The world today is a smaller place than it was in previous generations. International flights, long-distance voice and video calls, and email have all opened paths of connection that once were hard to imagine.
And yet we live in an age of increasing nationalism, in which the walls separating people seem to grow ever higher.
What is social work’s role in this moment of simultaneous connection and division? What can social workers around the globe learn from one another, and what does their exchange tell us about the essence of social work?
To consider these questions, the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work reached out to a number of its alumni who currently work outside the United States to find out how a Pitt education has fueled their international journeys. From an American-born alumna teaching in South Korea to a globe-trotting graduate from Turkey to others who have returned to Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Africa, these graduates show the benefits of an international perspective within the field of social work.
What the School of Social Work offers the world
As one of the top-ranked schools of social work in the United States, Pitt draws students from around the globe. They come to the campus with widely varying backgrounds and with distinctly different plans for how to put their degrees to use.
When Azlin Hilma Hillaluddin (MSW ’02) graduated from the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM), UUM recruited her to earn an MSW degree abroad and then return to Malaysia to assist the school in developing its new social work program.
While at Pitt, Hillaluddin focused on child welfare and child protection, topics she explored in greater depth while earning a PhD in Australia. She’s currently a senior lecturer in UUM’s social work program in the School of Applied Psychology, Social Work and Policy.
“I always had a keen interest in working with children, and doing Pitt’s Community, Organization, and Social Action specialization helped me to accomplish my dream,” says Hillaluddin. “I did my practicums at a temporary shelter for girls and later at an outpatient clinic for children with autism. During the practicums, I learned that social work with children covers a wide spectrum of issues and services, from placement and child protection to mental health issues and beyond.”
Hillaluddin continues to value the kind of cultural exchange she has enjoyed throughout her academic career, balancing internationally recognized best practices with the localized demands of the Malaysian context in which she and her students work.
“Over here, on this side of the world, we always try to learn from our social work counterparts abroad,” Hillaluddin says. “Yes, social work should be designed to suit local practice, but there are many skills and pieces of knowledge that are transferable.”
Like Hillaluddin, Yanti Kusumawardhani (MSW ’05) came to Pitt to focus on child welfare, and today she works for Save the Children in Indonesia. As a direct response specialist, Kusumawardhani manages about 180 integrated services each month for children with disabilities and their families and works to counter widespread stigma around these disabilities in Indonesia.
“We aim to improve parenting knowledge and skill for families as part of a prevention effort, respond to child protection cases by implementing case management and supervision, and support law enforcers in working with children in contact with the law,” she says.
While much of her job is rooted in local conditions and focuses on working within Indonesia’s legal system and its network of nongovernmental organizations, Kusumawardhani also draws frequently upon lessons she learned during her time at Pitt. She cites classes with faculty members Helen Cahalane, Lynn Coghill, Patricia Wright, and others as having helped her to form a solid foundation upon which her current work has been built.
“A lot of social work theories and approaches have been utilized beneficially all over the world, in many different settings,” she says.
Named in September 2019 to the board of the Indonesia Association of Professional Social Workers, Kusumawardhani is poised to continue promoting the foundational theories and approaches she first encountered at Pitt.
What Pitt can learn from the World
But meaningful exchange involves a benefit to both sides. What do School of Social Work students and faculty—and the entire Pitt community—gain from learning and working alongside international peers and from welcoming international visitors into the school community?
“We’re at such a critical time to step back and see our place in the world,” says School of Social Work dean Elizabeth M.Z. “Betsy” Farmer. “As we think about the values and goals of social work, we’re required to think beyond our own experiences and our own community, region, or country. We really focus on universal human rights—justice, dignity, community. Interacting with others who come from different places, cultures, and parts of the world helps us to put our own experiences, assumptions, and views into perspective, and it helps us to question everything about how we think and what we take for granted.”
Current international students are benefiting greatly from the leadership and experience of Medha Kadri, a first-year MSW student from India who serves as the international student representative to the MSW Student Executive Council. Kadri has striven to create a welcoming and informative orientation for incoming international students while also connecting with Dean Farmer in order to highlight concerns and perspectives specific to the school’s international students.
One of the values of social work I find most important is cultural competency,” she says. “Being taken out of my element linguistically, racially, and socially really helped me to learn how to approach and serve people different from me.
“We’ve been able to convey our issues and say, ‘This is what we want; this could improve.’ And I know it’s been really helpful to Dean Farmer,” Kadri says. “Now she knows where the gaps are for international students.”
In classes and fieldwork, she’s found both classmates and faculty to be receptive to hearing her viewpoint as well.
“The school has really appreciated my perspective,” Kadri says. “It’s diametrically different on some things as compared to American students, but I’ve always seen that my opinions are encouraged.”
Kadri arrived at Pitt after earning a master’s degree in health psychology in India, having conducted extensive research on underprivileged adolescent girls. She’s drawn upon that knowledge and experience in her work with the Women & Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which works toward equal access and opportunity. While Kadri stresses that conditions such as poverty vary dramatically in America and India, her background has been valuable—and valued—in developing curricula for the foundation.
What about American students in the School of Social Work who go abroad? What do they learn from encounters with the rest of the world?
Ask Amber Jones (BASW ’18). As an undergraduate social work major, she participated in a pilot study abroad program in 2018, spending the second term of her senior year in Cologne, Germany, working at Lobby für Mädchen, a nonprofit organization that serves girls and young women ages 10–27, while participating in her School of Social Work classes via videoconference.
Jones, a New York native, found the experience of comparing ideas with German social work students while immersed in the country’s culture and cuisine to be personally enriching and also tremendously valuable professionally. German social work culture is organized into a single large network, creating unique opportunities for collaboration quite different from those that exist in the United States.
Jones’ experience in Germany, followed by her participation in the six-week Pitt in South Africa program, has deepened her sense of being part of a broader, truly global community. She now lives in South Korea, where she teaches in a public elementary school.
“As an American, unless you travel elsewhere, you don’t really see the effect the United States has on the world,” she says, noting the English-language signs she has seen in Germany and South Korea. She also mentions discussing the Black Lives Matter movement with South African high school students while learning more about the country’s still-prevalent problems from the apartheid era.
“Not only did I gain perspective,” Jones says, “but so did the people around me—about the ways America still has room to improve and develop and how there is an opportunity to learn from each other.”
Venturing out into the world has helped Jones to develop her approach to serving others.
“One of the values of social work I find most important is cultural competency,” she says. “Being taken out of my element linguistically, racially, and socially really helped me to learn how to approach and serve people different from me. Though Americans have a shared identity of nationality and culture, there are still so many inequalities, experiences, and variations (geologically and regionally) that affect the ability of social workers to relate to and empathize with their clients. Just because you live in the same country as your clients doesn’t mean your preconceptions or assumed knowledge of their culture or life experience may be the actuality.”
Sometimes recognizing and acknowledging cultural differences can be a critical first step toward bridging the gaps between social work contexts.
Gizem Arat (MSW ’10) has found the differences in how social work is viewed across cultures to be instructive. After first returning to her native Turkey for a position as a social worker, she then earned a PhD from the University of Hong Kong.
“In Asia it [social work] is mostly considered an aid to positive health,” she says, “whereas in most Western settings, social work paves the way for social justice to successfully achieve positive development in many aspects, not just limited to health.”
Those differences make the concept of cultural competency all the more key, Arat adds.
“Cultural competency is seen more as cultural awareness in Hong Kong, in contrast with the United States or United Kingdom, where cultural competency includes cultural awareness, a culturally appropriate manner, knowledge of different cultures, and self-awareness of bias of the social worker,” she says. “As a result, cultural competency is still evolving in Asia, where I conduct research projects on how to enhance culturally relevant social service provision for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.”
Arat’s experience at Pitt is instructive in the ways that international exchange can sow the seeds for such cultural competency. She found that coming to Pitt from Turkey gave her a perspective that benefited others in her classes.
“My background was a little different,” she says. “I could understand both individualistic and collectivist cultural values due to the cultural fusion in my home country.”
She is now a research assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, conducting research on promoting the social inclusion of minorities from various cultural backgrounds. Through her Pitt experience, Arat says, “I gained the skills to negotiate diverse cultures and dedicate myself to social justice.”
What people learn together
Forging connections across borders makes the world smaller, setting the stage for work that empowers, humanizes, and finds common ground—instincts that are at the heart of the profession of social work.
“In an increasingly global world, the social work profession remains more relevant than ever before, particularly in light of the increases in international migration and the public health impacts on migrant health, including mental health,” says Johannes John-Langba (PhD ’04), who now serves as vice president and mental health ambassador of Cape Mental Health Society in South Africa. He previously served as chairperson of the board of directors of MOSAIC, a community organization providing targeted interventions to survivors of gender-based violence, and has worked as a United Nations consultant.
Much of John-Langba’s research crosses borders in addition to being extremely timely. As a doctoral student at Pitt, he explored the impacts of violence on women in a refugee camp, while a current project examines associations among social media use, life satisfaction, body image, and psychosocial well-being.
Like other alumni interviewed, John-Langba sees social work as striking a balance between the local and the global.
“Cultural differences do create differences in how social work is pursued in Africa, but the differences are not that dramatic,” he says. “This could be attributed to respect for diversity as a core value of social work practice. The emphasis in the Pitt Social Work doctoral program on the need to respect diversity and promote social justice related to nondiscrimination on the basis of culture, nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, race, gender, physical status, and sexual orientation made the translation of the universality of the core value of respect for diversity smooth and natural.”
Shared experiences, too, allow people from widely differing faiths and cultures to learn from one another and find ways to offer support and understanding, even at moments of heated rhetoric and hostility.
Hillaluddin was on Pitt’s campus during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She recalls her peers volunteering to walk her home and school faculty members being supportive of and sensitive to her well-being in the days after the attacks, when she and many fellow Muslims feared retaliation from angry individuals looking for someone to lash out against.
“It [9/11] gave a lasting impact to Americans and the rest of the world, including me,” Hillaluddin says. “But those kind gestures helped me feel safe away from my family.”
How social work unites people
With so much variation from one culture to the next and so many different social contexts to navigate, what do these alumni see as essential to social work? When a social worker plies their trade in one country versus another, what remains true and essential?
Although its implementation may vary from one country or context to another, Arat says that she sees a common code of ethics underpinning social work practice around the globe.
For Jones, social work is a force for international cooperation, especially in terms of public policy. Social change and human rights also are among its essential qualities.
“The core of social work is community and consensus,” Jones says. “The actuality is that you can’t help every person, but you can alter the environment and society in which they exist in order to offer opportunity for personal growth and self-exploration. Social work is about empowering and providing equality for the pursuit of happiness and ensuring basic human rights.”
Kusumawardhani sees a desire to serve others at the core of social work.
“Our beliefs in everyone’s right to justice and equality unite us,” she says. “Social work seeks a balance of individual needs and an environment that provides resources and positive behavior.”
Though social workers pursue different goals within the profession, she says, “It is obvious that social work functions across policies, resources, and practices within institutions, facilities, societies, communities, groups, and families to fight for united and integrated efforts to meet individual needs and rights.”
John-Langba sees the values of social work not just as essential but also as more timely and necessary than ever before.
“The widespread access [to] and use of social media globally has benefited the social work profession,” he says, “but not without [presenting] challenges related to [the] mental health effects of social media use and misuse.”
For Hillaluddin, promoting social justice and understanding diversity are core values shared by social work practitioners the world over.
“There are vulnerable groups everywhere that should be protected and supported,” she says. “The differences lie in what is deemed appropriate by a society according to local customs and laws. So ‘think globally and act locally’ might be the appropriate way to explain.
“Nevertheless,” she adds, “it is important for social workers to form international alliances and collaborations so that we can learn from each other in order to improve practice for the benefit of our clients and the profession as a whole.”
That spirit of international solidarity is alive and thriving at the School of Social Work.
“I think we all benefit when we begin to adopt perspectives of cultural humility, when we start to work on decolonizing our thinking, when we decenter our own culture and assumptions,” says Dean Farmer. “There’s a whole world that both includes and extends beyond each of us. It’s so important for us think beyond ourselves, to recognize the insights that others bring to our understandings, and to think about how we can work together.”
Cultural differences do create differences in how social work is pursued in Africa, but the differences are not that dramatic. This could be attributed to respect for diversity as a core value of social work practice. The emphasis in the Pitt Social Work doctoral program on the need to respect diversity and promote social justice related to nondiscrimination on the basis of culture, nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, race, gender, physical status, and sexual orientation made the translation of the universality of the core value of respect for diversity smooth and natural.