Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Expect the Unexpected: International Short-Term Study Course Pedagogies and Practices

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Expect the Unexpected: International Short-Term Study Course Pedagogies and Practices

Article excerpt

Our assumptions hide in the most logical statements. We open this article with a commonly accepted assumption of study abroad courses for MSW students: The trip itself will deepen and expand participants' understanding of and competency in multiculturalism and international perspectives (Fairchild, Pillai, & Noble, 2006). Although we agree on the power of short-term international programs, we raise the question: What makes them a viable method? Research suggests multicultural and international understanding outcomes are not automatically supported by international study courses. Lewin (2009) wrote, "We know painfully well that students can virtually isolate themselves from the culture at large, living with other Americans and frequenting only places catering to American students" (p. 10). There is no guarantee that study abroad experiences in and of themselves will broaden and challenge students' worldviews (Lutterman-Aguilar & Gingerich, 2002), nor is increased cultural competency guaranteed for MSW students who participate.

As John Dewey (1916) described over a century ago, experiences can be "mis-educative" just as easily as they can be educative. We acknowledge this possibility and remain critical of assuming international study courses will be beneficial and instead ask: What practices and pedagogies support their educative potential? For students to learn about difference and to develop cultural sensitivity, a good experience and supporting pedagogies and education practices are often required (Younes & Asay, 2003).

In this article, we explore and reflect on three critical incidents that took place on a school-supported, short-term international study course for MSW students to the Netherlands and South Africa. We begin by briefly discussing how current and projected demographic changes require a renewed focus on internationalizing the social work curriculum and by presenting the related challenges. Then we discuss how short-term courses have sought to meet this challenge and their typical aims and outcomes. With this background, we introduce the methodology we used to implement the course following best practices in the field. We then describe the three critical incidents and discuss the tensions and challenges they illuminate for short-term international courses with MSW students. These data are used in the final section to explore and recommend pedagogies to support student multicultural and international learning on short-term international courses. With the growing offering of study abroad courses in MSW programs, this awareness is necessary to ensure these courses remain educative experiences for MSW students.


A shift has gradually occurred over the last decade; educators now generally accept that MSW students require a background understanding of international social work to be fully prepared to work in any community (Healy, 2008; Hokenstad & Midgley, 2004). Social work problems are no longer local problems. We agree that "such universal, everyday problems as violence against women, ageing populations, family breakdown and drug addiction, and child abuse and neglect, [are] problems deeply rooted in structure of the existing international social order" (Donnelly-Smith, 2009, p. 13). Regardless of where social workers work, they are likely to encounter and must address global issues (Collins, Kim, Clay, & Perlstein, 2009; Hokenstad & Midgley, 2004).

The internationalization of social issues has increased alongside an increase in diversity for most counties. This diversity is no longer isolated in major urban centers but now includes rural and suburban locations as well (Blunt, 2007).

Today, even in many rural locations, the United States has become so richly diverse that one does not need to travel more than a few blocks from campus to have a cross-cultural exposure, hear other languages spoken, meet people from different cultural traditions and discover religious practice different from our own. …

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