Lessons from India

From India to South Africa and Costa Rica, international field placements give social work students the opportunity to be fully immersed in a different culture and learn how to navigate systems that are sometimes radically different to those at home.

We talked with master’s student Jamie Green, who spent the spring 2015 semester in southern India. Her field placement was with an organization that focuses on development work and disaster relief in rural communities. The organization’s primary goal is to empower communities to address issues that range from basic needs such as access to water and food to complex needs such as education, health, and disaster preparedness.

Multi-generational one-room thatched huts are the typical Narikuravar dwellings

Multi-generational one-room thatched huts are the typical Narikuravar dwellings

What projects were you involved in?

After a couple of visits to different rural communities, I saw a huge need for toilets, food, water and sanitation. I approached my field supervisor and asked if I could create a project of my own. She chose the community that I’d work with and I came up with the idea. I worked with the Narikuravar, a gypsy community in India, considered to be so low that they are not even on the caste system. The goals of the project were to teach the importance of hygiene for the health of the community and to provide a skill set to the village woman that would help improve their living conditions. So I organized a health and hygiene campaign that covered basic disease prevention and hand-washing practices for two local primary schools. We also help build “tippy-tap” hand-washing stations at each school. I also organized a tutorial on soap making, use, and selling for a group of village women.

What was your contribution to this project as a social worker?

I did all the behind the scenes work: community assessment, concept creation, organizing, fundraising, coordination, implementation and now evaluation. My concentration in social work is Community and Administrative Leadership (CAL),* so it was great to have my own baby and experience bringing the project all the way through to the end.
 Of course I can’t take full credit for it, I worked with local agencies and individuals that helped me develop the contents for the campaign and the tutorial, and they did most of the presentations.

Jamie at the soap-making tutorial

Jamie at the soap-making tutorial

What did you learn about social work from this experience?

This project showed me the importance of starting where people are – taking what they know and harnessing it to help them help themselves.

How did the School of Social work prepare you for this experience abroad?

Everything I learned at the School of Social Work was useful for my experience in India, but what resonated for me the most is the importance of cultural diversity, which is a big cornerstone of social work. Different cultures bring different mindsets and perspectives. We have to recognize those and bring that into our work.

How did you become interested in working abroad?

I had an international social work class taught by professor Tanya Voss. That class that got me interested in an international field placement. We talked about social work from a global perspective – what the UN is, what the World Bank is, how social work functions around the world and how we as social workers can contribute to the rising globalization. We’re much more of a global community now than we ever were, and will most likely continue to be one.

Demonstrating how to use the tippy-tap hand-washing station

Demonstrating how to use the tippy-tap hand-washing station

What is the value of international field placements for social work students?

It’s mind opening. I thought that I had an open mind before, but it makes you much more appreciative of what we have here. I definitely felt my privilege while in India. I know I’ve always had it, but I never felt it like I did there. These field placements also teach us to be global thinkers, to challenge our assumptions about the world, and to grow as clinicians and individuals.

Could you share some of your most meaningful experiences from the trip? 

It was shocking to me to see the condition in which some are forced to live in. More people in India have cell phones than they have toilets. That sounds crazy to us, but it’s really not, they’re developing in this age, a technology age. But the most meaningful experience was getting to know the people. They were amazing. Some live day-to-day trying to find their next meal or a place to sleep, and yet they’re still humble and caring and giving, and very hospitable. The warden at my hostel was worried I wasn’t taking to the food well and that I wasn’t eating enough so she ordered me a pizza one day! It’s a sense of community we don’t have here. I don’t even know my neighbor’s name here. The community I worked with was a great example of this, everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. They worked together to survive. This value will always stay with me.

Anything else you’d like to add?

For future students, this experience is well worth it. Even though I’m still going through what I learned and wrapping my mind around it and seeing where I fit in, it’s invaluable. Not only are you getting your social work experience in the field, you’re getting a huge global perspective and challenging ideas and beliefs and what you think about the world. Also, I will be continuing to work with this community in India. If anyone wants to know more or wants to help, please contact me at jamielynnegreen@gmail.com.

Posted June 26, 2015. By Paepin Goff. 

*In 2015 the CAL concentration changed to Administration and Policy Practice (APP).