The 2023 cohort of students in the Global Practice program will be working in 19 countries around the world. (Graphic by Rebecca McDade)

Though the spring semester is newly under way, 25 BC School of Social Work students are already well into the next phase of their education.

Working in locations as far away as the Philippines, Uganda, Cambodia, and Lebanon as well as in the United States, the BCSSW students are involved in a range of tasks, some providing counseling and case management support to survivors of gender-based violence, or developing and implementing programming for newly arrived refugees. Others are establishing monitoring and evaluation protocols for mental health and psychosocial support programming, or researching and advocating global migration policies and peace theory and praxis.

The 25 form the largest cohort in the 17-year history of BCSSW’s Global Practice program, which prepares students for the fields of global social work, humanitarian aid, and international development. Global Practice focuses on addressing complex social issues that go beyond national boundaries and affect many populations, blending social work praxis with the principles of human rights, human security, human development, and the promotion of sustainable solutions to social problems.

Students in the program go on a field placement for their final semester, working domestically or internationally with one of BCSSW’s intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizational partners such as Jesuit Refugee Service, Catholic Relief Services, International Catholic Migration Commission, International Rescue Committee, Lighthouse Relief, Solid Minds, FXB India Suraksha, and PTI Cebu.

The desire to provide more holistic and integrated services led me to pursue social work. The BCSSW program is incredibly unique in how it practically prepares students to work in a variety of contexts with a global lens to better support individuals and communities.
Global Practice student Rebecca Carney

BCSSW administrators say the Global Practice field placement serves as a proving ground for students’ professional, academic, and personal formation—an opportunity to not only put theory, instruction, and values into action under the tutelage of experienced professionals, but test their ability to adapt to unfamiliar environments and cultural perspectives.

“Students learn more about themselves than they might think,” said BCSSW Assistant Director for Field Education Lyndsey McMahan. “How do you interact with someone whose life seems to have little in comparison to yours? How do you live in a place that’s so vastly different than what you’re used to? How do you navigate a situation when basic supplies and staples of everyday life aren’t available? That’s when their problem-solving skills are needed.”

Thomas Crea

BC School of Social Work Professor Thomas Crea, assistant dean for global programs

“So much of this work you learn by doing, meeting challenges, and pivoting,” said Assistant Dean for Global Programs and Professor Thomas Crea. “It requires a combination of what might be called ‘hard skills’—like program management, evaluation, and budgeting—as well as ‘soft skills,’ like openness and cultural awareness. We open the door to these students, but when they step through that door, it’s up to them to work through what they find using the skills we’ve taught them.”

Rebecca Carney, a native of Harmony Township, N.J., who is in a field placement with JRS in Lebanon, found the Global Practice program was a logical extension of her work with NGOs responding to natural disasters, armed conflicts, or other emergencies in the U.S. and around the world.

Rebecca Carney

Global Practice student Rebecca Carney

“I witnessed the breakdown of community supports and structures, and felt drawn to understanding and addressing the daily stressors and mental health needs for impacted populations as well,” said Carney, who is working in the JRS Mental Health and Psychosocial Support department. “The desire to provide more holistic and integrated services led me to pursue social work. The BCSSW program is incredibly unique in how it practically prepares students to work in a variety of contexts with a global lens to better support individuals and communities. With a macro track in the Global Practice program, I hope to continue working in humanitarian action to develop integrated mental health and psychosocial support programs for refugees and other displaced persons.

“The field placement provides a remarkable opportunity towards this goal by drawing on past experiences and BC classes to continue learning and provide tangible support to NGOs.”

Lyndsey McMahan

BCSSW Assistant Director for Field Education Lyndsey McMahan

While some students like Carney come to the Global Practice program with prior experience in humanitarian or developmental work, the field placement is nonetheless a significant part of their training, noted Crea and McMahan. The assignment is less about directly administering aid—serving food or providing medical care to refugees, for example—than it is evaluating, adjusting, or creating programs or policies that provide longer-term and more holistic solutions to address issues affecting populations in need.

At the same time, they added, the Global Practice program stresses the need to be open-minded and look beyond conventional Western-based perspectives and approaches.

“We can never know what we need to know about a culture or community until we take the time to watch and listen,” said McMahan. “So, we emphasize the need to be respectful and not make broad assumptions about what’s needed and how problems can be solved.”

Jacob Furey-Rosan

Global Practice student Jacob Furey-Rosan

Jacob Furey-Rosan, whose field placement is in Uganda with JRS Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, said his first few days were enlightening and, in some respects, challenged his preconceptions.

“I can say confidently that Uganda is welcoming to refugees, and hosts nearly one-and-a-half million refugees fleeing violence and instability in neighboring African countries like South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. That makes Uganda one of the top refugee-hosting countries in the world. Here, they have greater freedom of movement and legal ability to work and study than in other host countries.”

Vincent Sweeney

Global Practice student Vincent Sweeney

“The placement in Romania gives me the skills I’m looking for, and to me that’s more important than location,” said Vincent Sweeney, in an interview a couple of weeks before leaving the U.S. for his JRS placement in Bucharest. “I tend to thrive in a crisis situation, and this feels like a good setting for me. Even if the war in Ukraine were to end tomorrow, there are many complex issues here that need to be addressed.”

Refugees face many daunting challenges, note the Global Practice students, and one of these is the perception that they are beyond the capability to lead any kind of normal life. This view, say the students, ignores the physical and mental trauma refugees endure, and discounts the resilience and strength of character they possess.

“This assumption reinforces power imbalances that strip refugees of any agency and deteriorate individual and community resilience,” said Carney. “In the Global Practice program, we discussed how displaced persons can go through distressing events, but with mental health and psychosocial support, basic needs, and other services, they can make decisions to promote their own well-being and thrive. As a social worker in a humanitarian space, I consistently and consciously counteract this narrative by aiming to operate with humility, awareness, and intention.”

 “[Refugees] have proven themselves capable by escaping from the dangers they fled, across mountains, deserts, oceans, hostile cities, and dangerous borders,” said Furey-Rosan. “If they were completely helpless, lacking in skills or aptitude, how could they have made it? Triumph can still come at a cost, though, and no one can do it all alone. Now, in a new, strange, and in some cases unwelcoming country, they will need help to adjust, to recover from the difficulties and adversity they faced, and learn new skills to match their new home.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | January 2023