Social Work Students Build Ties Between Generations and Future Careers

Mary Allen, director of communications
Widener social work faculty and students stand with members of the PA Department of Aging following a press conference.
Front from left: Stephanie Cole, special assistant to the PA Sec. of Aging, Dept. of Aging Sec. Robert Torres, and Widener Associate Prof. Robin Goldberg-Glen. Back from left: students Sienna Miller, Nicole Scharfette, Navonna Dais and Milo Jones.

A new service-learning project that paired Widener undergraduate students in a fall social work class with older Pennsylvania adults for weekly social conversations has built new bonds of friendship and opened students’ eyes to the potential rewards of social work careers serving older generations. 

The Intergenerational University Connections program at Widener began with 16 undergraduate students in Associate Professor Robin Goldberg-Glen’s Interdisciplinary Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare class, but will grow to involve closer to 100 students this spring, when the Phi Alpha Nu social work honor society becomes involved with the program. 

Widener is one of four universities partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, which recruits older adults for the program that is intended to combat isolation and loneliness in older adults. The students in Goldberg-Glen’s class committed to one hour a week in a telephone or video chat with their assigned older adult over 10 weeks. 

For freshman Sienna Miller, that meant spending hours with a woman who grew to become very important to her. While both are Black women from different generations who tend to be introverted, Miller came to appreciate her assigned adult’s different world views, and the process of how a person’s perspective can change as they age and experience life.  

She serves as comforting kind of friend to me, and I enjoy talking with her. I’m very thankful to have met her. I wasn’t expecting to feel as close to her as I do. —Sienna Miller '25

Sophomore Nicole Scharfetter also developed a close relationship with her assigned adult, who introduced her to a new religion, helped her ponder the definition of what a home is, and got her thinking about what it means to be her true self. 

“She is an important person in my life and I care about her a lot,” Scharfetter said. 

Goldberg-Glen said the program has a myriad of benefits. It opens students’ eyes to the idea of working with the aging, an underserved population that presents abundant career opportunities for social workers. It also makes students more insightful about cultural diversity, and issues of ageism and disparity in access to services. They learn older adults can be reservoirs of wisdom and history who can teach them beyond what’s in a textbook. Students develop conversation skills, and can strategize with their older adult’s caregivers if they learn of a problem that needs attention, much like a social worker would.

And, Goldberg-Glen said, the program has helped combat feelings of isolation among students, even though it was designed to do that for the older adults, particularly during the pandemic. 

The entire experience has been transformative for these students. And having someone to talk to helped them reduce their own loneliness. —Robin Goldberg-Glen, associate professor of social work

Miller, Scharfetter and other students in their class recently met with Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Robert Torres, to discuss the program and all they’ve put into it – and gained from it. He encouraged them to continue considering careers working with older adults, noting he sees firsthand the need for these caring professionals. 

“This program offers a valuable opportunity for older adults to engage with students in meaningful ways, and for the students to learn from their experiences,” said Torres, who is a graduate of Widener’s Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg. “I look forward to seeing continued positive grown as we continue to build and expand this program.”

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