Twice a month, Master of Social Work (MSW) students at California State University, Dominguez Hills are sharing the best practices they have learned in the classroom and in the field with counterparts at Kingston University in London, England. But the students aren’t traveling across the pond to do so. They are connecting from the comfort of their respective campuses at hour-long virtual meetings using Skype, the voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) conferencing service.
During their free time, up to 10 students huddle in front of a small camera and microphone and appear on a monitor on the other continent during the student-to-student learning sessions, which are proving to be mutually beneficial.
“It gives us an opportunity to learn about their perspective on social work,” said first-year CSU Dominguez Hills MSW student Gerald Torres. “The Kingston students are so curious about how we approach social work here in the United States. Every topic we discuss, they want to know more. Sometimes we do go into depth … for instance on race and class.”
With critical race studies a focal point of their MSW program, CSU Dominguez Hills students are able to take the lead on related topics.
“Our program is unique because we do focus on race and its theory. It really does lend itself more to looking at issues globally,” said Susan Nakaoka, who has served as the director of field education for the MSW program since it began in 2006.
However, Nakaoka noted, getting an outside perspective is also important.
“Looking at race sometimes we get very wrapped up in the American vision of what race is. And you can’t really look at it critically if you’re not willing to look at what it looks like globally or from other countries,” she asserted.
The CSU Dominguez Hills students are able to share about their experiences in internship placements in the field and their understanding of community capacity building (community development and organization), one of the three concentrations offered through the MSW program, which serves an estimated 200 majors. Other topics they discuss relate to the broad scope of social work in America, including the wide variety of professional roles in social work, ethics, and professional regulations.
Through the exchange with Kingston students, Alicia Coulter, a first-year MSW student who plans to be an advocate for domestic violence survivors, found one of the biggest differences between how social work is practiced in the two countries is that, in the U.K., practitioners deal almost exclusively with micro-level (client-based) social work, whereas American counterparts go beyond that and also work with mezzo- and macro-level issues, such as community-based social work, advocacy, and affecting policy at the national level.
“From my experience in talking with [the Kingston students], it seems like our social work is far more broad, so I can understand why they would have more questions for us and want to develop a strategy to enhance their social work practice.” said Coulter, who holds a bachelor’s in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. “We’re trying to enhance our practice [in the U.S.], but we’ve already surpassed where their practice is right now.”
Although the students have greater insights on certain issues, they are reluctant to be characterized as mentors.
“We’re just a part of the international social work community,” said Torres, who has a bachelor’s in business administration from CSU Dominguez Hills and plans to specialize in children, youth and families, which is another concentration of the MSW program (the third is community mental health).
Reflecting changes in the social work profession in the U.K., the curriculum at the Kingston University is undergoing expansion to include broad diversity issues such as human rights, social justice, economic well-being, and ethics and values, according to Mekada Graham-Gallegan, associate professor of social work at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“They are really looking to Dominguez Hills to help them integrate this curriculum,” said Graham-Gallegan, who oversees the International Social Work Student Virtual Exchange Program with Nakaoka.
Nakaoka added, “I think the exchange program is having a really positive impact on the university of Kingston. And the students find it really empowering.”
The virtual exchange program is sparking ideas for students as they think ahead to their careers. Selamawit Habte is a second-year MSW student who holds a bachelor’s in human services from CSU Dominguez Hills and is fluent in Tigrinya, the language of her native country, Eritrea, East Africa; as well as the Ethiopian language Amharic; and Italian. She hopes to someday work in a third-world country and sees Skype as a tool she may be able to employ in isolated towns and villages. She also gained new communications skills through the exchanges.
“It [has given] me skill with how to interact with other social workers outside the U.S.,” said Habte, a newcomer to Skype.
Although all the participating students are English speakers, Coulter said there are still some barriers.
“They speak a different dialect and they have an accent. So, sometimes both sides have to ask each other to repeat themselves, just to make sure we understand what is being said,” she said.
In its first year, the two-year pilot program, which is part of an effort to meet a Council for Social Work Education accreditation standard for addressing global issues, has integrated other recent technologies. This semester Graham-Gallegan and Nakaoka implemented podcast discussions the students can access via SoundCloud, an online audio sharing platform. The students at both campuses will later record discussions about their respective experiences in social work education. The library of podcasts will become part of the fall 2013 curriculum. Other ideas are being explored, too, such as file sharing through Blackboard Collaborate.
“For many of our students to go on [actual] exchanges, the cost would be really high, but they’re able to have this experience through these new technologies,” Graham-Gallegan said, adding that instructional design specialist Reza Boroon was instrumental in making the virtual exchange project work. “Information Technology [department at CSUDH] has been great. They provided us with assistance and consultancy as far as how to set this up.”
Faculty advisors at the two universities do not sit in on the student exchanges; instead they have their own Skype sessions to discuss the development of the project and the feasibility of a transnational conference. Graham-Gallegan hopes to be able to fund a two-day student conference in London in 2014 so the participating students can meet each other in person. She is also looking at the possibility of students conducting international research involving simultaneous projects.
The London native, who earned a Ph.D. and MSW from the University of Hertfordshire in England, added that people want to learn from students at CSU Dominguez Hills because they have first-hand knowledge of the impact social work and critical race studies can have on communities such as the ones they come from.
“Our students here are very passionate about social justice, and issues to do with equality,” Graham-Gallegan said. “There is something signature about Dominguez Hills. It’s such an ideal place in terms of diversity.”
The virtual exchange program, which stemmed from a presentation Graham-Gallegan delivered at the 2012 Race and Social Work Symposium at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England, will likely double in fall 2013 as it enters its second phase and incorporates the incoming cohort of students.
“It’s a great opportunity. I mean who gets to talk to other individuals in different countries about their profession and to get a different perspective?” Coulter asked.
For more information about the Master of Social Work program at CSU Dominguez Hills, visit www.csudh.edu/cps/hhs/sw/.