The Challenges of an International Practicum
From Spring to Summer 2013, I participated in the semester program in Thailand, one of the SDSU School of Social Work’s international initiatives for MSW students with a specialization in community development. I was to do a full time block placement at a local agency and to conduct a master’s thesis. Through the help of Thammasat University in Thailand, I was placed at the Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) in Samut Sakhon, a seafood processing hub near the Bangkok metropolitan in Thailand. The city has a large population of migrant workers, who came to work in the seafood processing factories, and their families. LPN is one of the very few NGOs helping migrants there. I participated in a range of activities, such as rescue operation for forced labor victims and community outreach with migrant children.
These six months definitely were more culturally challenging and rewarding than ever. Here are two main lessons learned that I would like to share as I overcame the ups and downs of an international practicum.
Be patient and capitalize on your resources
The first few weeks were the hardest. I dove in with excitement anyway, but it did not quite match up to my initial expectations. In addition, there was a language barrier and the Thai working style was alien to me; it was frustrating at times.
Luckily, I had two supportive and experienced professors who helped me through this phase. Professor David Engstrom who is experienced in international social work filled me in with a realistic picture of the ebbs and flows of an international practicum. He also connected me to the social work administration at Thammasat University who offered great help when I needed it.
Professor Narumol from Thammasat University was a local liaison professor. Being in a respectable position in Thailand, she was the perfect person to negotiate on behalf of me around the social hierarchy and cultural differences. She was absolutely helpful throughout the practicum in communicating to my agency to clarify the goals and expectations of the internship.
Both professors also regularly checked in with me. Their feedback and suggestions often pushed me to try more and pointed me to a direction that made my experience more enriching.
You ought to be independent in an international practicum, but remember that you are never alone.
When in doubt, just do what you can and give your best
You will meet great people. However, accept the fact that you would never become one of them. Some may question your purpose and motivation for being at their agency. A staff at LPN once said matter-of-factly, “Foreigners and student interns like you aren’t as committed because their lives are not here. They just come and go.” This was not encouraging and made me doubt how much I could really contribute.
And she was right. But we learned that as social workers, we will have to accept limitations and work within our capacity. Although I was constrained in various ways, I sought out things that I could do, even if they seemed inconsequential. Work such as helping cut the falling banana trees behind the office backyard is work nonetheless and it built trust and rapport. Looking back now, these are the times when I began to live as one of them, rather than just being present for the internship. These are the times that I treasured the most.
So just do what you can while you are there. Eventually, you would be trusted and given more responsibility. A few months in, I was giving a tour of the migrant workers’ neighborhoods to a group led by the Swedish Ambassador, and I represented LPN at a regional seminar on how to better run a temporary shelter.
Your experience will be very different from mine. And no amount of pre-departure orientation will prepare you for the reality of being abroad. Nonetheless, I hope these can help when you feel overwhelmed and are out of ideas. Sometimes all you have to do is like what the Thais say, “mai pen rai” – just go with the flow. And when you’re done, you might be surprised by how the perceived difficulties come to become part of who you are and how you practice social work in the future.
Katie Tang received her MSW in 2013 and is now working in Hong Kong