Sept. 22, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 2

Graduate School of Social Work students worked on a Habitat for Humanity project as part of a GSSW course on human services in Romania.

GSSW Takes the Classroom Overseas

Social work faculty, students increase school's international activity

By By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Boston College social work students this summer saw first-hand how one of Europe's poorest countries is remaking its human services system - and helped a family take the first steps out of poverty in the process.

For the second year in a row, Prof. Betty Blythe (GSSW) took students in her Human Services in Romania class for a three-week stay during late July and August in the Eastern European nation. The GSSW group visited with human service agencies and professionals to learn about their experiences in helping Romanians - 30 percent of who live beneath the poverty line - cope with health, social, economic and family needs.

Blythe and the 10 students also spent a week helping to build a home for a family in the city of Beius as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.

The students hoped to gain insights that went beyond the academic and professional, and they were not disappointed.

"The Habitat for Humanity build was a life-changing experience that I will always hold close," said Sarah Conti, a native of Guilford, Conn. "We also had the opportunity to see some placement centers and visit a hospital where some abandoned children reside. That was incredibly powerful and I personally could have stayed there for the rest of the trip.

"It was hard to say goodbye to the children I met there, and to think that I was just another person who had such a brief stay in his or her life - a life with so little consistency."

The Romania class and service trip is one of the more recent examples of GSSW's growing international presence. While the school has hardly been inactive abroad in the past, as GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi points out - "We've been offering trips for almost 30 years to countries in Africa, Asia, Central America and Europe" - the past several years have seen a concerted effort to increase the global perspective among GSSW faculty and students.

Among its more notable initiatives, GSSW has now introduced a Global Practice component to its curriculum, and is transforming some of its two-week service trips abroad into three-month field placements. "Our graduates will be engaged locally and internationally in issues of humanitarian aid, social development and capacity building," said Godenzi.

Blythe's Human Services in Romania class examines the role of the social work profession in international social development. By exploring various professional methods for promoting self-sufficiency, social integration, social change, and justice in a developing country, Blythe says, students can learn the role of social work practice skills on micro and macro levels.

Blythe got the idea for a class on service learning from a former advisee with an interest in Habitat for Humanity, the nondenominational Christian charity that has helped some 1 million people world-wide build and purchase their own homes through low-cost, non-profit mortgages. The organization recommended a service trip to Beius, "which is their strongest affiliate in Europe," said Blythe.

Romania also presents a compelling case for study from a social work perspective, she said. The country's transition from the centralized economy of its Communist era to a free market approach has been a difficult one: Romania's average annual income in 2001 was $1,720, and the average monthly salary is $75; 22.3 million Romanians live in poverty, and two-thirds of them lack heat and running water.

While there are widespread socioeconomic concerns, it is Romania's child welfare system - or lack of it - that has garnered international attention, says Blythe. Even as the country has closed state orphanages, health issues such as HIV have forced a halt to out-of-country adoptions.

Among those confronting child welfare problems is the agency Romanian Child Relief, with whom Blythe's class has formed a partnership. The GSSW group met and worked with Romanian Child Relief representatives as part of the trip.

"One of the valuable things about a visit like this," said Blythe, "is you get a chance to see how different countries address social needs. For example, Romania has what might be called 'full-time' foster parents, with a salary and benefits; this means that children now tend to be in far more stable settings for longer periods of time.

"We met a number of people who saw a need and formed their own [non-governmental organization] to deal with the problem. The lesson there is, you don't have to depend on an existing organization or agency; you fill the need, and you persevere against the odds."

The trip was full of meaningful revelations, personal as well as professional, said the GSSW contingent. Second-year student Philip Amaral wrote Blythe: "One lesson from that experience that continues to stand out for me is the value of manual labor, and how it can transcend social, political, and cultural boundaries. Despite the large gaps between us and our Romanian colleagues, we found common ground in the labor we performed together...

"In my opinion, our experience in Beius speaks to larger issues of self-sufficiency, and how shared, goal directed labor can lead to immensely positive outcomes and a strong sense of self-determination."

Michelle Katz, who is of Romanian descent, found that learning about pressing social issues - such as the abandoned children population and discrimination against the country's Roma gypsies - fueled her desire to work in the field of human rights.

"I found it very stimulating to experience a different way of life and have meaningful conversations with Romanians about the state of the country, the political system, and their value and belief systems," she said.

"As always, expanding one's mind and cross-cultural understanding can only be beneficial in one's career and for the future of the world.

top of page