Former SSA student spurs social work collaboration in China

Anna Pao Sohmen, X‘68, left Hong Kong for Chicago in 1966, arriving with a growing interest in social work and an eagerness to bring about change in conditions the impoverished face.

She enrolled at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration during a tumultuous time. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Chicago Freedom Movement, and Sohmen did a field placement at Olivet Community Center. She witnessed prejudices that undercut opportunities for African American youth, while learning how social work could help address such injustices.

Nearly 50 years later, Sohmen’s education at SSA remains a pivotal point in her life, so much so that’s she turning to the School at a critical time. China has a goal to educate 1.45 million social workers by 2020 to address issues that emerged during recent decades of rapid urbanization and industrialization.

A new endowment is being established to create a partnership between SSA and Peking University in Beijing and Hong Kong Polytechnic University to build the social work profession. The lead gift of $3 million, which is the largest gift from a living SSA alumna or former student, was given by Sohmen and philanthropists Sue Peng and Xiaotian Zhang. The endowment and growing collaboration is being highlighted at formal signing ceremonies this week in Hong Kong and Beijing.

“SSA can be a leader in advancing social work in China,” Sohmen said. “The goal is to address many of the social issues that are emerging due to the fast economic growth in China over the last three decades. The Western world went through a few hundred years of industrialization, whereas China rapidly moved quickly from an agrarian society to the digital age. As a result, China has to cope with abandoned children in villages, broken marriages, and a host of educational and integration problems due to mass-migration to urban areas.”

Sohmen began talking several years ago with Neil Guterman, dean of the School of Social Service Administration and the Mose and Sylvia Firestone Professor, about “bringing SSA to China” by developing a program that would include faculty exchanges and collaborations around research, curriculum, and field work.

“A little more than a century after SSA helped to give birth to the profession of social work in the U.S., we are excited to now be playing an important role in fostering the birth of modern social work in China,” said Guterman, who is attending events this week celebrating the program’s launch in Hong Kong and Beijing. “In return, we will learn a great deal about tackling complex social problems across multiple contexts, both locally and globally.”

Sohmen is the eldest daughter of Sir Pao Yue-Kong, a Hong Kong shipping magnate who founded Worldwide Shipping. While born into a privileged family, she was drawn to social work and child psychology at a young age. At 14 years old, Sohmen volunteered with delinquent girls in Hong Kong, and such awareness made her eager to bring about changes.

In the early 1970s, she served as a sounding board for Irving Spergel, the late SSA professor and a leading expert on gangs, for his work in Hong Kong. Sohmen, who became a director for her father’s company, later taught social work at Hong Kong University.

She’s now seeing the ideas from her initial conversations with Guterman come to fruition. The new partnership supported by the endowment will establish an international platform to build rigorous educational curricula and research in social welfare and social policy in China. It will also offer opportunities for students from mainland China, Hong Kong and the United States to study together.

One of Sohmen’s former students, Prof. Angelina Yuen, who is vice president for institutional advancement and partnership at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is working with Robert Chaskin, a professor at SSA, on the student exchange program.

“It an exemplar of cross-national exchange which effectively broadens students’ horizons and enhances the international understanding among students from different social and cultural backgrounds,” she said.

Sohmen believes the endowment and collaboration will help raise the profile of social work in China. “Social work simply does not have the prestige in China compared to other professions,” she said.

Her advice for SSA students who want to study in China is to have a humble attitude, learn the language, listen and learn about the new environment.

“There’s no supremacy, there is no absolute,” Sohmen said. “Different societies evolve through history by using different social structures. American students need to learn about the diversity of China; each region and each state has its own sub-culture. There are many minority groups, and China may not be as homogenous as it appears. The wealth gaps between the provinces also mean education opportunities vary greatly across the country.”