campus news

UB MSW students learn about human rights, sustainability, resiliency in Costa Rica

MSW student Aditi Kumar assists a teacher in a classroom at ASONI, a nongovernmental organization that provides a safe, supportive environment for kids from two neighborhoods in San José, Costa Rica.


Published June 3, 2024

MSW student Alisa Chirico surveying cacao on the agro-forestry farm.
“We had the unique privilege of being let into a world that is unlike any world I’ve ever seen. ”
Alisa Chirico, master's student
School of Social Work

Thinking back on her study abroad experience in Costa Rica, Alisa Chirico remembers the children most.

Chirico and her classmates spent two and a half days at ASONI, a nongovernmental organization that provides a safe, supportive environment for kids from two neighborhoods in San José, Costa Rica. The children’s joy and kindness were a stark contrast to the extreme poverty and violence that marks the neighborhood surrounding the agency.

“We had the unique privilege of being let into a world that is unlike any world I’ve ever seen,” the MSW student says. “I felt the weight of the world, the weight of capitalism and neoliberalism, crushing people in this space — just crushing violence, economic disparity and injustice that was heartbreaking to witness.

“The flip side is that I also saw a level of resilience that was also unimaginable to me,” Chirico continues. “These kids were just so sweet and affectionate, despite going through unthinkable lives. I had incredibly heartwarming, restorative experiences with the people there.”

Chirico was one of a dozen UB students who recently participated in a new study abroad experience from the School of Social Work centered around human rights and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Laura Lewis, clinical associate professor and assistant dean for global partnerships in the School of Social Work, led the group — which included 11 MSW students and one undergraduate anthropology major — to Costa Rica this spring.

Lewis says the goal of the program was to expand students’ worldview by showing them how social workers in the Global South practice and frame their work.

“Often, we are so embedded in our own cultural context that we don’t see how the way we practice is influenced by politics or even things we avoid as social workers, like a focus on money and profit,” Lewis says. “Social workers in the Global South explicitly reject Western notions of individualism and capitalism; instead, it’s about progress for the community collective, which is more in keeping with their cultural norms.”

The group spent nearly a third of the nine-day program at ASONI, which translates to Association for Children’s Smiles when spelled out in English. The NGO provides a continuum of support to children living in poverty, using a human rights-based perspective.

There, the UB students planned lessons, taught English classes and led a meditation exercise for the kids and staff. They also shared meals with the children and jumped in to play dodgeball, immersing themselves in the family-like atmosphere the ASONI staff create to help the kids feel safe and at home.

“ASONI really personified the trauma-informed, human rights perspectives we talk about here,” says Lewis. “It was an interesting opportunity for our social work students to talk with their social workers and psychologists, and to share and hear what they know from practice.”

For Chirico and her classmates, the experience at ASONI also highlighted key differences in social work and the broader culture between Costa Rica and the U.S.

“We have a culture that is hyper-individualistic, where everybody’s on their grind and there’s a lot of isolation. But seeing how the teachers, social workers and psychologists were able to care for these kids and help them smile and laugh and be OK in spite of everything — that’s incredibly powerful,” Chirico says. “What are the tools they’re using and how do I bring that into my practice? How do I bring that openness and safety to the people I wind up caring for? How do I help myself be as resilient as those kids?”

Outside of their time at ASONI, the group toured San José, engaged with the Bribri Indigenous community and visited an agroforestry farm. Along the way, they learned about Costa Rica’s history and culture, and saw how powerful systems and seemingly minor decisions alike can have devastating consequences. For example, online MSW student Kristopher Konyak learned that to produce the specific varieties of pineapples and bananas that American consumers prefer, plantations in Costa Rica use pesticides, harsh labor practices and other mechanisms that destroy the environment and harm workers.

“We started to see the nesting of systems, like Russian dolls, and how that creates issues for people and where we fit in,” says Konyak. “It was interesting to learn about the history of banana republics while standing on what once was deemed United Fruit Company soil and understand exactly how our consumption in the U.S. affects Latin countries — but at the same time know that the Costa Rican people, by nature of their communal culture, were still able to genuinely see me for who I am, not where I come from.”

Back in the U.S., the students hosted a plant sale to raise money for ASONI’s mission and began to consider how they could integrate the perspectives they brought home into their careers as social workers.

“For me,” Konyak says, “it’s now about trying to figure out what I, as an individual, can do within my own community, while understanding that everything is so interconnected now that even the tiniest shift in behavior can have a lasting effect on the planet.”