International Fieldwork Placements:
Considering Pros and Cons
In Social Work schools across the United States, fields of social work practice can include international fieldwork placements. International fieldwork placements are growing in popularity as students seek to broaden their experience across borders.
Universities seeking to cater to student interests in international work offer a variety of international options, making a vast selection of countries, field sites, and program structures available.
Those fields of social work practice which include International fieldwork programs are attractive because of the great potential benefits they offer to students, but one should also consider potential challenges involved in conducting fieldwork abroad.
Fields of Social Work Practice: Benefits of International Fieldwork
The potential benefits of international fieldwork are significant, especially in the fields of social work practice continues to grow throughout the world. In our increasingly globalized world, social work students stand to gain much from cultural immersion and work experience. The potential advantages of an international fieldwork placement include:
- Strengthening Language Skills – Students interested in working abroad in countries that speak another language will need to have proficient language skills before embarking on their fieldwork experience. However, the immersive experience of living in a country and speaking the language every day will greatly strengthen existing skills, broadening vocabulary and increasing comfort with the language.
- Recognizing the Global Context of Social Work Practice – The Council on Social Work Education has made recognizing social work practice’s global contexts a priority, and international field placements can enhance students’ understanding of the impact of globalizing forces, migratory patterns, colonialist and imperialist histories, and disparities between regions.
- Increasing Cultural Competency – Social work practice in a different cultural context can lead to “deepened empathy and respect for members of cultural groups other than their own,” and also allow students to experience being the “other.” These unique experiences serve to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity with diverse groups of people in future social work practice.
- Becoming part of the International Social Work Community – Students who engage in international field work begin to recognize the reach of the profession beyond U.S. borders, and thereby, become a part of the international social work community.
- Preparing Students to Work Abroad – Those interested in living abroad more permanently during their social work careers will be better prepared to practice social work in the international context.
- Learning New Practices3 – Students in international fieldwork placements have the opportunity to witness, learn about, and practice innovative methodologies and techniques being used in other regions of the world that could be incorporated into practice in the U.S.
- Learning outside the Field Site – Many international social work programs consider the entire immersion experience as part of the student’s placement hours, recognizing the great amount of learning that takes place through cultural immersion.
Fields of Social Work Practice: Concerns in International Fieldwork Placements
While great potential benefits certainly exist, there are also many prohibitive factors discouraging students from participating in international fieldwork placements when evaluating their fields of social work practice. These concerns should be considered, and if possible, addressed:
- Cost – Traveling and living abroad can be very expensive, and fieldwork placements are generally unpaid. In addition to the expenses of traveling to and within a new country, students are still responsible for tuition to their educational institution, making international fieldwork inaccessible for many.
- Less Depth – Because students will be working in a different cultural environment, and often, in a different language, international fieldwork placements might not go into as much depth as placements in the U.S. Social work as a profession is viewed and functions differently in different regions, so students should be aware that they might not receive in-depth training in specific areas.
- Unfamiliarity with Organizations – When searching for a fieldwork placement in the university area, students are generally familiar with many of the local organizations and can do further research to be selective in where they choose to conduct their fieldwork. Internationally, students are not likely to be familiar with the existing organizations and might end up in a placement that is not a good fit.
- Differing Standards and Practices – Students in international fieldwork placements might miss out on the opportunity to learn and practice certain standards and practices in the U.S., such as applying for federal assistance, or billing and coding for insurance. These skills could be vital in future social work positions.
- Quality of Supervision – Because social work as a profession varies from region to region, students in international fieldwork placements cannot expect that their appointed fieldwork supervisor will have had similar training to fieldwork supervisors in the U.S. In some instances, international fieldwork supervisors might be professionals from another field, instead of MSWs.
- Issues of Adjustment – Students might have a hard time adjusting to life in a new country and a new culture, and this could greatly impact their ability to focus on their education and perform well in their roles.
- Personal Safety – One must always keep in mind the potential risks of traveling, living, and working in an unfamiliar area.
- Applicability of Student Knowledge – “Many approaches developed in western culture have limited relevance for working in non-western contexts,” which means that students might find their education and training have not prepared them for social work practice internationally, leaving them feeling incompetent or ineffective.
International fieldwork placements for social work students might offer an opportunity for students to enhance their education and practice experience in a new global context, and allow them to better respond to “the challenges and opportunities of the new global area.”
However, students considering these options must also keep in mind the potential drawbacks of international fieldwork, and critically consider their own needs and motivations.
As the social work profession continues to grow internationally, social work programs need to develop “a curriculum that encourages locally specific and relevant – rather than western – perspective, addressing issues of students’ safety, logistics, and cost,” allowing students to reap the benefits of international fieldwork placements if they so choose.