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KU hosts Italian social welfare students for unique study abroad experience

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

LAWRENCE — New social workers will work increasingly with people from diverse immigrant groups who are often marginalized. The University of Kansas is working to increase study abroad experiences in a field that is growing its emphasis on international or global practice, including a current visit by students, faculty and staff from Milan, Italy.

Seventeen visitors from the Universitá Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, are on campus for two weeks to take part in classes and observe several aspects of social work in the United States. The trip is part of an ongoing exchange between KU and the Italian university. Terry Koenig, an associate professor of social welfare who has taken KU students on a study abroad course to Milan for three years, is leading the first visit of international students to the social welfare school and worked closely with Ingrid Horton of KU’s Study Abroad Office to organize the visit.

“I think the experience will be just as profound for them as it has been for our students,” Koenig said. “You can learn much more about your own culture when you get a better understanding of another culture.”

While study abroad is a common experience in higher education, it is a much less so in the study of social work. Koenig said that is largely because the discipline has been localized and regionalized in many cases as state and national policy often dictates how social workers operate. However, the field is gradually embracing the practice as society is increasingly globalized and more opportunities for students to work in international settings emerge. International visitors coming to Kansas is also rare, as students tend to visit the coasts and largest American cities.

While in Lawrence, the Italian visitors will sit in on Koenig’s human behavior theory class and visit Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the Lawrence Public School system. Italy does not have clinical or school-based social workers, and the visitors also hope to learn more about how the U.S. approaches issues such as foster care, child abuse, adoption, child neglect and family services.

“That’s where the bulk of social workers in the United States work,” Koenig said of child welfare services.

KU and the Italian university will also collaborate on a qualitative research project with doctoral student Jennifer Chappell Deckert, who will draw upon PhotoVoice as an integral research method. They plan to publish and share with colleagues the value of “study abroad as a transformative experience.” The visitors will keep a journal about their experiences as well as share photos that represent those experiences. KU's social welfare school is a leader in the practice, with established study abroad programs in India, Korea, Costa Rica and Ireland as well as the Italian exchange.

Koenig and Richard Spano, associate professor of social welfare, will also offer lectures on a transtheoretical model of helping and the history and philosophy of social work in the United States for the visitors to provide a deeper understanding of American social work.

In previous visits to Milan, Koenig and KU students have studied the social work system in Italy, including areas such as health care, the history of social work in the country and how Italy is responding to globalization and refugees. 

“That’s what a study abroad experience does. It immerses you in a culture in a way that you can’t get in a classroom,” Koenig said. “Those experiences lead to self-reflection, which can lead to growth. Self-reflection is critical in order to grow as a professional.”

Photos courtesy Terry Koenig.

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