By: Ana Carolina Lima
About a year and a half ago, I started planning for the possibility of studying abroad in England during my last semester of university. Hearing about the positive experiences others had had while abroad contributed to my excitement and determination. I started by messaging anyone and everyone whose email I came across at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). MMU was the first university I found in England that had a well-known social work program. After emails with two placement professors from the social work department, I finally got in contact with Senior Lecturer Teresa. Besides teaching, Teresa works with the university’s international office to promote study abroad within the Social Work department. She and I exchanged lengthy emails for quite a few months to set up the first social work field placement and class schedule for an international social work student from NC State. We had to make sure that whatever program was arranged would enable me to take part in an experience comparable to the one I would get in NC State’s BSW Field Program. This would ensure I would meet NC State’s graduation requirements. The process of communicating via email was not easy. There is a five-hour difference between England and North Carolina, so patience was key to the success and effectiveness of our email exchanges. Nevertheless, I can say without any doubt, that the grueling process of setting up a placement, applying to the study abroad program, applying for a student visa and then working hard to fund my trip was all most definitely worth it. The experience I have had while abroad was so incredibly eye-opening that I would not trade it for anything in the world. I arrived in Manchester in mid-September. I was so nervous! I could not believe I had actually gone through with it; for the next seven months, I would be away from friends, family and the comfort of home. Though I kept asking myself whether or not I was crazy for doing something like this, I decided to pretend I was not. I could do it. I am independent, strong, and best of all, stubborn. So, everything should work out right? I mean, I had gotten this far! I could not turn back now. The first few days were nerve-wracking. My room, a 50-square-foot should-be-closet, was not bad. Fortunately, everything I brought fit. The house had four bedrooms, a small bathroom, a living room and a worn kitchen with a washing machine. It was a shared accommodation; three men occupied the remaining rooms. I took the first few days to get to know the area. I thought I would never find my way around since everything seemed so overwhelming and confusing. But fear not, this directionally challenged woman (yours truly) eventually got the hang of things – even though it took a few wrong turns, odd looks from bus drivers, and some tears. I felt very proud of myself when I stopped pretending to know what I was doing, secretly sneaking a look at my cheat sheet for directions, and actually knowing where to go and which bus stop I had to get off of. I have recently, however, moved in with a friend. Unfortunately, after a few unacceptable incidents with my housemates, I decided it would be best to leave my student accommodation. My friend and her family have been very welcoming and generous – offering me a completely different view of British people, tradition and culture. Living with a true ‘Mancunian’ family has really been a blessing. They have offered me what I have missed most – friendship, family and the comfort of home. With weekly Sunday roast dinners, runs with their newly rescued dog, pretend play with my friend’s daughters and a warm cup of tea in the company of my new family, I really cannot complain. This has definitely been a much better way to experience living in the United Kingdom! My social work placement at Crossacres Resource Center has been phenomenal. I really could not have asked for a better setting. It is a day center that provides care to about 40 older adults per day. These adults are likely to be at risk of social isolation and depression. The majority of adults that attend have some sort of cognitive or physical impairment as well. The aim of the agency is to promote social well-being through daily activities that encourage group interaction, engagement and thinking. It was difficult at first to “fit in” at the center. I was unsure of my role as a student intern and as a volunteer from abroad. What could I, a privileged American student, offer to British older adults living in one of the poorest areas of Manchester? Would cultural barriers negatively affect my relationships with staff and service users? Too many questions came to mind. But since then, I have attended regularly and created a place for myself. I have planned and led multiple activities, I have shadowed and interacted with various staff members to learn more about their roles and approaches, and I have engaged with the center’s service users on an individual and group basis. Through my involvement in all of these, I have realized the power of a generalist approach. Social work may be practiced differently around the world, but the skills and values needed are the same. I have also come to better understand what the profession of social work is about. It’s one thing to read about it and another to actually apply it in real life. Putting theory, principles, values, and other various approaches into practice has enabled me to not only learn more about myself, but also to reflect on my social work skills. After being more than halfway through with my study abroad placement, I strongly believe that the social work profession cannot just be learned; it has to be experienced. Working with people may seem easy, but so much more goes into it! The profession is about empowering the vulnerable; fighting for social justice; knowing yourself so you can better help others; understanding human behavior; engaging and effectively communicating with others through body language, eye contact and speech; using empathy, sympathy, kindness, patience; recognizing a person’s strengths rather than his or her limitations; self care; and much much more. To ensure I have stayed on track with meeting both graduation and Social Work requirements, I have been in weekly contact with my NC State professor, Dr. Karen Bullock. Through google video chat, we have been able to discuss my experiences, my encounters with service users as well as my current and future projects. These meetings have been an invaluable resource, as they have allowed me to share my thoughts, feelings, frustrations and worries with someone from back home. I feel like anything that I have “bottled-up” during the week is set free — a weight removed from my shoulders. Dr. Bullock has helped me make sense of what I have seen and learned by working with the elderly and she has provided me with the support and encouragement to finish strong. Besides immersing myself in British culture, attending classes and practicing social work skills at the day center, I have also had the opportunity to travel around Europe. I have traveled around England and visited Wales, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland and France. It has been great fun to eat different traditional foods; to explore mountains, parks and the countryside; to communicate with people of different languages; and to learn about cultures through experience rather than books. These adventures have made me smile and have inspired me to see the world in a different light because despite all the violence around the world, there is beauty everywhere. So, that is my story in a nutshell. Study abroad has been the best roller coaster ride of my undergraduate career. I have benefited greatly from being in a new country. I have gained a deeper appreciation for my life back home as well as for my chosen profession. Life is not easy and it does not always go according to plan, but the lessons I have learned and the experiences I have gained are irreplaceable.