Wednesday, 16 October 2013 15:08

Students savour the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

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Here a contingent of Medicine Hat social work students and their instructor Richard Gregory stand in front of a house they worked on and built with Mission Partners in Mwandi: Nattie Darnel, Richard Gregory, Mrs. Khala, Bailey Chilliak, Katrina Mason, Jessica Krichner, Maria Medicine Shield, Dan Rigby, and Anne Whitley. Here a contingent of Medicine Hat social work students and their instructor Richard Gregory stand in front of a house they worked on and built with Mission Partners in Mwandi: Nattie Darnel, Richard Gregory, Mrs. Khala, Bailey Chilliak, Katrina Mason, Jessica Krichner, Maria Medicine Shield, Dan Rigby, and Anne Whitley. Photo contributed

For two students, Richard Gregory, the Medicine Hat College and a lot of future fundraising efforts will be providing them an opportunity to study in their chosen field in Africa for three months in 2014.

It will be intense. It will be difficult and it will be an emotional roller coaster for each of the students in their own way. One of the students who for sure knows this is Whitney Ogle, who was part of the 2012 excursion.
She was immediately interested in the plans to head over to Africa.
“Going to Africa just sparked something in me — what a worldly experience,” explains Ogle. “I had a few people question me about why I wanted to go. For me, I really had to evaluate if this is what I wanted to do. I decided it would be a great experience for me professionally and to experience something outside my own province and my own country.”
While there are a lot of obvious differences between life and social work in North America and Africa, Gregory notes it’s interesting for students to see the similarities. One of these similarities is the impact of colonization on the “aboriginal” culture within Africa. Gregory says there were some parallels between that aboriginal culture and the one First Nations Canadians feel.
Ogle grew up in Assiniboia, a small community in south central Saskatchewan outside of her reserve in nearby Wood Mountain. She experienced some racism and the racism she witnessed and experienced in Africa really hit home.
“It was such a humbling experience,” explains Ogle. “The severe abuse I saw — it was such an eye opener.”
According to the official 2012 report by Gregory, they faced ‘challenges.’
“Although there are many links with apartheid and colonialism in South Africa and the colonialism in North America, the impact is not as ‘in your face’ and prevalent,” the report reads. “This was further evident in our experience in Botswana when we witnessed  the blatant oppression of a staff member of Elephant Sands by the owner and manager. It was very difficult to be in a position of being asked by the victim not to say anything.  This is contrary to who we are as social workers.”
As a fourth-generation First Nation family member of people who were part of the prairie residential schools, Ogle felt a kinship with those oppressed there.
She shared her stories with her family who appreciated the fact she had an opportunity to get an understanding of what went on decades ago.
“He was glad that I was seeing and learning about it there. (He asked) ‘now how can you bring that to helping our people?’” she explains of her conversations with him. “I have a feeling of gratitude with all the experiences ... now I have to relay it and not keep it as my own.”
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Ogle adds she also suffered a lo of cross-culture shock when she came back to Canada.
“It was more than a month before I could communicate with my friends and family,” explains Ogle who says her fiancé actually deflected a lot of people away.
“I had to experience people complaining about their cars not working. ‘Who (freaking) cares your car is broken, walk!’”
She also relayed a story of a friend washing dishes and the manner of washing them with the tap running also made her feel angry and guilty about the wasted water.
“There was a feeling of gratitude of my life too, even on my bad days. (The experience) gave me so much ... I can provide that for them (on the reserves). It was a life-changing experience. I learned so much.”
Hannah Berger, a second-year student from Central Butte, Sask. says she heard about the program from some people who were fundraising for the trip. As someone who is heading overseas for the first time and admittedly has lived a “sheltered life”, Berger cannot wait to see what new and unexpected work awaits her.
“The people who went before described how amazing it was,” explains Berger who also wanted to help people like Ogle, but Berger actually got started by studying nutrition. “In social work, we look for diverse experience and deal with a lot of people with diverse backgrounds. This is a good way to learn about different people and cultures ... I want to see how my education will directly help people down the road.”
She is excited about her preparation course next semester. Berger says she will need it because of not having the opportunity to see a lot of diverse cultures before.
“(I’m) definitely going to be experience a culture shock; it’s going to be important knowing the social issues before we get there,” explains Berger who is currently doing a practicum working with the Salvation Army and those who are homeless in Medicine Hat. “It’s also going to be important to take care of yourself. Richard (Gregory) is such an excellent source of information. I will try to learn as much as I can from him, but I don’t know if you can ever be fully prepared.”
She adds she hasn’t even gone overseas yet to experience Africa, and already her focus on what she wants to do with her social work studies has shifted.
“It’s changed a lot of what I want to do as now I want to work globally and within our community.  Seeing and learning about it has me wanting to do some international work, when I’m finished my studies. It provides an opportunity to see if that’s what I want to do. I’m so excited. It’s going to be life-changing.”
Gregory noted they will be discussing some fundraising ideas in the near future as the trip will cost approximately $7,200 per student.

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