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Striving for a Global Conscience: From Texas to Australia, social work students address societal issues around the world

Armed with the firm belief that there is nothing more universal than the issues of poverty, homelessness, grief, crime, substance abuse, domestic violence and discrimination, University of Texas at Austin social work students are spanning the globe this spring applying lessons learned in the classroom to experiences in the field.

Suzanne Weaver, Jaya Mathew and Ruth Rubio in London
Master’s students (left to right) Suzanne Weaver and Jaya Mathew join faculty liaison Ruth Rubio in London.

In fact, Professor Jane Kretzschmar gives new meaning to the progression in higher education of sending graduates out into the world. As director of field education in the School of Social Work, she is overseeing 160,000 hours of fieldwork—this year alone—in locations from Texas to Switzerland, from New York to Australia.

Learning alongside veteran social workers and administrators provides students the ultimate educational experience, said Kretzschmar, who sits beside a “Field is the Heart of Social Work Education” poster in her office. Fieldwork allows students to explore their professional identity, issues of social and economic justice, issues concerning populations at risk and the ethics and values of the social work profession.

A total of 280 undergraduate and graduate social work students at the university are doing field placements this spring in Austin, Temple, El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., as well as Nebraska, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona and Canada, England, Switzerland and Australia. They are working in hospitals, schools, substance abuse centers, wilderness-counseling camps and with domestic violence, victim services and child protective services programs.

Past field placements for university social work students have included such countries as Mexico, Finland and the Philippines.

Bethany Wofford in Geneva
Social work student Bethany Wofford enjoys the U.N. Palais de Nations in Geneva.

A student can only learn so much in a classroom, said Sharon Brown, who is doing her field placement with the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City.

“While concepts, strategies, theory and technology can be taught in the classroom, the human effect on the work can only be learned in practice,” she said.

The Urban Justice Center was founded in 1984 as a nonprofit organization providing legal representation and advocacy to the poor and homeless in New York City. It is housed in a 12-story building in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Brown’s day can be spent recruiting volunteers for a particular project, attending a tenant meeting in the South Bronx or a public hearing in another part of the city, administering surveys to tenants on their living conditions or designing a database to collect housing data.

“I decided on a career in social work because I have always felt that there is more to living that serving your own immediate needs,” said Brown. “I truly believe in a global conscience and that as part of the human race it is each of our individual duties to work towards a better world. Call me idealistic.”

Jaya Mathew, who is working on her master’s degree in social work, has a regular caseload for her field placement in London and is quickly learning England’s social welfare system. In her job for the Mawney Centre’s Looked After Children program, she regularly makes home visits to a child’s home in order to assess how a child is doing and conducts risk assessments on family members and friends who want visitation rights.

Mavis Bradsher at Shoal Creek Hospital in Austin
Mavis Bradsher (center) discusses patients’ cases at Shoal Creek Hospital in Austin.

“I felt that being a social worker would challenge me everyday and fulfill my need to help others,” said Mathew. “I really enjoy the therapeutic aspect of being a social worker. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s amazing to see how much a difference one person can make in a child’s life.”

Back in Austin, Mavis Bradsher is teaming up with doctors, nurses, administrators and other social workers in the new chemical dependency unit at Shoal Creek Hospital. She is finding it the perfect place to further her interest in diverse populations with chemical dependency issues.

“The thought of working in a psychiatric hospital may sound very dark and depressing, but I have found the experience to be rewarding and valuable,” said Bradsher, who works with children, teenagers and adults. She has had the opportunity to see patients for independent counseling and is responsible for scheduling medical and social services and resources to aid patients when they are discharged.

At 56 years old, Bradsher is older than the average student. She wanted to go to college when she completed high school, but her family—with 10 children—didn’t have the money. She is the only sibling to get a bachelor’s degree and now a master’s degree.

Adelaide, Australia, Austin's sister city
Adelaide, Austin’s sister city, is known as “the city of churches.”

“When I began to seriously look at social work, I knew I had found my calling,” she said. “I am convinced that I am in the field I was meant to be in, and I have never regretted the choice I made. Social work rocks.”

Nearly all of these social work students—and really anyone in social work—seem to go into the profession almost as a calling. They simply want to help other people, no matter how much they’re paid, no matter how depressing the work can sometimes be, no matter how long the hours.

Andrea Lasater is another example. She has been working “down under” in Adelaide, Australia, which is Austin’s sister city. The coastal city of one million people is laid out in a grid with parklands surrounding it. Lasater has found the people to be laid back (“even more than Austin”) and routinely is asked to join different families for dinner.

Her field, grief and loss counseling, is new in general and especially new in Australia.

“I chose to do my field placement here because of the opportunity to work with clients with a different culture than my own,” said Lasater, who works at the Anglicare Loss and Grief Center. “I also thought that living in a foreign country would broaden my horizons, which will be beneficial to me both professionally and personally.”

A kangaroo lounging in Australia
Kim Durham, the university’s first student to do fieldwork in Australia, took this photo. She now works for the School of Social Work.

A typical day for Lasater is filled with telephone counseling and referrals and working with such agencies as the Homicide Victims Support Group and a British child migrants group.

“I decided on a career in social work because I want to help people create more positive lives for themselves,” she said.

Each day at the Woodside Trails Therapeutic Camp in the piney woods near Smithville, Texas, brings new challenges for master’s degree student Mario Cortez. (And, he’s not even talking about the freezing temperatures, rain, bugs and now heat.) Cortez provides counseling to troubled boys over games of basketball, story telling, hikes and “any and everything that allows them to share their stories and work through issues.

“Being a part of their struggles and progress offers me unbelievable insight into my own learning—as a social worker and person,” he said.

“As a camper and one who enjoys the outdoors, I was intrigued by the wilderness camp concept and how teaching survival skills is a form of therapeutic treatment,” said Cortez. “Fieldwork is great because we have the opportunity to take everything we have ingested and learned in a formal education setting and turn it outward.”

Bethany Wofford is doing her fieldwork at one of the world’s premier humanitarian organizations, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. It has been an eye-opening experience and “one that I know will guide my work as I look for ways in which to affect social change on a domestic and international level,” she said.

The headquarters building is about a five-minute walk from the U.N. Palais de Nations, the original headquarters of the League of Nations.

Mario Cortez at the Woodside Trails Therapeutic Camp near Smithville, Texas
Mario Cortez helps troubled boys at the Woodside Trails Therapeutic Camp near Smithville, Texas.

All of the people Wofford works with have worked directly in refugee emergency situations and are willing to share their expertise and experiences with her. The commission, she said, primarily operates as an emergency response agency, reacting to international conflict and crisis by coordinating humanitarian action. It is a fast-paced environment.

“What I find most fascinating about my placement is the international scale that everything takes place on,” said Wofford, who is working on a project for evaluating the community services provided to refugees worldwide.

“In addition to the amazing experience of being a part of the U.N. system, the placement has been invaluable in terms of increasing my knowledge and understanding of community development and empowerment,” she said. “Many people, including some social workers, unfortunately view the profession as one that provides handouts and charity to individuals. I see it as a way to promote empowerment and healthy development of individuals, families and communities. In considering a career in social work, it never seemed like there was much of a choice for me.”

Wofford said she has never contemplated a career that did not involve intervening in the world around her in an effort to facilitate social change.

“I am not sure how I could motivate myself to get up in the morning and go to work if all I was gaining from it was a comfortable living,” she said.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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