Published April 18, 2013
Almost 9,000 miles away from the U.S. on the outskirts of Mae Sot, a bustling trading hub northwest of Thailand, UB graduate student Sarah Nesbitt lives her childhood dream: doing social work.
Every graduate student in UB’s 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 and fellow MSW student Kathleen Witmer are pursuing their field education abroad, seeking to understand and rectify social issues that are close to their hearts.
According to Laura A. Lewis, director of field education in the School of Social Work, this requirement gives students hands-on experience to supplement their classroom seminars and discussions.
“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 professional.”
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 semester.
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 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 Buffalo.
“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 are.”
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 social work.
“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, Witmer has chosen to devote her time and efforts to improve the lives of an equally neglected class of population in South Korea: unwed mothers.
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 exporter.”
“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 others.”
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.
Links to Nesbitt’s and Witmer’s blogs can be found at the School of Social Work website.