Field Internships Abroad Enrich Student Experience

by Mollie T. Marchione

In the 21st century, few social problems are conceptualized as only national in nature. The phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” has taken on expanded meaning in the new millennium. The rapidly changing demographics in the U.S., which indicate that more than 12 percent of the country’s population is foreign-born, compel transnational awareness, knowledge and practice, especially for university students.

The University of Texas at Austin recognizes the importance of diversity and globalization, and  ranks among the top three universities sending students abroad and the Top 10 universities educating international students, according to the “Open Doors” report, published by the Institute of International Education in 2008. In the university’s Maymester Abroad Program, a joint initiative of the Office of the Provost and the Study Abroad Office, School of Social Work faculty Dr. Dorie Gilbert, associate professor and chair of the school’s International Social Work Curriculum Committee, and Ruth Rubio, clinical professor and international field faculty liaison, teach courses in Accra, Ghana; and London, respectively.

“The International Social Work Committee continues to work toward internationalizing the school, with goals to expand the number of international research and interdisciplinary collaborations, faculty and student conference presentations, study abroad opportunities, international field placement opportunities, and to support international student exchanges through scholarships,” said Gilbert.   

Through these areas, students and faculty serve as ambassadors for the school and are enriched through exposure to diverse cultures and worldviews. One of the school’s funding priorities as part of the university’s Campaign for Texas is to build capacity in the area of international social work. The school has set a $4 million campaign goal for Research and Academic Programs, which includes international programs. “This additional financial support is necessary for the School of Social Work to gain substantial visibility for its international programming and create new opportunities for students and faculty that will have a transformative impact,” Gilbert said.

In spring semester 2010, 12 social work students completed their final field internships in eight countries: Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Armenia, and Switzerland. The School of Social Work started regularly placing students internationally in 1993 at the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland.  UT Austin social work students have been placed on every continent except Antarctica.

“After the obvious commitment to their core social work field education, the primary responsibilities of our students are to be of service to the host agencies, to act as ambassadors for the school and the profession, and to develop cultural awareness,” said Tanya Voss, assistant dean for field education and clinical associate professor.

“One of the main reasons why I chose the UT Austin School of Social Work was the international component that it offers,” said Leslie Diaz, an 2010 MSSW graduate of the Community and Leadership concentration. “I am quite adamant about the idea that solutions to America’s issues can be harnessed by the experiences of ancient cultures and histories around the world. The International Field Seminar is the place where I mentally prepared myself for this immersion,” said Diaz. The seminar, taught in the fall by Voss, is required of all social work students approved by the International Social Work Committee for an international field placement. In her internship in Armenia, Diaz worked with UNHCR and with refugees there who have experienced sex- and gender-based violence.    

Diaz was also a student in the elective course, “International Social Work,” taught by Voss. The course is designed to introduce students to international social work and the theories and perspectives that underpin current thinking and practice. Students explore how historical, environmental, cultural, religious, political and economic factors impact social welfare policies and the delivery of human services in different regions of the world. They analyze global social welfare issues and review how social work practice is delivered in other countries.

Diaz and her classmates in “International Social Work” had the unique opportunity to virtually travel with alumna Kate Ellis, MSSW ’06, who maintained a blog and corresponded with students during her investigation of social work and social justice in countries she visited in the Middle East, Asia, and South America.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up in life—dream big, try something new, challenge yourself. Take the plunge,” said Ellis. This philosophy shared by her husband, Rob, a writer, was a driving force in couple’s decision to leave Austin in December 2007 and embark on a 15-month international journey.

“When Rob and I first started dating in 2004, we quickly learned that international travel had been a life-long dream for each of us,” said Ellis, now a clinical social worker at Seton Shoal Creek Hospital Intensive Outpatient Programs. During the next few years as they planned their trip, Ellis said she began to envision a project that would benefit the school’s Field Education Program. As a social work student, Ellis had not applied for an international field placement because of the cost involved. In addition to standard tuition, students who intern abroad are responsible for their own travel and living expenses plus a $1,500 administrative fee paid to the School of Social Work. The school covers the cost of the agency site preview, the faculty liaison visit, and the preparatory seminar.

Ellis discussed her idea with Voss, the International Social Work Curriculum Committee, and Dean Barbara White, and the project was approved. As she traveled, Ellis would: 1. engage students enrolled in the course “International Social Work” through a travel blog and email, 2. research and develop new contacts at international agencies and universities visited, 3. assess field placement options with agencies in Ecuador and their potential for long-term sustainability based on criteria developed by the International Social Work Committee and the Field Education Office.

During 2008, Ellis blogged “Reports from the Field” from Egypt, Jordan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The reports offered students in “International Social Work” unique information about each country’s human rights and social justice issues and how they relate to social work practice. Ellis’ recorded experiences allowed students to critically examine the implications for participating in international social work within the context of globalization. Ellis included case examples from personal interviews and research, as well as her visits to international agencies that addressed the issues of HIV/AIDS, poverty, child welfare, treatment of women, impact of war, refugee services, and education.

“We used Kate’s blog as a reading for reflection writings,” said Diaz. “Her blog was very informative, giving firsthand accounts of every agency that she visited along her way. We were able to compare the agencies she visited to their closest American equivalent and also to prior sites she had written about in the blog.”

Voss, in teaching “International Social Work” with Ellis’ Web site as a tool, said that incorporating the blog and a “person on the ground’ halfway around the world from campus enhanced class discussions of  complex themes and sparked students’ interest. “We continue to learn from Kate’s travel experiences. We now have a resource book of materials that she collected from Asia and South America that we’ve already used in preparation for international field, spring 2011,” Voss said.

Next, Ellis hopes to explore issues in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. As she has stated in her blog: “Travel can make you realize that what you take for granted as the bedrock of your life—your routines, your lifestyle, your preferences—might not be as stable as you once thought. And that can be empowering. Choices that were previously unseen or thought to be unattainable become apparent. Doors open.”

Photo: Alumna Kate Ellis interviews Fathya, a school counselor, in the rural village of Ain Ash, Egypt.

To read more about Kate Ellis and her international experiences and the “Reports from the Field,” go to her Web site: