriented perspectives. Students will gain an analytic de-centering framework for critical understanding and assessment of pressing social problems and models of social interventions across global contexts. In exploring these themes, underpinning theories and practice in global social work are reviewed, such as colonization, international aid and development, and democratization.
Multicultural, multilingual and global organizing: This course examines the process of promoting intergroup relations and social development and the skills needed to facilitate change across settings. Students explore the roles of power, privilege, oppression, and social identities in organizing for change in diverse communities and coalitions, and across cultural and global contexts. Students will also examine contemporary and historic efforts to engage in multicultural, multilingual coalitions and multi-national and global change efforts, including climate justice and racial justice.
Human rights policy and practice: This course explores how international human rights law and principles provide a foundation for repairing the harms done by collective human rights trauma. The course focuses on endeavoring a comprehensive approach to peace building through humanitarian effort, human rights, and participation built on social work perspectives. It also examines the role social workers have both internationally and locally from policy to practice. The psychological impact and treatment of torture and trauma will be evaluated, particularly as experienced by people marginalized by the larger (privileged) society because of their gender, race, and age. Various reparations and remedies used to recover from human rights trauma will be reviewed, as will, social work perspectives that can enhance such efforts.
Global development and social welfare: The persistence of disparities in social development across countries is one of the major problems societies struggle to understand and address. This course critically examines major theories of global development along with contemporary debates relating to international social welfare. Students will assess how political, economic, historical, and environmental factors influence different nations’ development trajectories, and compare how alternative models of service delivery and social intervention serve or fail to serve their intended populations. The geographic focus of the course will be Latin America and Africa, though case studies may also be drawn from other regions.
Program evaluation in international settings: Increasing demand for transparency and accountability in the field of international development has heightened the need for evaluation of effectiveness and impact of programs. This course examines principles, methods and practices of evaluating social programs and services in international settings. The course emphasizes involving agency and client constituencies in the development, implementation and dissemination of evaluation efforts. Students will discover methods for crafting evaluation questions, designing instruments, sampling and data gathering to achieve good response rates, data analysis and presentation of evaluation findings in culturally diverse and low-resource settings.
Some examples of courses that are taught overseas as part of a study abroad program in international social work include:
Post-colonial social work practice: International social welfare in India: Students examine the global welfare system and its engagement with marginalized communities. This six-week course in Kolkata, India, centers around a sex workers’ collaborative in Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts. Interviews with the collaborative’s workers and study of their grassroots movement are combined with class discussions and research projects in which students engage with texts on HIV, sex work, feminist postcolonial theory, and international social work.
Civil society activities promoting coexistence, shared society, and peace in Israel and Palestine: This course focuses on activities carried out by nonprofit organizations operating within the Israeli civil society, dealing with issues related to co-existence and to the protection and advancement of the civil and human rights of different populations, with special emphasis on the Arab-Palestinian population in Israel. Introduces students to the challenges and complexities of promoting coexistence in Israel — where civilizations, religions, national identities, and ideologies converge.
Field experience opportunities in international social work
One of the most exciting components of completing a degree in International Social Work is the opportunity to complete field placements overseas. This can provide a wealth of experience and help students determine which part of the world and/or which issues they’d like to work in after graduation. For students unable to travel overseas during their school years or who are enrolled in programs that do not offer international field experience opportunities, there are plenty of options to gain global social work experience while working domestically. For example, many communities have multiple organizations that assist refugees in resettlement, accessing services, learning English and finding employment. Students can learn about a variety of cultures and build their cultural competency and cultural humility while staying close to home. Domestic field experience placements can also help students who know they want to practice overseas but are unsure as to where, narrow down their area of focus.
Several programs do exist that offer students the opportunity to complete field placements in international settings. Some field placement locations include Mexico, South Africa, Ireland, Ecuador, India, China, Hong Kong, and Latvia. Opportunities vary depending on the social work program.
Not all international social work practicum settings focus on direct client interaction. For example, international aid organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and the United Nations offer internships and practicum placements for students interested in macro social work practice and research. An added benefit of completing international field placements in these multinational organizations is the opportunity to work with staff from all member countries around the world and become immersed in not only the culture of the country in which you are living (these organizations have headquarters and multiple field offices around the world) but also learn firsthand about the cultures of the diverse staff that work in these offices. These offices are truly a “melting pot” and provide a wealth of experience and opportunities not found elsewhere.
Finally, for students seeking additional opportunities to study or work overseas, the Peace Corps and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program are excellent options to gain experience, study, research, and/or teach English around the world and can further prepare students for using their degrees in International Social Work.
Preparing for an international social work master’s program
To best prepare for acceptance into an MSW program in International Social Work, applicants should have the following qualifications:
- A bachelor’s degree in social Work (BSW) or another related field from an accredited university
- A grade point average of 2.5 to 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Some programs require that all social work classes taken at the undergraduate level earned a grade of B or higher.
- Experience – Many programs prefer that an applicant has at least two years of work experience in a human services or related field. Ideally, this will be from volunteering or working with clients from different cultures or refugee populations domestically, or even international volunteer or work experience.
- Excellent references that attest to the applicant’s ability to succeed in graduate studies and ethically perform the duties of a social worker upon graduation. If these references are from your time working with diverse populations or overseas, the recommendations will be a strong testament to your commitment to international social work.
- Strongly written essays and/or personal statements. Most programs have applicants write personal statements about their experience, why a degree in social work is desired and career goals. In addition, schools may have applicants write an essay about a social justice issue, its causes and contributors and ways the problem could be addressed. Tying these essays into your experiences and goals in international social work will be critical.
- While not required for entrance into an MSW program, proficiency in another language other than your native tongue will further demonstrate an interest and commitment to connecting with others around the world and will certainly benefit global career aspirations.
Graduation requirements for international social work MSW programs
Typical graduation requirements for an MSW program in international social work include satisfactory completion of each class with a grade of C or above. Students must also successfully complete all field education/practicum hours. Some programs also require a master’s thesis project, which is an independently conducted research project and paper.
Students completing a certificate in addition to the MSW program may have additional requirements. For example, the Global Social Work Certificate from Tulane requires students to complete in addition to their MSW degree requirements specific globally-focused classes, a minimum of two assignments per semester addressing global issues and/or populations, a professional project which includes a global context, participate in a globally-focused extracurricular learning activity each semester and compile a portfolio with documentation of all of their related activities and material related to global social work.
International social work is a complex, ever-changing and yet rewarding career field that allows social workers to serve in a variety of settings around the world. Selecting an MSW program that offers specializations or certificate program options in international social work or global perspectives in social work is the ideal way to structure your education to best prepare you for working in this dynamic field.