Because as social workers we believe in the worth of individuals and strive to work for justice for those who are oppressed,
we cannot limit our thinking to our own back yard. This is of particular importance
as our world shrinks due to advances in technology and our recent experiences with September 11th. There is clear value to be gained from studying abroad. It
allows a student to be in an environment that creates the thinking of an individual from another culture. Being able to understand why others are influenced to a certain mindset by their environment helps one
to attain a certain level of cultural competence. This was the reason I committed
to a trip to El Salvador last spring.
Once I committed to
go to El Salvador I knew I would step out of my comfort zone. However, any time
I had experienced growth in my life it was when I had done just that. I knew
this experience would lead to an understanding of what my prospective clients might feel as they came to me for help. No matter the area of practice in social work our clients come to us in a position
of vulnerability. Knowing how my clients would feel would greatly aid me
as I step out into the world of professional practice.
While I was in El Salvador
I realized that people could sense things about other individuals whether or not they speak the person’s language. The people of El Salvador illustrated this point to me on more than one occasion. For instance, one day while standing outside of a local church a woman who was about
my mother’s age approached me and began to converse. She asked me about
the Band-Aid on my leg and asked if the dog that had accompanied me on this excursion had bit me. I replied that he had not. When she asked I could tell she
had some sort of speech impediment and had I difficulty understanding her. Then
she began to speak more rapidly and my limited education in Spanish could not keep up with her. I however, nodded and gave her my full attention. I smiled
and nodded a lot. I suspect she might have known that I didn’t understand
everything she said. Perhaps with a speech impediment, she encountered that often. Perhaps people gave up on listening to her, although I suspect that in our fast paced
culture giving up on listening to someone with communication difficulties is much more prevalent. This wonderful woman talked to me for ten minutes. Though
I couldn’t understand her words, she taught me an important lesson about giving my attention to others. I also learned from that encounter to always acknowledge the presence of an individual, even those who
make you uncomfortable, because we all belong to the human race.
My social work field placement
has been influenced by my study abroad experience because of those two individuals and several others. I am in a field placement at a nursing home. Some of
the individuals there have difficulties in communicating. I wonder if I would
have taken the time to give my full attention and listen if it hadn’t been for the woman outside the church. I also work in a residential setting with people who are periodically unable to communicate verbally. However, these individuals communicate by their behavior when they cannot communicate
well verbally. Often individuals with such problems are not treated well by society. However, as I have always thought we all belong, and this thinking was reinforced
by my study abroad experiences.
My understanding of
foreign affairs has also been affected by my trip to El Salvador. Often one thinks
of foreign affairs as something that happens “over there”. This
is example of ethnocentric thinking that needs to be changed in order for our nation to move forward in its world leadership
position. With technology and transportation improvements, what happens abroad
can practically be on our doorstep. This point was ever so poignant as I listened
to the youth of El Salvador tell me about matters of foreign policy of which I had no knowledge. The youth despite their lack of resources had taken to heart matters of foreign policy that
had directly effected their lives. Those youth demonstrated how individuals with
so little can still learn so much. Furthermore, not only can those youth learn,
but also they can teach. Learning from out clients as experts in their own lives
is a central theme of social work.
We cannot any longer afford
to think we are an isolated from the rest of the world. I reiterate we all belong
to the world we live in. What happens in China, Russia, El Salvador, and South
Africa can influence United States foreign policy. Conversely, what we
do effects other nations. If we are ever to live in a world where peace is the
standard we must learn to listen to others giving them our full attention. We
must think of them as belonging to the human race.