October 16, 2018  

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Abroad in Ghana, Social Work Student Goes from Panic to ‘Let’s Do It’

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University of Southern Mississippi graduate Cooper Robinson sits under a global mural in Cape Coast, Ghana. (Submitted photo)

Despite preparing to travel nearly 6,000 miles from Hattiesburg to Ghana, Cooper Robinson thought she had a handle on spending three months abroad for field experience as a social work student.

After all, she was used to being apart from family after coming to The University of Southern Mississippi from Edmond, Oklahoma - which, granted, is only about 600 miles away.

“I've gotten used to being away from home; I can't go home every weekend,” says Robinson, who graduated with a bachelor's of social work degree in December after completing her required field placement last fall. "So it was kind of similar in that aspect, just farther this time.”

Robinson, who says she has always had “a passion to do something overseas,” learned of the possibility of an international placement during an orientation session for the social work program. "They talked about a student who had gotten to go overseas, so I was really excited and wondered if that would be an option for me," she says.

Everything fell nicely into place with the assistance of a social worker with connections in Ghana. But Robinson wasn't immediately prepared for the twist in her assignment once she arrived in Mataheko, a suburban area of Accra, the capital city of the Greater Accra Region along the country's southern coast.

A Twist – With Benefits

The Don Bosco Child Protection Centre, a Catholic charity, helps rehabilitate Ghanaian child-labor victims through education and psychological support so they can be returned to their homes or placed with relatives. Prepared to join Ghanian staff social workers for her 3 1/2-month stay, Robinson was instead told she would be helping teach English to the approximately 50 students.

"The little ones could barely speak English, the older ones could understand it a little more," she says. "It was a struggle to communicate, especially at the beginning and because I had no teaching experience.

"But it was a really good experience because I got to know the students more than if I had just been in the social work office. In the beginning, I was super-hesitant, but at the end, it was more of a blessing."

Beth Okantey, the veteran social worker and educator with ties to Africa, helped secure Robinson's placement through her network of contacts. Okantey, a professor at Portland State University who has supervised dozens of American social work students in Africa the past four years, says Robinson's experience is richer for the unexpected turn.

"When students come to Ghana, it is important that they be flexible," she says. "Building rapport is such an important skill and is the foundation of social work. If we can't build rapport and engage with individuals in a positive way, how can we assist them? Even though Cooper was teaching, she was also building that rapport with her students.

"I think the international placements really provide a different lens to looking at individuals and situations. They allow us to look at our own biases and assumptions to focus on providing a non-judging, flexible and caring attitude in an environment that is so different from our own. This can assist us back home because everyone we meet with may be different even if we are ethnically, racially or culturally the same."

Adjusting to Life in Ghana

Robinson says the biggest cultural difference she faced in Ghana is that natives typically use only their right hands, because their left hands are reserved for handling personal hygiene. "I'm brutally left-handed," she says. "I didn't know the first week and may have offended them by eating with my left hand. But everyone was really nice about it.

"I had to sit on my left hand so I would not eat with it. They eat certain foods with their hands that we in the States do not use our hands to eat. That was kind of different for us as Americans."

Robinson settled into a routine of weekday work, followed by weekends of travel and adventure. Getting to work required a 1 1/2- to 2-mile walk from her residence to a main road where she could board a "tro-tro," a stripped-down minibus or 15-passenger van used for public transportation. "It is like a metal can glued together," she says.
After getting dropped off, it was still about a 3/4-mile walk to the center, with temperatures in the 90s near the end of her stay. "We were sweaty and disgusting when we got to work and the same after we got home. It was scorching outside."

Relief came in the form of visits to picturesque Busua Beach and Cape Coast, the capital city of Accra, and Mole National Park, where she went on safari. The only catch was that before starting her weekend, she had to use Skype each Friday afternoon to connect for a class in Hattiesburg.

"There was no video because the connection was so spotty,” she says. “Or if there was video, then I couldn't hear. I mostly stared at a blank screen for three hours. But it was good to keep in touch with my cohort and hear about their experiences."

Learning Opportunities Outside Class

Social work undergraduate students are required to complete one internship before graduation, working 32 hours a week for a total of 450 hours over a semester. More than 130 undergraduate and graduate social work students were in field placements in fall 2017, with more than 170 expected for spring 2018.

USM’s Center for Pathways Experiences helps undergraduate students from across the university find opportunities similar to Robinson’s – internships, co-ops, research collaborations, and other experiences to complement their classroom learning.

“We have seen students return from an internship as different students academically,” says Lisa Stevens, the Pathways director. “Students are more focused and more engaged in the classroom. Additionally, most every student gains soft skills that are transferrable to any employment that is in their future.”

The School of Social Work partners with more than 200 agencies, mostly in Mississippi, for field experiences. But Victoria Murdy, who coordinates field education for the school, is looking into the possibility of a new international placement option in the future – also in Africa. “I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, as a kid,” she says. “The husband of a childhood friend brings in students to do internships in South African schools.”

If it works out, it would continue the legacy Robinson helped establish on the continent.

‘Hugs, High-Fives and Handshakes’

“It turned out to be an amazing experience,” she says. “It’s kind of panic a little bit and then, ‘OK, let’s do it.’  I think I gained more from being in the classroom than if I had been with the other social workers. I learned how to connect and communicate with these children through non-verbals and physical touch like hugs, high-fives and handshakes, even if I couldn’t fully communicate with them.

“Just being there is so important. If they needed me, they knew I was there. It can be hard for them to get one-on-one time because of the number of children vs. staff. Sometimes they would just come and sit by me, and that was enough.”