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Success Stories - Social Work Abroad

In the United States, the discipline is called social work. In the European Union, there is a type of social work called social education. Both focus on the socio-educational needs of individuals and communities, but each goes about it very differently.

Giving undergraduates an opportunity to understand the strengths of social work and social education through study abroad experiences and faculty exchanges is the goal of a four-year project involving three U.S. and three EU colleges and universities.

The project, the Transatlantic Alliance for Creating a New Social Services Practice Model, is funded by a more than $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education through its Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The grant has made it possible for students from the University of Maine, Barry University and Providence College, Plantijn Hogeschool in Belgium, Peter Sabroe Seminariet in Denmark and the Universitat Ramon Llull in Spain to be involved in semester-long exchanges, fieldwork, and Web-based coursework and collaboration.

“The goal is for our students to go abroad and learn some of the skills of social educators that they can bring into their social work practice, and vice versa,” says UMaine Associate Professor of Social Work Gail Werrbach, who wrote the grant in collaboration with the nonprofit International Learning Exchange, based in Maine.

At UMaine, the first student exchange was in fall 2005. Since then, seven UMaine social work undergrads and one graduate student have studied in Belgium and Denmark, and nine students from those countries and Spain have come to Maine. Werrbach and her counterparts at the other institutions have been visiting faculty.

Both social work and social education strive to improve people’s functioning and support the social-cultural areas of their lives, Werrbach says. But social work also emphasizes advocacy for populations of people and changing social policies. Social workers with bachelor’s degrees are often case managers; those with master’s tend to work in clinical treatment settings.

In addition, social work is empirically based, with an emphasis on how to measure effectiveness, she says.

Social education focuses on working with small groups and individuals. Social educators are trained to incorporate personal strengths into their practice.

“In some ways, social educators work more like the old-time group work social workers. They incorporate personal interests (i.e. music, sports or crafts) into their professional lives to improve clients’ functioning,” Werrbach says. “In the U.S., we’ve become so totally into looking at behaviors that we haven’t figured out how to get back to a holistic view of the individual client.”

Kate Norman, one of two UMaine students in Belgium this past fall, says one of the most important lessons she learned was to view each client as a unique individual.

“It is my goal as a social worker to help meet their objectives instead of viewing clients as my objective,” she says.

Norman says her study abroad experience challenged her personally and professionally, giving her increased confidence in her skills as a social work student.

“As a result of this experience,” she says, “I am looking into joining the Peace Corps to do HIV outreach in Africa.”

Image Description: Cindy DeWilde and Esther Palmans of Belgium, front, left to right, and Morten Andreasen of Denmark spent the past fall semester at the University of Maine as part of the United States-European Union social work-social education exchange. The three shared their perspectives on the client-oriented approach of their social education training. In turn, they were introduced to such aspects of social work as community-based service, mandated documentation, and boundaries between practitioner and client. "This experience has provided a mirror for me to see my own practice within a different culture," Andreasen said.

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Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences
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The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469