History of the School

SSW alumni at President's Centennial Reception

Smith College created the School for Social Work in 1918 under the name Smith Psychiatric Training School. The school grew out of a summer program that prepared clinical social workers to address the burgeoning needs of World War I Veterans suffering from what was then called shell shock. With an incoming class of 60, the School grew quickly and was soon recognized as a leader in clinical social work. By the 1950s, the School had expanded its focus to include social work research, social welfare, interdisciplinary collaboration and international social work.

Today, SSW is recognized for its concentrated block curriculum and its focus on community-based clinical social work with unparalleled depth and rigor. Throughout the years, the nature of the coursework shifted alongside changing cultural, political and economic environments, but the School’s commitment to being a leader in clinical social work education has never wavered. Today, the Smith College School for Social Work is the premier clinical social work graduate school.

Early Years

In 1918, Smith founded the Smith Psychiatric Training School, pioneering efforts in trauma work with Veterans, and enabling young women to learn psychiatry when educating women in psychiatry was seen as too “radical.” The School earned its first accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education in 1919.

In 1930 the School held its first “Supervisor's Conference,” demonstrating from its earliest years a commitment to maintaining close working relationships with those who supervise students in their internships. That same year, SSW first published the widely respected professional journal of clinical social work, Smith College Studies in Social Work. In 1939, the School offered its first multicultural course, “Culture as a Determinant of Behavior,” taught by the noted social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski of the University of London.

In 1943, the demands of World War II led the School to adjust its curriculum from 24 months to just 15 months—though the 24-month curriculum was reinstated in 1946. Two years later, it initiated the Program of Advanced Study, which eventually developed into the SCSSW PhD program.

Changing Tides

Throughout the 1950s, the School continued to take the lead in the social work community, expanding its program based on the shifting needs of a changing political climate.

While the School maintained its commitment to Veterans, the 1950s was marked by an increasing interest in interdisciplinary collaboration, the expansion of research as an area of focus in social work education, expanded social welfare curriculum offerings, and increasing interest in international social work, including the admittance of students from abroad. 

In concert with the Civil Rights Movement, SCSSW expanded its commitment to the issue of multicultural practice. Starting in the 1960s, coursework on socio-cultural, economic, and political environments was intensified. In addition, courses were added on group work, clinical social work and families, and issues of sexual orientation.

SCSSW School Today

Today, the School continues to be a leader in clinical social work education. In both the master’s and Ph.D. programs, students and instructional faculty come into residence on Smith’s campus for 10 weeks of coursework over three consecutive summers. Classroom learning, meals shared in the dining hall, attendance at lectures and student activities—on and off campus—all offer great opportunities for rich interaction between approximately 400 students and faculty. The tight-knit nature of the community is also welcoming to alumni, a significant percentage of whom participate in School events throughout the year.

Since 1931, the School has also offered a rich, active continuing education program for professionals around the country. The School offers two specialized certificate programs: Advanced Clinical Supervision and End-of-Life Care (co-sponsored with Baystate Health). 

Across the years, Smith’s dedication to teaching clinical social work practice has always begun with an appreciation for the complexity of human behavior and the interplay of psychological, developmental, social and cultural variables. We teach our students to approach clinical practice through a range of theories within these areas and current research, and with a deep appreciation of the relationship between the social worker and the client, not only in the delivery of services, but as a mechanism to promote healing and growth.

Explore the History of Our Smith SSW

In honor of the centennial anniversary of the Smith College School for Social Work, the Smith College Special Collections and the School for Social Work collaborated to create a website in order to commemorate the first training school for social workers in the United States. The site features photos, videos, letters, brochures and other documents chronicling Smith SSW's 100 years of clinical excellence, rigorous research and educational innovation.