August 2013 Features

Social Workers Without Borders

GSSWSR alumnae/i and faculty discuss the challenges of social work in the global era.

By Nancy Schmucker

Nick Scull, M.S.S. ’02, runs a psychology practice in Kuwait.

Nick Scull, M.S.S. ’02, runs a psychology practice in Kuwait.

While leading a discussion with a group of teenagers on the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Cindy Sousa did not expect the ambivalence of a teenage boy from El Salvador. He told her he had already experienced this level of death and destruction during the Salvadoran Civil War—a conflict that the United States helped fund. In rural Oregon, Sousa was surprised by another young immigrant whom she was trying to convince to go to college. She spent weeks trying to overcome his reticence until he finally blurted, “Don’t you get it?  I’m undocumented. I can’t apply for student loans.” 

Sousa, an assistant professor of social work and social research on the Alexandra Grange Hawkins Lectureship, has more than a decade of experience providing social services to people from around the world, but encounters like the above show her how much there is left to learn about practicing social work in the global era. She says that as rates of immigration, migration, and the movement of workers across borders increase, a social worker’s interaction with his or her client is getting more complex and requires a “widening of the lens” on both the client’s background and the social worker’s own perspective.

“Now, more than ever, social workers must examine their own biases so that they do not confuse their own cultural expectations with what is right and just and moral,” says Elizabeth Spalter Iino, M.S.S. ’97, a clinician who works with children in the mental health sector. She cites childrearing as an example of a very culturally specific practice and says “the range of what is considered ideal parenting from country to country is quite broad.” In Austria, where Iino currently works, welfare law strictly prohibits corporal punishment of any nature. But she has also practiced in Japan, which like many other countries has traditionally considered corporal punishment an appropriate tool to support child development and uses it in schools.

Nick Scull, M.S.S. ’02 says that another challenge of social work in the global era is refraining from imposing “Western or North American standards and models of practice in a colonial manner.” In his psychology practice in Kuwait, Scull must often consciously adapt and sometimes even suspend his learned models and norms. “Attitudes toward mental health are radically different in Kuwait,” he explains. “Western and North American educational models are helpful but not perfect. Though improving, there is still very little literature and research on non-Western models.”

The challenge for social work educators, says Toba Kerson, the Mary Hale Chase Professor of Social Science and Social Work and Social Research, is preparing graduates to transcend their own social, political, and sometimes religious world views and think globally. “It’s not enough to read a book,” Kerson says. “The depth of knowledge and understanding needed is extraordinary.” The Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research is poised to meet this challenge, says Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and special assistant to the president for community partnerships, because it equips “current students and alumnae/i with the global perspective they need to best understand and begin to address the increasingly complex societal challenges facing our country and others across the world.”

In her class, Perspectives on Social Welfare: Local and Global, for example, Sousa requires each student to undertake a final project in which they interview an international organization and identify a problem it is facing. He or she must then explore the problem’s history and roots and determine viable solutions that fit the organization’s cultural, political, and religious context. The goal is to teach students to fulfill their social work obligations and ethical imperatives in a way that incorporates self-examination as well as an understanding of international cultures and policy constraints. 

As important as the globally focused curriculum, Bailey adds, is the growing number of international students who enrich classes by fostering an active exchange of perspectives. In addition, GSSWSR is seeking to expand opportunities for current students to have an international experience. Last year, a contingent of graduate and undergraduate students participated in the Nobel Laureates World Summit.  Currently, Bailey is looking at partnering with other schools of social work for study abroad courses.  “These interactions,” she says, “enable all of our GSSWSR students to recognize and appreciate their cultural differences while also more deeply understanding what family therapist Henry Stack Sullivan meant when he said, ‘We are all simply more human than otherwise.’” 

Anne Bradley, M.S.S. ’02, who grew up in Haiti, agrees that “one of the strengths of my Bryn Mawr experience was the diversity, not just of ethnicity but of the experiences and issues we brought to the classroom.” As a Praxis field placement coordinator at Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement Office, Bradley continues to emphasize the idea that “you need to teach but also learn from your clients. Learning from a person’s story gives them dignity and leads to trust.”


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