Social Work students return from transcultural research trip

Social Work students interact with a child at a rehabilitation center in Uganda.

A group of Radford University graduate students recently returned from a transformational research trip to Uganda.

Five Masters of Social Work candidates, led by Assistant Professor of Social Work Deneen Evans, spent almost two weeks in the African country working with and researching parents of children with disabilities.

Uganda's infant mortality rate and life expectancy age are among the worst in the world. More than 50 percent of Ugandans have no access to clean water, making them vulnerable to cholera and diarrhea. Malaria and respiratory illnesses are widespread and are frequent causes of death. Economic liberalization has created a healthcare system that places the poor at a stark disadvantage.

"It is important to prepare our Social Work students to address global issues," Evans said. "Our students have unique skills and flexible approaches to problem-solving and can help address global issues in places where people are economically oppressed and resource challenged."

In addition to the real-world, hands-on experience, connecting with the Ugandans and their rich culture was a reward gained by all participants.

"The trip had a personal and professional impact on my life," said TyEnna Spencer-Sturdivant, a first year M.S.W. degree candidate. "It was humbling to see people with very little still enjoying life. I didn't take anything for granted."

The study abroad trip was a first for Radford University's School of Social Work, and it will definitely not be its last, Evans said.

"It was so powerful on so many different levels," she said.

Along with Evans and Spencer-Sturdivant, M.S.W. candidates Juwell McClendon, Elisabeth Goechenour, Sara Cometto and Robert Rodney embarked on the trip on May 8. They stayed at Uganda Christian University, which Evans learned of through international M.S.W. RU graduate Violet Nkwanzi. Nkwanzi is from Uganda and enrolled in Radford's M.S.W. program in the summer of 2015. Evans was her mentor, and their relationship grew into a collegial one after Nkwanzi returned to Uganda and was offered a faculty position at Uganda Christian University. Evans and Nkwanzi often spoke about ways to form a collaboration between Radford and UCU, and their mutual interest in child disability led to the coordination of the study abroad research trip.

At the university, the research team connected with faculty to exchange ideas and best practices in the area of child disability. Uganda Christian University is similar in size to Radford, and faculty members are hoping to start a M.S.W. program.

The transcultural connection and perspective benefited both parties.

"The faculty was very receptive to a partnership," Evans said. "We went in with an open mind and said we can learn from you, and you can learn from us. We all have the same challenges, and we can identify with them."

One of those challenges is overcoming biases of people with disabilities.

Throughout much of Africa, disabilities are seen as taboo. Children with disabilities are often shunned from the family, or even killed. Other families see the disability as a blessing or good luck, thus refusing treatment. Families who can afford to seek treatment choose between public or private rehabilitation centers. The RU research team visited one of each.

There, they conducted qualitative interviews with 18 sets of parents, asking questions regarding the resources and support available to them and their disabled child and the obstacles they must overcome to access those services. They also interacted with the children, whose disabilities ranged from autism to club feet.

"It was hard when we were there, seeing them in that shape," Spencer-Sturdivant said. "But it was also a blessing to see that the parents do care. It was very up-lifting."

Evans said the team collected a lot of rich data that they will transcribe and present research findings at conferences and for submission to journals.

"The students were able to take classroom information in theory, cultural diversity, research and policy and apply it on a global level," Evans said.

McClendon, an M.S.W. candidate from Detroit, Michigan, said she had no idea the profound impact the trip would have on her life.

"While conducting research interviews, I was able to learn more in-depth about cultures much different from my own," she said. "Ugandans taught me the true gift of compassion, awareness and integrity."

McClendon said Radford's M.S.W. program has granted her many unique in- and out-of-classroom opportunities.

"Most importantly, it has taught me to be comfortable in unfamiliar environments and has increased my awareness of difference," she said. "When I decided to attend the study abroad trip, the first thing that came to mind was the opportunity to travel while doing what I love: practicing social work. It wasn't until the trip plans were set in motion that I realized I was getting ready to embark on a journey that would be life-changing, both professionally and personally."

When the team wasn't out in the field, they were exploring the country's rich and beautiful surroundings. The group visited a mosque, several markets and the source of the Nile River.

"The scenery was so amazing," Spencer-Sturdivant said. "Being able to study abroad is the only way to experience something like that, to be culturally competent. You can't learn that in a book. You have to experience it, and Radford University offered that to me."

Jul 20, 2016
Mary Hardbarger
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