Central American Trip Immerses Students in International Social Work

By Michele McDonald

Costa Rica’s verdant landscape gave Mason social work students a closer look at international viewpoints this past summer. The two-week intensive study-abroad program, Sustainable Human Development and Human Rights: A Gender Perspective, offered since 2006, puts 20 students in the thick of international social work each summer.

Costa Rica integrates human rights into its policies and government, says trip leader Dennis Ritchie, who is the Elisabeth Shirley Enochs Endowed Chair in Child Welfare at Mason. While in Costa Rica, students visit everything: grassroots organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government offices, and finally an indigenous community, Yorkin, that lies on the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Mason professor Dennis Ritchie (second from left) poses with students during a canoe trip in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Durben.

“The students see the human rights framework coming to life,” says Ritchie, who also heads the MSW program in the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Social Work. Ritchie started going to Costa Rica in 1992 and soon began working with Laura Guzman Stein, a retired professor and former director of the Center for Women’s Studies Research at the University of Costa Rica.

“I realized when I traveled to Costa Rica that they have a much more holistic approach to human rights,” Ritchie says. “In the United States, we tend to focus on civil and political rights, while downplaying economic, social, and cultural rights.”

Mason graduate student Amanda Riley found that the Costa Rica trip gave her insight into the different aspects of social work, including the role national borders play in small communities. The Costa Rican attitude toward national borders is quite different from that of the United States, she says.

While in Costa Rica, Mason social work students visited grassroots organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government offices, and an indigenous community. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Durben.

Riley found freedom of movement is crucial to those living in the Yorkin village because it straddles the border between Costa Rica and Panama. “If their right to cross the border freely was restricted, going to school, to the store, and even their agriculture would be affected,” says Riley, who plans to do policy and advocacy work after she graduates in May. “It’s just so different to see things in person rather than to learn them in a classroom.”

“[The trip] applied what we were learning in the course to the real world,” says Mason graduate student Lesley Katz, who plans to graduate in May. For Katz, who is specializing in social change and focusing on aging policy and elder abuse, visiting Yorkin emphasized how older people contribute to their community there.

“The elders in Yorkin are respected,” says Katz. “They’re the ones who run the community.”

Mason students Janet Nalls and Xenia Tegada watch a man from the Bribri tribe roast cocoa beans in Talamanca, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Durben.

Graduate student Jennifer Durben already had an international perspective after spending eight years working at NGOs locally and internationally before deciding to pursue an MSW degree. “I think social work has a very natural fit to international work,” Durben says. “Social work is about a person and their environment and how the two relate.”

Costa Rica’s emphasis on children’s rights resonates with Durben, especially how the Costa Rican government backs up children’s rights with laws. If a child wants to know who his or her father is, for example, the government will locate the father and even follow up with a paternity test. While it may seem to be a basic right for someone to know their family background, it’s controversial in the United States because it conflicts with parental rights, she says.

While student Michelle Buhrandt is focusing on the personal side of social work to become a clinical social worker, her Costa Rican experience showed her how government policy is interwoven with the individual lives of its citizens. “You can never separate the people from the environment that they live in,” she says.

Meeting other social workers and traveling to another country for the first time made the program memorable, says Buhrandt, adding that she strongly recommends it. But it’s not an easy 3 credits. “It was all day, every day,” she says with a laugh. “I was ready to go home and take a vacation.”

Ritchie wants students to see firsthand how social work can translate into government policy. He wants them to understand how far social work principles can reach and apply that knowledge to their work.

“We in the United States tend to focus on needs, which tends to lead to a more charitable model,” Ritchie says. “But everyone has human rights and a nation’s citizens are rights holders. That approach in Costa Rica informs everything from policy to legislation. Social work is human rights.”

This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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