By Audrey Gurkin
Kristina Byerly and Kelsey Wilson, social work graduate students, had the opportunity to travel abroad this summer. They departed on June 30, 2019, with 16 undergraduate social work students and professor Dr. Kellie Reed-Ashcraft and Sarah Donovan, lecturer in the social work department within the Beaver College of Health Sciences, to go on a three week trip to Costa Rica.
The students attended Spanish classes and performed service work during their stay. They had various activities scheduled throughout the week with each day bringing a new learning opportunity. There was also time for them to appreciate their beautiful surroundings with trips to the beach and exploring protected jungles.
Both students were changed by their time in Costa Rica.
Byerly had always thought she wanted to work with children and adolescents. This trip confirmed her desires. “Since I’m not fluent in Spanish, working with the children in Costa Rica gave me the opportunity to learn how to communicate and engage with them in non-verbal ways. As a future therapist, I feel this exposure will benefit me as I work with children and adolescents from other cultures in the future,” said Byerly.
Byerly currently works with Hope Alliance in Banner Elk and plans to continue working for them in Charlotte after graduation. Reflecting on her experience, Byerly said, “I will always be grateful for this opportunity to immerse myself in another culture and grow my skills as a therapist. There are so many things I learned about myself that confirmed to me that I am indeed in the right field.”
Wilson had wanted to travel abroad while an undergraduate student but never had the opportunity. Once she was accepted to go on the trip, Wilson felt a bit intimidated by living with a host family since she has lived on her own for several years. “I quickly learned that Costa Ricans are gracious and welcoming,” said Wilson. She immediately bonded with her host family and still speaks with her “Mama Tica” monthly. “The program provides a lot of opportunities for networking and relationship building and it literally blew away all of my expectations,” said Wilson.
The students were also able to learn how Costa Rica handles child welfare, mental health and homelessness through various field trips and firsthand experiences. The final week was filled with service work. For Wilson that experience was particularly introspective, “You’re forced to look at your privilege, your family, friends and every aspect of your culture and reevaluate yourself. These people on the other side of the world do things differently and for different reasons and you have to question why and learn from that.”
“Our trip would not have been as amazing without Kellie and Sarah! With their support and guidance, Kristina and I were allowed to facilitate group meetings. To be able to discuss our challenges openly with them certainly helped with our growth and development,” said Wilson.
Studying abroad can provide an exposure that is imperative for one’s career building process, but in some cases, the most important lesson learned is the insight you gain about oneself.