BUFFALO, N.Y. – Almost nine thousand miles away from the
U.S. on the outskirts of Mae Sot, a bustling trading hub northwest
of Thailand, University at Buffalo graduate student Sarah Nesbitt
lives her childhood dream: doing social work.
Every graduate student in the UB master’s in social work
program (MSW) is required to undertake field education, where
students work for – and immerse themselves within – an
organization dedicated to a specific cause.
Nesbitt develops educational programs for a non-profit agency,
Burma Border Projects (BBP), which looks after the mental
well-being and social welfare of refugees from Myanmar fleeing
governmental and ethnic persecution.
BBP empowers refugees by providing culturally sensitive and
trauma-related mental health training so that they, in turn, can be
counselors and program developers in the future.
“At its core, BBP is a capacity-building agency that looks
to support the displaced population,” Nesbitt says.
Nesbitt, along with Kathleen Witmer, also a UB MSW student, are
pursuing their field education abroad, seeking to understand and
rectify social issues that are close to their hearts.
According to Laura A. Lewis, PhD, director of field education in
the UB School of Social Work, this requirement gives students
hands-on experience to supplement their classroom seminars and
“The field placement allows students the opportunity to
apply the knowledge, theories and skills learned in the classroom
to real-life situations,” Lewis says. “It essentially
helps them make the transition from student to
Four years ago, the School of Social Work altered its course
sequence to allow students the option of completing their field
requirements outside of Western New York. Since then, four social
work students have chosen to go abroad.
Nesbitt and Witmer are two who have taken the plunge this
Aside from honing their social work skills, Nesbitt and Witmer
also blog about their experiences, shedding light on the social
causes they have chosen to work on while educating students back
home about the challenges of going abroad.
Nesbitt chose Mae Sot because her area of interest is in working
with displaced populations, like refugees. It is also one of the
reasons she chose to further her studies at UB, where many
charities work to help the large numbers of refugees in
“Mae Sot is an incredibly diverse and complicated place to
live in, something I thought I was prepared for but was not,”
Nesbitt says. “The people who live here come from many
different ethnic groups from within Burma and they all have
different customs, languages and histories.
“You have to be able to delicately operate within all of
these groups and hope that they will be gracious and forgiving when
you make mistakes,” Nesbitt says. “Thankfully, they
Coming from a large family with many adopted siblings, Nesbitt
was taught early on by her parents that happiness comes not from
material wealth but through how much one might contribute to making
the world a better place. These ideals drew her to the field of
“Where other people see problems, social workers see
untapped and underutilized potential,” Nesbitt says. “I
believe that every person has strengths that can be used to change
this world for the better.”
While Nesbitt has been hard at work assisting the disadvantaged,
displaced populations at the Thai/Myanmar border, Kathleen Witmer
has chosen to devote her time and efforts to improve the lives of
an equally neglected class of population in South Korea: unwed
The Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN), where Witmer
works, chose the stigmatized term “unwed mother” to
raise awareness because politically-correct terms like
“single mother” or “mother” do not reflect
the grim realities these women face in South Korea. Some of these
realities are forced abortions, coercion into giving up infants for
adoption and pretending to be divorced or widowed to avoid being
ostracized in their communities.
In a guest column published on KUMSN’s website, Witmer
wrote that the stigma of having children out of wedlock contributes
to the high number of Korean infants given up for adoption every
year, earning this Asian economic powerhouse the unattractive
moniker of the “world’s number one baby
“My interest in Korea stems from my own personal
connection as one of the thousands of Korean infants who were sent
abroad for adoption,” Witmer wrote in the same column.
“In addition to my personal desire to visit my country of
birth, I really wanted to come to Korea to see for myself and
experience firsthand what I had read, researched and heard from
Witmer, who was adopted at 7 months old and grew up in Lockport,
blends seamlessly into the streets of South Korea because of her
physical appearance, but realizes that the locals treat her
differently once they find out a “fellow Korean” does
not speak the mother tongue fluently. It is one of the many
cultural nuances that surprised her during her placement.
“Many are daunted by the prospect of living and working in
a foreign location, but it is my hope that when they see others do
it and report back, it will make it much less intimidating,”
Nesbitt says. “Another reason I chose to do an overseas
placement was because I want to encourage other social workers to
consider an international placement in the future.
“I have been actively trying to encourage the BBP and
other organizations in the area to allow other MSW students to do
their field work here with them and the response has been very
exciting,” Nesbitt says.
Other than navigating cultural differences and language
barriers, the cost of going abroad can present a major obstacle to
students, but Lewis is optimistic.
“The school hopes to secure funding for this area of study
going forward,” Lewis says.
More information about the UB MSW program and links to
Nesbitt’s and Witmer’s blogs can be found at the School
of Social Work website: http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/abroad/index.asp