Principles of Effective Practice in International Social Work Field Placements

By Lough, Benjamin J. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Principles of Effective Practice in International Social Work Field Placements


Lough, Benjamin J., Journal of Social Work Education


IN THE CURRENT ERA OF GLOBALIZATION, social work training programs are frequently tasked with facilitating international practica as students seek educational experiences abroad. As of 2004, one in five accredited schools of social work in the United States placed at least one student in an international practicum (Panos, Pettys, Cox, & Jones, 2004). In addition, more than half of the schools of social work in Canada facilitated field experiences for students desiring to serve overseas (Caragata & Sanchez, 2002).

Considering the popularity of international social work practica (ISWP), it is important that those facilitating these placements understand research addressing the outcomes of these experiences on students and communities. In addition, field educators should be acquainted with theory explaining which programmatic elements are necessary for the successful implementation of these placements. The International Association of Schools of Social Work/International Federation of Social Workers Global Standards documents state, "Field education should be sufficient in duration and complexity of tasks and learning opportunities to ensure that students are prepared for professional practice" (2005, p. 5). However, little scholarship has specifically addressed the importance of these and other principles.

This research fills a call to advance scholarship on effective practices of ISWP. Although limited case studies document these experiences (Abram, Slosar, & Walls, 2005; Boyle, Nackerud, & Kilpatrick, 1999; Pawar, Hanna, & Sheridan, 2004), little information has been collected by schools of social work on the effects of international placements on students and host organizations (Caragata & Sanchez, 2002). Because specific research on ISWP is limited, this article draws on research from the fields of study abroad, service learning, and international volunteering. Although these areas differ on a few important dimensions, such as educational requirements, placement goals, and the voluntary nature of the service activity, research in these fields is conceptually and empirically related (Cnaan & Amrofell, 1994; Engle & Engle, 2003; Furco, 1996; Mooney & Edwards, 2001; Wessel, 2007). This study connects these bodies of literature and specifically fills the call to examine the value of study abroad to specific subjects such as social work (Hoff, 2008).

Students enrolled in social work summer courses overseas or other international placements often describe their experiences as "life changing, .... transformative," or "turning points" in their lives (Caragata & Sanchez, 2002; Grusky, 2000; Larson & Allen, 2006). This transformative change often leads to increased commitment to service domestically and abroad, greater cross-cultural understanding, and other significant benefits (Abram et al., 2005; Sherraden, Lough, & McBride, 2008). Through these placements, students may gain a greater awareness of global poverty, formulate realistic intervention strategies, recognize their role as global participants, and strengthen their commitment to social justice. The ability of students to gain these insights, however, is contingent on appropriate curriculum, support, and supervision. When institutional support is not provided, international placements may increase students' ethnocentricity and provide less benefit to the host site (Bennet, 1993; Pusch & Merrill, 2008; Simpson, 2004).

Theory suggests that when institutional capacity to facilitate the experience is low, students' experiences can be ineffective or counterproductive--leading to greater prejudice, less tolerance, and poor cross-cultural understanding (Mezirow, 1991; Reiman, Sprinthall & Thies-Sprinthall, 1997; Sherraden et al., 2008). Likewise, poorly implemented placements may negatively affect the host organization and community by reproducing paternalism, imperialism, and dependence, often associated with unidirectional service from the global North (Engel, 2006; Simpson, 2004; Wardorf, 2001). …

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