Wednesday, 16 October 2013 15:10

Medicine Hat College social work students get to experience the unpaid internship of a lifetime

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The Medicine Hat College social work students had the opportunity to work with other social work students while visiting Cape Town University. The Medicine Hat College social work students had the opportunity to work with other social work students while visiting Cape Town University. Photos contributed

Social workers in Canada are on the front lines of some ugly situations and have to deal with numerous issues involving families and individuals.

Imagine what it would be like to have the same job in South Africa or Zambia where poverty and extreme racism are prevalent.
For about a dozen students in 2014, they won’t have to imagine it — they will live it for three months.
Students, led by social work program co-ordinator and instructor Richard Gregory, will work in Africa for three months.
In 2006, Gregory took a year off to travel and explore the world and found social work to be quite different in various counties. He spent some time in Africa and when he returned to work at the college in the following year, he was so moved by what he saw, he found himself talking in awe to those in Medicine Hat about his experiences in Zambia and South Africa.
“I talked to staff and students about it and a put in a proposal to administration to see if we could take a group over,” explains Gregory.
He received clearance from college administrators to book the first trip in 2006 and then another which took place starting in May 2012. Another group will travel in 2014.
The regular domestic practicum is three days per week and lasts approximately eight hours daily for 14 weeks for a total of 336 hours. The one in Africa is three months where the students are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to the 2012 trip’s report, the group of eight students and Gregory toured and worked in Cape Town South Africa for 15 days and spent some time with social work students from the University of Cape Town. They spent eight days in Norwood School in the townshop of Elsie’s River and then went to Livingstone, Zambia. They travelled to the village of Mwandi where they worked with various projects with the United Church of Zambia and building houses for two families. They also visited Botswana for four days.
Four students then returned to Canada while another four attended the International Social Work and Social Development Conference in Stockholm Sweden. 
Kallie Lavoie, a part-time instructor in the Social Work program took in the last three weeks of the trip.
In 2009, a ground of students from Medicine Hat College and Mount Royal University took part in the first project. Now, they are raising money and getting organized to go again in 2014.
Gregory made a lot of contacts in both Zambia and South Africa including a United Church mission in Zambia where the missionaries work with schools.
Gregory says as much as he would have also liked to go to Kenya, the travel between countries is a lot more difficult.
He likes to start the trip by going to Capetown where it’s more of a modern urban centre in spots and then work their way to the poorer South African rural regions. Another poignant part of the trip was to Norwood Early Learning Preprimary School in Capetown where students were learning English.
According to the 2012 report, they worked with 22 children aged seven to 13 who in Canada would be considered “children at risk.”
It was there where there was a lot of hard lessons to be learned where students had their eyes opened to a lot of issues which are experienced in Canada, but in a different manner.
“With this trip (to Africa) they get to experience right across the lifespan: infant, child, orphan, or perhaps carrier of HIV virus/AIDS, adult and then seniors,” explains Gregory.
Some may wonder why bother flying all the way across the world. Gregory understands why people think this way because they haven’t experienced any of the same difficulties some people do in other countries.
It is a life-changing experience for many as they see how residents in those countries deal with daily struggles which are generally more difficult than those in Canada. One also gains a new perspective on life — one of simplicity and taking so many things for granted including clean water, being safe on the streets and not being the target of violent racism.  
The other benefit is when working with immigrants coming to Canada, social workers who have a better feeling of where some ideas stem from will be that much more successful.
“As the world gets to be a much smaller place, students need to get a broader and richer understanding of different cultures,” explains Gregory. “This gives them a much broader perspective and for some of them, they were the minority in the population. What does it feel like to be that? It’s one thing to read about it or see it on TV, but when you’re there, it’s a different experience.”

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Ryan Dahlman

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