Stellenbosch University
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International knowledge exchange benefits social work students in SA and abroad
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 25/10/2019

​​​In the Social Work Department at Stellenbosch University (SU), international knowledge exchange opportunities have become an important aspect of the teaching and learning offering.  

Many social work students and academics from abroad have visited the Social Work Department, which is based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, over the last few months providing visitors and SU students alike with a more broader understanding of social work in a globalised context.

“You only understand the global impact on your micro environment when you have contact with social workers outside South Africa. It's difficult for our students to really understand the impact of globalisation on social work if they are not exposed to global experiences. Through these experiences they are able to look beyond the street child begging for money at that moment, but understand the wider impact of social work on society and the global neoliberal discourse on social welfare. This is very important," says Prof Lambert Engelbrecht, the Chair of the Social Work Department. 

“These types of programmes are also important for our department as it helps us to think beyond the research that we do and look at the impact of knowledge exchange between our students who come from different environments. Social work can be very contextual, but there are still parallels to be drawn between different countries. Learning from other contexts helps you to play an even bigger role in South Africa beyond that of social worker and understand the role social workers can play to influence social welfare policies to the benefit of social work service users all over the world." 

One such visit took place earlier this year when a group of students from the University of Southern California (USC) visited the department as part of their Global Immersion Programme focusing on the design, development, deployment and scaling of social work innovations in South Africa.

The 25 students, who graduated with a Masters degree in Social Work at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, were hosted by the SU department. They were accompanied by Prof Renée Smith-Maddox, a Clinical Professor and Diversity Liaison at the School, and Prof Stacy Kratz, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Virtual Academic Center at USC.

Their visit also coincided with the department's celebrations of World Social Work Day, which took place in March this year. At SU, the day is celebrated each year by the Social Work Department with interesting seminars presented by academic leaders in the social work field. The theme for 2019 focuses on Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships.

According to Smith-Maddox, South Africa was selected as the site for USC's Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Global Immersion Program for several reasons. 

“It was an opportunity to take emerging social workers on the School's inaugural immersion experience in SA and engage them in specialised graduate study for their social work practice and expose the students to the historical and socio-political context of SA, its trends in social innovation, and how community stakeholders play a part in their own empowerment. We also wanted to conduct a comparative analysis of the social welfare system and the role of social workers in South Africa and the United States," said Smith-Maddox.

The group, said Smith-Maddox, was also able to learn more about the service experiences of South African social workers and understand the opportunities their counterparts had for advocacy work, community engagement and social innovation.

“Collectively, USC's social work students, Dr Kratz, and I had an opportunity to learn from a tremendous group of people while immersing ourselves in a different cultural context. Combined with the diverse individuals and groups we got to meet, interact, and connect deeply with, it was life-changing for all of us. Through our interactions and observations we were able to raise our level of awareness of how social problems as well as the solutions to them are globally interconnected," she added.

Kratz said that with both USC and SU's Social Work Department focused on “educating and training" students to solve the most complex problems of the day, visiting South Africa as part of the global immersion programme, propelled USC “students to challenge their current thought processes, especially in terms of the inherent tensions between inclusion and exclusion". 

“These students are global citizens: leaders and innovators who have massively increased their problem-solving and analytical capabilities, their tolerance for ambiguity, and deepened their respect for empathy."​

She added: “Designing and implementing the USC Global Immersion with Dr Smith-Maddox, and constructing the Stellenbosch venture with Dr Engelbrecht profoundly expanded my belief in the critical importance of building relationships with social workers from other countries and cultures."

“This immersion allowed us to provide the brave space for meaningful dialogue of how thiscomplex and multifaceted phenomenon impacts communities, and individuals. The Stellenbosch experience will live on with long-term and lifelong rewards for all the students, and the people they eventually will serve."

The feedback from the USC students who had participated in the programme indicated that they had also found it to be beneficial.

According to Lisa Liberatore, one of the many reasons she applied for the South Africa Global Immersion programme was to “learn how social work practice was contextualised and operationalised outside the United States". Cape Town, she said, provided the ideal opportunity to do so. 

“It opened my conscious to see how social work pedagogy and professional practice fail to address colonisation and the impact it has had on indigenous, black and brown communities around the world, but particularly how in the United States it is often shunned or ignored to allow for the tolerance of cognitive dissonance of individuals who have not truly understood their privilege or how it has played out in their lives, many of whom are in the social work field."

Liberatore said that the visit also offered her an “opportunity for experiential learning of ethical, effective community development practice in the unique historical and sociopolitical context of South Africa". 

“Through the immersion opportunity I hoped to study macro social work strategies and practices in South Africa that were ameliorating impacts of systemically rooted marginalisation and persistent poverty in order to better understand how I might find more innovative and effective approaches to address these challenges back in the United States upon my return."

Listening to the knowledge and experiences shared by SU students, academics and practising social workers, Liberatore said it became clear “that imposing top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions to systemic, entrenched social problems is not effective". 

“The foundation of social change is instead to empower people to become agents of their own change. The role of social workers in creating meaningful, scalable social change through community development is to empower impacted people through localised, bottom-up initiatives that involve their input at all stages of design and implementation."

Fellow student, Tiffany (Tea) Dang, found that “despite the environmental differences" between the two countries, that some of the issues the United States and South Africa faced, were quite similar.  

“The human experience of poverty, oppression, and inequalities are universal. This immersion gave us a platform to practice and focus more on collaboration; learning from each other's experiences and applying it to better our own communities," said Dang.

Photo: A group of 25 students who recently earned a Master  in Social Work degree  from the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work visited the Social Work Department at Stellenbosch University as part of a Global Immersion Programme that forms part of their social work studies. (Anton Jordaan, SSFD)