UND Today

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Thinking globally, acting locally

Social work students see the world in a new way after international experience

Eleven UND social work students traveled abroad to Sweden in February to learn more about the country's social and welfare policies. They had the opportunity to work alongside students from across Europe. Submitted photo.
Eleven UND social work students traveled to Sweden in February to learn more about the country’s social and welfare policies. They had the opportunity to work with students from across Europe. Submitted photo.

The world will never look the same to 11 UND social work students who traveled to Sweden for a unique study abroad program last month.

“Thinking globally and acting locally is key to being a successful social worker,” said Murat Ndikum, a UND social work senior who went on the trip.

“Social work is all about helping,” said Ndikum. “We came from different areas of the world and spoke different languages, but we shared the same classroom and experiences. We used our different cultural backgrounds and perspectives to find solutions to common social problems through policy making.”

The UND students joined students and professors from Austria, England, Germany, Scotland and Sweden at the University of Malmo in Sweden for the two-week study abroad program to teach each other about their country’s social and welfare policies.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Erika Brorby, a master’s of social work student. “It was eye-opening. We saw how [social work] functions under different governments and structures, and learned they still face a lot of the same challenges – budget cuts, understaffing, high caseloads – that we do in the United States.”

The program is held the first two weeks of February each year, and this is the second time UND students have taken part.

Studying social policy

“Love it or hate it, the Swedish model is an iconic model of social welfare policy,” said Bret Weber, associate professor of social work. “We worked with students from all over Europe and the U.K. The students had study abroad experience and were exposed to dramatic social policy contexts.”

“Sweden is a collaborative state with high wages and maximum welfare,” said Ndikum. “The U.S. is a competitive state with low wages and limited welfare.”

The trip was a perfect combination of learning about social policy and traveling abroad, said Brorby, who said she has always wanted to travel. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work online in May 2017 from UND, and three days later started the master’s program while also working full time at the Burdick Job Corps in Minot.

“I’m passionate about social work and want to help people,” Brorby said, adding that as a distance student, she didn’t know anyone else on the trip. “I was a little hesitant about sharing with two roommates in a hostel, but we became good friends. It was an amazing experience. I will have these contacts the rest of my life, and made friends with students from Germany and Scotland.”

“Whether it’s Sweden, Germany or Scotland, all countries are dealing with large immigrant groups, aging populations, and opioid crises,” said Weber. “We shared our understanding of these problems and learned different approaches from one another.”

Bike racks
Bret Weber (right) and UND social work students enjoyed field trips as well as classes at the University of Malmo, Sweden, during their study abroad trip. Submitted photo.

A global perspective

Weber said the trip was no vacation. Students were in class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for nine days, with field trips after class and on weekends.

“Even the field trips were work, with lectures and learning,” Weber said.

That was fine with Brorby.

“I liked the education portion of the trip the most,” Brorby said. “Learning from different professors from other universities in England, Germany, Sweden and Italy taught me global perspectives and to think creatively. I learned a lot.”

Field trips included visits to an eldercare facility, Alzheimer’s unit, Save the Children, and the Rosengard neighborhood in Malmo. A somewhat notorious neighborhood, Rosengard is home to immigrants from Syria, Africa and other nations.

“One evening the class went there, wandered around and visited the youth center,” Weber said. “People were very friendly. It was a dynamic cultural experience unlike any the student would be able to experience in their home region.”

“I saw things that work well,” said Brorby. “It’s about education. If people understand how something affects people – for example, how food stamp cuts affect kids, you can see the impact those services have on people. I have experience using benefits. They were a lifeline while I was doing my field work placement, which was unpaid.”

“We teach one another about social policy systems and set up examples for students,” said Weber. For example, he said, Sweden offers generous parental leave. “They consider it an investment in children’s welfare and society. People were shocked at the lack of support in U.S. They were also surprised that the U.S. only offers social programs to low income people.”

Finding common ground

One day, Weber said, the students taught each other what their perception of social work was in their home country.

“They each felt they had nothing in common, but the next day we blended students from different countries and gave them case studies. For example, they had to problem-solve with persons with disabilities or addiction issues. Despite the differences they had felt the day before, they found shared values and methods, and solved problems in similar ways.”

“It’s a great study abroad experience,” Weber said, adding that a visiting professor from New Hampshire would like to bring students to Sweden next year with the UND group and have them pay UND tuition. That would allow him to take 15 students and reduce the costs for UND students by about a third.

“Students learn to deal with street signs and bus schedules in a different language and get through the day when they don’t speak the primary language. They figure it out, and learn to work in a diverse and challenging system where they are not the majority. After a study abroad experience like this, they won’t see the world in the same way.”