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Cultural Context: School for Social Work to Place Three Students in Thailand

Excerpted from an article by Rachel Simpson in the SSW newsletter, spring 2007.

Beginning in the fall, the Smith School for Social Work will extend the reach of student placements to the international level with three its students heading to Thailand.

Second-year students Sara Schieffelin, Cassiel Owens, and Madeline Kilpatrick were selected for the field placements at the Department of Psychiatry at Suan Dok Hospital, the Chiang Mai Coordination Center for Protection of Child and Women’s Rights, and the Chiang Mai Neurological Hospital.

Each student will also work in community-based settings, including those that aid street children and women rescued from the sex trades. At the same time, they will participate in training with undergraduate students from Chiang Mai University, and with monks enrolled in a social work program.

Carolyn du Bois, Smith’s director of fieldwork, says the placements are part of the school’s response to increased globalization and reflect the goal of the Council on Social Work Education and Dean Carolyn Jacobs to train social workers who are able to practice in diverse cultural settings.

“We are responding to the need to think about social work in a more global context and to train people to work cross-culturally with a range of clients,” du Bois said.

The placements in Thailand build on work performed there by Associate Professor Catherine Nye, who first visited the country when her son resided there in the 1990s and “fell in love with it.”

Later, while on sabbatical during the 2001-2002 academic year, Nye received a Fulbright scholarship to study social work in northern Thailand. She spent seven months in the country, establishing relationships and making connections at social work agencies and at Chiang Mai University and with monks. She has since returned for several weeks each winter to pursue an ethnographic study of social work practice in northern Thailand, with a particular emphasis on understanding the relationship between cultural values, principles and ideas about social work.

“The functions that we in the U.S. think of as social work functions are provided in Thailand by three different delivery systems -- professional social workers in government organizations, workers in non-governmental organizations, which traditionally have not employed social workers, and Buddhist monks in ‘Wats’ or temples,” said Nye. “It’s important for our students to understand and have some experience in each of these different settings.”

Du Bois hopes to develop future placement opportunities in Puerto Rico and Bulgaria. Her long-term goal is to offer placements that will allow students to work with a specific immigrant population in the United States and then with the same population in its native country.

The three students will take an independent study with Nye to prepare them for Thailand.

“I hope the independent study will give us a chance to get to know each other and form a support network before students leave for the field,” said Nye.  “I can also share my ‘local knowledge’ of more practical matters -- where to eat, live, how to get around -- which should help students navigate the realities of life in a city that is very far from home.”

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