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Beach, Spanish Class, Firefighters, Cake

July 14, 2009 – In a post on the U’s new blog, Whitney Evans, a graduate student in social work, recounts an after-school Costa Rican cooking class. “Beat, fold, blend, pour and plop in the oven… no big deal. Gata magically pulls the other pre-baked cakes out and they are lovely… and loaded with tiny ants. No big deal… wipe them off with a towel.” Lucky thing she’s not there to learn to cook.

Evans and 11 classmates are in Santa Ana, Costa Rica, brushing up on their Spanish and participating in an interdisciplinary three-week service-learning course though the University of Utah. While there, students have opportunities to provide volunteer services in social service agencies for children and seniors, work on an ecological preservation project, and even help firefighters learn English. By staying with host families and engaging in intensive studying at the Conversa Language Institute, they are immersed in the language and culture of Costa Rica.

Supervising University of Utah faculty members, Christina Gringeri (College of Social Work) and Armando Solorzano (Ethnic Studies and Family and Consumer Studies), help students draw connections between what they are learning in Costa Rica and what they have learned at the U. Gringeri and Solorzano provide population demographics, social indicators, and relevant readings to help the students get the most out of their three weeks.

“It is important for the students to understand how culture influences the development of individuals and families,” said Gringeri, “but we also want them to experience what it’s like to be a stranger in another country.” She explained that a greater understanding of the challenges often faced by immigrants will result in greater empathy for clients in similar situations in the United States. “We want this experience to make our students more effective practitioners.”

This is the third year that Gringeri and Solorzano have led this study abroad program. A number of past participants have gone on to complete the International Social Work emphasis while in the U’s Master of Social Work program and select internship opportunities that allow them to work with international populations. “After this experience, they’re more comfortable working with a much broader array of people,” said Gringeri. “Some students actually become kind of addicted to international work. Their eyes are opened, and they realize how rewarding it is.”

Caren Frost, director of International Social Work Education at the U, agrees. “Working in international settings or with international populations can be very personally rewarding,” she said. Frost points out that participation in international service-learning classes or programs can also be a great resume enhancer, making experienced grads more attractive hires.

“The space between us is rapidly shrinking, making it more vital that tomorrow’s professionals have the knowledge and skills necessary to work across international lines,” said Frost. “Regardless of the location or discipline in which they eventually accept employment, these students will draw on their experience in Costa Rica, making them extremely valuable assets to our global community.”

To catch a glimpse of this educational adventure, visit the University of Utah’s blog at