Seeger Chapel steeple against an orange sunset

Notes from the Field

Social Work Offers First Study Abroad Internship

MILLIGAN COLLEGE, Tenn. (Dec. 17, 2019) — While summer offers a break from lecture halls and textbooks, many students use these months to enhance their education—through internships, study abroad experiences, or investing into communities. Over the summer, Milligan’s area of social work offered a unique experience that combined all three.

In June, four Milligan seniors Alyssa Gibson, of Kingsport, Tennessee; Tensai Hoffman, Volant, Pennsylvania; Minda Martin, Proctorville, Ohio; and Madison Troyer, Louisville, Kentucky, traveled to the Province of Cebu in the Philippines with Rachel Jones, instructor of social work at Milligan. The group spent four weeks interning with Filipino social workers at My Refugee House (MRH), a shelter for girls rescued from trafficking and abuse.

This study abroad experience met one of the core requirements for Milligan’s social work program, competency in cross-cultural environments. The trip also served as one of three fieldwork experiences required of social work majors.

For Jones, the idea to take students abroad has been with her ever since she accepted her position at Milligan. In considering where to travel, she decided to connect her students with the non-profit she served during her time in the Peace Corps.

“I wanted to offer a course that immersed students in a different culture and exposed them to social work outside of the United States,” shared Jones. “I accepted my position at Milligan while I was still in the Philippines with the Peace Corps, and even then, I envisioned bringing students to intern there.”

Returning to the Philippines and to MRH meant organizing a trip without a travel agency or overhead group, which is rare for faculty. The trip would expose students to people and issues connected to heavy topics like trafficking and poverty. Jones decided to keep the cohort small, and she implemented an application process. She also wanted to keep the trip affordable. The students all lived in the same apartment and cooked group dinners where they reflected on their work and new surroundings.

The four seniors spent most of their time working with MRH. Each day, Milligan’s students arrived to observe and learn from the shelter’s social workers. They worked collectively to create a manual for MRH that addressed relevant topics for the girls, such as developing soft skills, life skills, mental health tips, and guidelines for healthy relationships. For a few days, the group visited a local women’s clinic to shadow social workers.

“We spent most of our time learning from social workers in the field,” shared Gibson. “Unlike internships during the school year, we invested a full day’s work for four weeks, and this allowed us to soak up a ton of relevant information that goes beyond our textbooks. We observed the practices they use to run a successful non-profit and heard of the many ways they keep their work sustainable.”

Interning abroad did come with some difficulties, particularly a language barrier. On their first day at the shelter, there was no agenda. Milligan’s students were greeted by 15 Filipino girls living in the shelter. Gibson recalls how immediately apparent it was that the four students were different. However, in all of the excitement, the girls in the shelter took them by the hand and demonstrated several games to their new American friends. Through games and laughter, recounted Gibson, many barriers broke down.

The social workers at MRH introduced Milligan’s group to their lives and culture beyond the confines of their work.

“The culture of the Philippines and the MRH staff is very relational, so they were open to letting us become a part of their community,” shared Martin. “We were able to learn from their staff at work, but we also were able to get to know the staff as people. They took us on excursions over the weekends, and my favorite part of the trip was visiting several islands with the staff.”

For Troyer, this internship stood out to her from other study abroad opportunities. Instead of studying at a university with an American cohort or touring with other Americans, this trip completely immersed them into an organization in a different country, and their day-to-day routines were rooted in Filipino culture.

“Even though so much was new and exciting to us, we realized that the principles of social work are the same around the globe,” said Troyer.

This trip better prepared each student for their next steps after college. For Hoffman and Troyer, they anticipate traveling or working abroad after college, including joining the Peace Corps. For Gibson and Martin, this trip affirmed their desire to work locally to address similar issues.

All of the students agreed that the trip resulted in some immediate changes to their lifestyles. After observing severe pollution around the province, the group decided to make more sustainable choices. With guidance from Jones, the students have made subtle but important changes, like ditching plastics for reusable items and minimizing unnecessary waste.

Posted by on December 12, 2019.