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why study abroad

Since 1996, the School of Social Work at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has offered a study abroad course in Western Europe, with a focus on Germany. The purpose of the course is to help students learn the connection between human rights and social work within an international and domestic context. Field visits often occur in other countries, including Austria and Switzerland. This course takes place twice each year for eight days, in January and in late May.

Participants in the course visit social service agencies in the various countries and learn how those countries address social problems. Specific field visits include trips to HIV/AIDs center, former concentration camp at Dachau, migrant and refugee center, homeless assistance center within the main train station of Munich, Germany, and harm reduction facility for heroin addicts in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Other field visits cover a range of topics, including domestic violence and child welfare. In addition to field visits, there are lectures to supplement information learned during the visits.

Purpose of Study Abroad

The primary rationale for a study abroad course in social work is to provide students with the opportunity to obtain knowledge about social welfare policies and practices in other countries not easily obtainable in the classroom. In addition, by directly experiencing social work in other cultures, students can gain insight into universal values held by counterparts. Issues of concern to social workers are becoming increasingly international in scope. Refugees, child abuse and neglect, inadequate health care, lack of water, and drug addiction are all present contemporary challenges within a social welfare environment. Learning how other countries address these issues can provide valuable information in confronting the same or similar problems at home.

Today there are many universities offering opportunities for social work students to study abroad. The length of the course varies, but financial constraints may lead many students to choose a shorter term course, like one to two weeks. There are other considerations in choosing a shorter term course, like being away from family and possible culture shock. Usually a shorter course allows the student to better cope with homesickness, cultural differences, and other issues that inevitably arise when traveling abroad. Certainly, though, a longer course can provide a better learning experience and allow the student more time in which to become accustomed to a new environment. There is no one size fits all when it comes to study abroad courses.

Benefits of Study Abroad

A well-structured study abroad course can promote creative thinking and foster intercultural collaboration in education, research, and practice. At a minimum, it can provide knowledge about policies and practices in other countries that would be difficult to obtain in the traditional classroom environment at home. Through this type of educational exchange, students can develop connections to social workers and student counterparts in other countries.

During the last course I taught, one of our focuses was on the assimilation and treatment of refugees in Germany, since Germany had agreed to take up to one million refugees in 2016, an enormous number to absorb, particularly since most of the refugees originated from a culture vastly different from that of Germany. Most could not speak German and needed language training simply to get started. After the course finished, a month later I received an email from one of the students that she was now working in Germany with refugees. The course had provided her with a stepping stone into this full time work with refugees. While most participants in a study abroad course do not seek work in an international setting, I have found that several of my past students are either working full time abroad or have at least part time experiences overseas.

Student reactions to Course Experiences

Based on comments from participants from SIUC social work course in Germany, reactions to practices and policies of other countries can vary dramatically. For example, the field visit to the harm reduction center in St. Gallen never fails to elicit varying impressions. This center dispenses methadone and heroin to people with addictions who meet strict criteria. In conjunction with the visit, students learn about the Swiss policy of publicly dispensing hypodermic needles to prevent the spread of AIDS and other diseases. People with addictions can also purchase needles from machines. Public bathrooms and other areas have receptacles available for hygienic disposal of the needles. 

Participants in the course learn that, while there is no true legalization of drugs in Switzerland, as is often represented in the United States, the effect of the Swiss policies does allow heroin and methadone to be distributed without legal consequence. Without this visit to the harm reduction center, students might not understands the fine points of how the Swiss try to assist those with addictions to heroin. 

Another field visit that students often comment on is the trip to Dachau, a former concentration camp in a small city outside Munich. Students learn about the horrors of the Nazi regime during World War II, but also have occasion to reflect on lessons to be learned for contemporary society. Resistance against injustices is a necessity if countries are to avoid some of the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Summary

Over the many years in which SIUC has offered this course, participant response have clearly indicated benefits from experiencing different concepts of social work policy and practices. Students have emphasized that they felt they obtained knowledge that could not have been adequately conveyed through classroom teaching in their home country. This exposure to a unique cultural and learning experience provides the foundation of all study abroad programs.