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Students to Explore Social Work in Europe and India

Students to Explore Social Work in Europe and India
Gokul Mandayam, third from left, visits with residents on a recent trip to India to prepare for his global immersion program.

The USC School of Social Work will expand its international footprint this summer with the addition of new global immersion programs in Western Europe and India.

Professors Devon Brooks and Kim Goodman will lead 27 students through three of Europe’s most socially progressive cities – Strasbourg (France), Brussels (Belgium) and Amsterdam (Netherlands). “Global Perspectives on Sexual Orientation, Gender and Ethnicity in Europe” will explore the steps these countries are taking to tackle bigotry and oppression from political and social points of view.

The itinerary for the two-week tour, running May 22 through June 4, includes visits with policymakers, politicians and lobbyists at government institutions devoted to human rights and anti-discrimination laws. In Strasbourg, the group will have the rare opportunity to meet with members of the Council of Europe, the European Union’s official government branch dedicated to addressing human rights.

In Brussels, students will visit with senior policy officers and other officials at the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights, an advocacy group comprising politicians from across Europe interested in issues of sexual orientation.

Goodman said Intergroup has asked the USC delegation to prepare a report on American social work’s best practices. The students will work on it before they leave for Europe and present the finished product throughout their travels.

“This trip is all about collaboration and the exchange of ideas,” Goodman said. “We just don’t want to take.”

Students will end their European stay in Amsterdam with a whirlwind tour that includes a trip to the Ann Frank Museum, the University of Amsterdam, the Red Light District and The Hague – the judicial capital of the United Nations.

In every city the delegation visits, students will spend time observing social workers in community organizations such as Brussels’ Rainbow House, a vibrant hub of activity and counseling services for the gay, lesbian and transgendered community.

Goodman said students will see how different social work looks in Europe, where therapeutic delivery is heavily focused on social networks and group activities.

“It’s more about people who enjoy doing this together versus sitting down and doing therapy like here,” she said. “It definitely opened my eyes. There are good ideas conceptualized there that we can take back with us.”

One month after the European contingent returns, the school’s travel season continues in Southeast Asia.

From July 3-16, professors Gokul Mandayam and Rafael Angulo will lead 27 students through India’s richest and poorest areas to explore the staggering disparities between social classes.

“Entrepreneurship, Empowerment and Media: Social Development in India” will take participants from the urban metropolis of Mumbai to the villages surrounding Tuljapur, a rural, drought-prone area in the southeastern part of Maharashtra.

A Mumbai native, Mandayam conceived the trip as an opportunity for students to examine how community-based interventions, including entrepreneurship, empowerment and media, are reshaping the way social workers are tackling issues there.

His aim is to inspire students to view social work beyond the traditional counseling context and see it as nearly anything that enhances peoples’ lives. The group will observe firsthand how the burgeoning microfinance movement, which is providing small, interest-free business loans to low-income individuals, is providing India with a way to think out of the box for solutions to poverty.

“Empowerment through economics is a big issue here,” he said. “We still have a strong caste system, and life can get very complicated. For some people born in to the wrong family, living in a drought-filled area, it’s always been double jeopardy.”

Participants also will meet with workers at social agencies that help India’s most vulnerable segments of society, such as street children, prostitutes and members of the “untouchable” classes.

“I want students to understand what social life is like in pockets of poverty and, in some sense, gauge how tenacious these people are, facing hurdles and still forging ahead in life,” he said. “I want them to ask ‘How do people put up with such hardships in daily life and still maintain their sanity?’ ”

And no examination of Indian culture could be complete without a study in Bollywood – the wildly popular Indian movie industry that is gaining increasing influence internationally – and how it drives the country’s view of its poor. Students will watch the industry’s biggest stars tackle inter-caste love and poverty on the big screen.

“Films and movies are very integral to social life – even the poorest of the poor have access to them,” he said. “It provides people an escape from their disenfranchised lives for at least two hours. It’s a dream land.”

The school offers global immersion programs to Master of Social Work students each summer, exposing them to a broader view of social work through the lens of different cultures. This year, 70 students are slated to participate in the international travel program, including two programs that are back by popular demand. The school once again will host a study of feminist theory in the Philippines and successful aging in China.

Regardless of where students travel, faculty members believe the sheer experience of soaking in new cultures will make them better mental-health professionals down the road.

“Travel makes a man wiser,” Mandayam said. “It makes you stop and think, ‘maybe there isn’t a one straitjacket approach to things.’ That’s the lesson I want them to learn.”

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