The Effect of International Social Work Education: Study Abroad versus On-Campus Courses

By Greenfield, Emily A.; Davis, Rebecca T. et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Effect of International Social Work Education: Study Abroad versus On-Campus Courses


Greenfield, Emily A., Davis, Rebecca T., Fedor, James P., Journal of Social Work Education


UNIVERSITY INTERNATIONAL education programs have shifted from a program reserved for the elite to being a "cornerstone of higher education" (Doyle, 2009, p. 23). Such programs are now perceived as necessary for preparing faculty and students for intercultural sensitivity and global citizenship (Braskamp, Braskamp, & Merrill, 2010). Paralleling this shift has been growing demand among students for study abroad opportunities, as well as expectations for professionals, more generally, to have study abroad experiences (NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 2008). Reflecting these trends, the number of students in the United States studying abroad has doubled in the last decade, and more than 50% of students who study abroad do so by completing a short-term program of 8 weeks or less (Institute of International Education, 2010).

An emphasis on international education has grown within social work as well (Panos, Pettys, Cox, & Jones-Hart, 2004; Poole & Davis, 2006). Enhancing students' competencies to understand the context of global practice has become an explicit requirement of the Council on Social Work Education (2008). The organization's (2008) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) state, "Social workers recognize the global interconnections of oppression and are knowledgeable about theories of justice and strategies to promote human and civil rights" (Council on Social Work Education, 2.1.5, p. 5). Moreover, one in five accredited schools places students in international field settings (Panos et al., 2004).

As the numbers of programs and participating students and faculty in international courses have increased, so too have questions about the academic integrity and learning outcomes across the wide spectrum of program designs (Healy, Asamoah, & Hokenstad, 2003; Doyle, 2009; Panos et al., 2004). A great deal of anecdotal data justifies the value of study abroad for students' professional development (e.g., Dwyer, 2004; Medina-Lopez-Portillo, 2004). Nevertheless, few studies have systematically explored outcomes among students participating in these courses, especially in comparison with on-campus courses that also focus on international issues.

To address this research gap, this study analyzed survey data from a large number of students at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, School of Social Work (RUSSW), who recently completed an international-focused social work course. As one of the largest Master in Social Work (MSW) programs in the United States, RUSSW initiated its international social work education program in 2006 by launching an on-campus graduate international social work course, as well as study abroad courses in 2007. To date, RUSSW offers 2-week guided study courses to China, Israel, and Romania. This study examined similarities and differences among students who participated in the guided study abroad courses in contrast to students who participated in the on-campus course on international social work. Similarities and differences were examined in terms of sociodemographic characteristics and prior international exposure, as well as gains in professional development before and after participation in the courses.

Theoretical Background

Theories of human development to examine the implications of international education for students' professional development (e.g., Braskamp, Braskamp, & Merrill, 2009; Sutton & Rubin, 2004). Contemporary perspectives suggest that human development--as continuity and change across diverse domains of human functioning--results from person-environment transactions that occur throughout the life course (Lerner, 2002). A transactional approach suggests not only that social and physical environments influence individuals' development over time but also that individuals themselves influence the very environments in which they develop (Greene, 2008). Accordingly, a contemporary developmental perspective provides a general framework for conceptualizing international social work courses as creating learning environments that influence students' development, while also suggesting that individual characteristics lead students to enter such courses. …

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