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Two tickets to Hong Kong

Social work field education debuts in Asia

Written by Tess Lindholm

When juniors Vanessa Jelsma and Shannon Haan started their social work major at Calvin in September 2010, both wanted an international field placement. But there were none. In May, both students graduated with field work experience at an agency in the heart of Hong Kong. What changed?

Exploring overseas options

In 2010, in response to interest from students and alumni, Calvin’s social work faculty began exploring international field education sites. Field education coordinator Lissa Schwander and off-campus programs director Don De Graaf brainstormed about locations that would meet specific social work requirements, where supervision was available, and where students wouldn’t have to learn another language.

Don suggested a non-profit child care agency in Hong Kong called Mother’s Choice. Schwander learned that this agency had been working for 20 years with infants and children as well as teenage girls facing crisis pregnancies. After several months of negotiations, an exploratory trip to Hong Kong was planned for June 2011.
A dream come true

During an eight-day trip, Schwander and Dean Cheryl Brandsen evaluated Mother’s Choice’s potential as a field education site. “They were very interested in us,” reported Schwander, “and offered many suggestions about what students could do there.”

Back in Grand Rapids, Schwander offered Vanessa and Shannon the chance to intern in a pilot program at Mother’s Choice. Their dream of an international placement had come true. Now all they needed was two tickets to Hong Kong.

A room with a view

On January 3, 2012, Vanessa and Shannon arrived in Hong Kong. Known as the world’s most vertical city, Hong Kong’s seven million inhabitants live in a city of stairs. “I was amazed at literally thousands of skyscrapers, but also hiking paths and beautiful beaches nearby,” said Vanessa.

Home in Hong Kong was a flat where eight other overseas volunteers were living. “It was about halfway up a hill and had phenomenal views of the skyline. We could walk anywhere from there,” said Shannon.

Shannon and Vanessa started working at Mother’s Choice in the international care and adoption program. They provided direct care and music and art therapy for the youngest children. They also planned a weekend camp for youth ages 10-17 on how to identify and control your emotions.

Their biggest project was evaluating the volunteer program. Shannon and Vanessa surveyed 400 volunteers, analyzed the results and wrote up their findings. “It was great to do something the agency needed but didn’t have time or money to do,” said Shannon.

Connecting via Skype

Since the interns couldn’t attend the required senior seminar on campus, Schwander talked with them weekly via Skype.  “Although the internet connection wasn’t always reliable, the ability to connect was invaluable,” said Schwander. “We could process their work and also hear how they were doing personally.”

Shannon and Vanessa appreciated Schwander’s perspective on how to handle challenging situations. “She always had great suggestions” said Shannon, “and it was good to have a connection with Calvin.”

Social work instructor Joe Kuilema continued this connection in March when he visited Shannon and Vanessa in Hong Kong. “It was a privilege to see them interact with the children and with their colleagues,” said Kuilema.  “Fortunately, we had two really strong students pilot test this program.” 

Graduating with a new perspective

Shannon and Vanessa returned to Calvin in May. They graduated with a BSW degree, a new perspective on international social work, and the distinction of being the first two social work students to do field work in Asia.

“I was incredibly touched by the ongoing hospitality of our co-workers,” said Vanessa. “I learned a lot observing their dedication and greatly respect their efforts to improve the social situation in Hong Kong. The best part was seeing youth grow and mature. The staff really helps them reach their full potential.”
“Working and living in Hong Kong was an experience in itself,” said Shannon. “What impacted me the most was the relationships formed with the staff and how they opened their lives to us. I loved working alongside the dedicated workers and learning from them. I’m so thankful the social work department made this opportunity possible.”