Snogging with Giraffes

Over winter break, I was lucky enough to participate in the Conservation Social Work course in Kenya.  It was a life-changing experience that has completely changed my outlook on life as well as impacted my professional goals.  The Conservation Social Work in Kenya course is offered to concentration year students and is part of GSSW’s animal-assisted therapy program (although you are not required to be in the animal-assisted social work certificate to participate).  Throughout the fall quarter, we met every couple of weeks for class and then we traveled to Kenya for 2 weeks over the winter break.

It would take me pages and pages to describe my entire Kenya experience, but here are a couple of stories from my trip:

  • This is the fun story…We had the opportunity to visit the Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville Giraffe Center where we got to feed and pet rescued giraffes.  After getting to know them a little bit most of us chose to get up close and personal with the giraffes, allowing them to eat pellets of food off of our lips.  It turns out giraffes are quite slobbery kissers and have large, black, sand-papery tongues.  (If you would like more information about the Giraffe Center, you can go to www.giraffecenter.org.)

 

 

  • This is the sad story…We had the chance to explore Kibera, which is the largest slum in Africa (and the 2nd largest in the world, behind India).  As we walked through the slum, we heard children chanting, “How-are-you?” and “Muzungo, muzungo!” (“white person, white person!”); we saw mounds of trash, mangey dogs, and lots of people; and we smelled cattle legs being grilled on fires.  It was extremely intense and like nothing else I have ever seen in the United States.  All of the homes were made of mud and sticks with sheet metal as rooves.  Most of them had a “store” on their front porch and when you walked into the home there was generally one 10 foot by 10 foot room that 5-7 people lived in with no bathroom.  Most of us were completely speechless and even now, it is hard to really describe what it was like to visit Kibera.  Although it was sad and emotional, it was also frustrating on a larger scale.  The Kenyan government does not acknowledge that there are 3 million people living in Kibera (they say there are only several thousand).  They do not have any kind of medical care or job security.  In fact, the only time the government pretends to care about what is going on there is during election season.  Overall, it was an amazing experience to interact with the community and to see the struggles they are experiencing.

  • This is the perspective-changing story…In one of the villages we visited called Kasigau, I spent some time interacting with a family in their home.  When it was time to make lunch, they said that it was customary for the visitor to slaughter a chicken.  I had no idea how to react–I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the family, but there was no way I was going to be able to kill a chicken by myself.  Thankfully, one of my translators actually did the slaughtering, but I did help with the rest of the process.  While the whole thing was going on, one of the 13 year old girls asked me if I didn’t eat chicken.  I told her that of course I eat chicken, so then she asked me why this was such a big deal for me if I ate chicken.  I then had to explain to her that in the United States, we generally go to a grocery store to buy packaged chicken that no longer resembles a bird.  She could not understand this whatsoever–it just did not make sense to her that there were factories that supplied this type of food to us as consumers.  It really made me think about how disconnected we are from the food we eat in the United States.  As I have reintegrated into our society, I find myself passing by the meat sections in the grocery store and feeling sick because of how inhumanely those animals were most likely treated.  This experience really changed the way I think about the food I am putting into my mouth.

 

Overall, Kenya was an amazing experience and there are plenty more stories where these came from.  While we were in Africa, our class actually attempted to blog about our experiences.  So if you are interested in learning more about the things we did while we were there, you can visit http://learn2conserve.wordpress.com

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Half Way There!

I’m officially one half of an MSW!  As finals week come to a close and summer arrives, I have began to reflect on my GSSW experience so far.  Although I have learned a lot of facts and details about social work history, theories, policies, and research, this hasn’t been the most important part of my education.  I learned the most about myself and about “real” social work through my experiences at my internship.  I could probably go on for pages and pages discussing all of the valuable skills that I have developed, but I will stick to the most important…

  • I learned the importance of balancing my life and making sure there was enough “me” time in there.  I am the kind of person who enjoys having a lot on my plate–when I have any kind of down time, I get bored.  However, I learned how important self-care is and that I need to make time to just relax so I don’t get burnt out too quickly.
  • The concept of “person-in-environment” was re-enforced daily at my internship.  Basically, it is important to understand everything that is going on in your client’s life in order to treat his or her behaviors accordingly.  Often times, a behavior has nothing to do with the specific situation, but may have everything to do with an issue the client deals with at home or in school.
  • I have also learned how to process my feelings better–at my internship I learned a lot about examining why certain children’s behaviors triggered me in certain ways.  This has been an area of personal growth that will make me a better social worker.

Overall, I realize that my thought process has changed over the course of this year–I feel like I am truly starting to “think like a social worker.”  Although I have learned a lot, I know I will learn even more during my second year.  I am looking forward to next year’s classes as they are much more focused on a subject matter that I am passionate about (high-risk youth) and I can’t wait to start my new internship in the fall!

I wish you all the best of luck and hope you have a fabulous summer!!

Until next year,

Katelyn

Project Bosnia and Herzegovina: International Service Learning and Social Work

My departure for Bosnia and Herzegovina is fast approaching. With 3 class sessions at DU, participants in this year’s 8-week international service learning experience in Bosnia have the opportunity to learn about one another and build a historical context around the Balkan Wars and genocide. In-class discussions are often overwhelming, revealing the despair and pain continually endured by the Bosnian people. However, as I personally prepare for an international internship and begin to understand the complexities of the human spirit, specifically the resilience that propels people forward in their lives, I am excited to engage in a learning process grounded in individual and community experience.

From readings, film clips, and images, Sarajevo appears to be a vibrant community, touting a coffee culture, cobblestone roads, and mountain greenery. Though Bosnia’s recent conflict leaves an unsettling feeling and uncertainty of how to tread in a culturally responsive way, maintaining focus on the totality of human experience, a holistic perspective that enables me to understand human experience in all of its relationships and connections, reminds me to be open to and aware of those facets of Bosnian life that maintain and create meaning.

I am excited to begin my learning journey in Bosnia, with local Sarajevans, fellow classmates, and the broader environment. It is an opportunity to explore how I, as a social worker, fit into the international community. It is also an opportunity to grow as an individual, to simply be, and develop social, emotional, and physical connections with my surroundings.

Check out the following Lonely Planet video about Sarajevo:

Returning to School After Playing the Field

At GSSW there seems to be a pretty balanced population of students who came straight to graduate school from undergraduate and those folks that have been working in the field for anywhere from 1 year to 25 years.  From my perspective, there are benefits to both and both groups have a lot to offer classroom discussions, each having a different perspective on those populations that we will serve.

 

As a student that worked for a number of years before returning to graduate school, I find that those people that have worked tend to have had their “perfect world” bubble burst long before now.  When you enter the field of social work, regardless of what you studied as an undergraduate, there is a definite period of time when you realize how little you were taught about the reality of the world we live in and the work that we will do as social workers.  You are provided with a new lens through which to look at the clients we serve, the challenges facing non-profits and the discrepancies between the goal of public policy and their actual outcomes.

 

I value the time I spent in the workforce and feel that I’m a better graduate student because of it.  It allowed me to find out what I didn’t want to do as a professional social worker and helped clarify/narrow down what I did want to do.  I also believe that the pressures of work environments taught me to be a better student than I was as an undergraduate (though I was still an overachiever then, too).

A Double Attraction…

I’ve been pulled in two directions… I have to balance a tug of war between my competing attractions: international human rights and social work. One day, my thoughts slowly drift into an international world of theory. My brain is twisted in a million ways, forced to conceptualize the complexities of human rights and human wrongs. And then, the cloud that surrounds my thoughts dissipates and forces me to fall to land where community social work practice is my mantra.

It has been difficult to balance this double attraction, this multidimensional gravitation that seems to make my life incredibly complicated and incredibly interesting simultaneously. But…it is a worthwhile endeavor. I feel like my brain is being worked in every way possible, forced to understand the delicate and necessary balance between theory and practice. Who says I can’t have the best of both attractions?

Studying both international human rights and social work has opened my eyes to the diversity of options that lay before me as I enter the professional world. This coming summer, I will have to opportunity to spend two months in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I will have an international social work field placement that integrates my intersecting interests. It will allow me to explore international opportunities for professional development and understand the complexities of NGOs and international nonprofits. Importantly, knowledge from my international human rights education has opened my eyes to transnational migration flows that lead many people to the United States, people with whom I interact daily in my current field placement with a community organizing nonprofit. A global knowledge base contributes greatly to my understanding of social work practice and is increasingly important in our transnational world. Ultimately, I hope it leads me to an academic social work position, where I can work with future students in the classroom and contribute to scholarly knowledge about the intersection of globalization and social work.

Transitioning from Classroom to Practice

Spring Quarter of your concentration year brings some interesting challenges, what will I do after graduation?!?! However, for some students like myself, you will get hired by your internship placement before graduation. That challenge: How do you balance trying to finish your coursework while making great first impressions and learning your new job? I tried to strategically plan this by taking extra courses in previous courses so that I can be one course lighter this quarter. Also, I am able to role my field hours into my work hours so I don’t need to be working 64 hours a week! Let me tell you that I do feel very overwhelmed by this idea, but I feel confident in my ability to time manage and that my supervisor understands that I do need to be in class 6 hours a week and we schedule my hours around that. It will be a rough 8 weeks, but the peace of mind of be employed is worth dealing with a little bit more than I would like on my plate.

With transitioning from the classroom to practicing in the field I am eager to utilize all that I have learned in the classroom and through field experiences. I am also ready to learn how I can best effect clients and families.

Spring Break R & R

Finals are exhausting…and seem endless. With one more week to work through, spring break is the light at the end of the tunnel and a much needed break from the pile of books sitting on my desk. I’m heading to Portland to catch some fresh air and an ocean view. My biggest suggestion: drop the books and go on an adventure  (catching up on those ZZZs is a great idea too!). Denver and the Rocky Mountains offer plenty of options to play, enjoy the sun, and refresh the mind and body. Whether you like skiing or climbing, good coffee shops or walking paths, take some time to regain your energy and come back prepared for the Spring academic quarter.