If you’ve been thinking that a job in international social work sounds like the right mix of passion and adventure, you may be right! However, there are many things you may want to consider before you jump into social work jobs overseas. While most of the innate traits of a social worker will serve you well, there are other necessary skills and traits any international social worker will need in order to thrive personally and professionally in a foreign setting.
How is Social Work Overseas Different?
According to the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), international social work “promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”1 International social work recognizes that many factors are at play when it comes to people’s well-being, especially when these factors are impacted by international borders and policies. However, the goals of social work overseas are much the same as domestic social work: to improve the quality of life for individuals, communities, groups and minority populations.2
U.S. social workers who want to work overseas will need to prepare themselves to face even more challenges when working within several different cultures. There may be more extreme poverty, social injustices and different social hierarchies, as well as human rights violations to contend with. International social workers will need to take what they have learned from their domestic work and training and combine it with their knowledge from foreign studies.2 The complex issues of a completely different culture may be the greatest hurdle for social workers to overcome when entering a new country.
Acquiring the Right Skills and Experience
Moving to and creating a life in a foreign country can be a wonderful adventure, but it can also be a bit stressful. Homesickness, acclimating to a new culture, learning a new language, integrating new customs into your day-to-day routine, and adjusting to your new workplace and coworkers are chief among the stressors you may experience. Because of this, you’ll need to be interested in and capable of adapting to other cultures, you will also need to have a high threshold for frustration and the ability to learn quickly.3 Adjusting to all these changes while learning about and helping new clients requires resilience.
Other populations served by social workers are people with disabilities, seniors, members of the military, and current and former inmates.4 Some social workers focus on changing policy rather than supporting people one-on-one or in small groups.
People skills, cross-class and cross-cultural empathy and community organizing are at the core of most social work jobs. For international social work jobs, it is critical social workers learn how things work administratively in their office and in the government of the country they’re working.
Most international social workers will have their general bases covered by the basic requirements needed to get their bachelor’s degree in social work. However, a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) may further expand your knowledge and better prepare you for the specific needs of international social work jobs. Courses offered in international social work generally go in-depth on specific issues such as human trafficking and women’s health, and they’ll often educate students about specific regions. Fieldwork during these courses may even include helping refugees locally.4 If you have electives to choose from in your MSW program, look for courses that cover topics such as global policy, refugee issues and administration.
Weighing the pros and cons
As with any life-changing decisions, it’s important to take time to consider all facets of the situation. While these items don’t cover all of the pros and cons, they may help you start your own list:
- Your resume will stand out with overseas experience
- You’ll likely have memorable experiences both on and off the job
- You may have the opportunity for extended travel and exploration in your new country or those surrounding it
- You’ll gain skills that can be applied to future jobs once you return home
- You may learn a new language
- You may be placed in distressing environments with great poverty
- Homesickness can be a major issue
- Cultural barriers may lead to a distrust of social work and psychology
- You’ll likely need to learn a new language while working
- You’ll face an extremely competitive job market2
Starting the Job Hunt
Since competition for international social work jobs is high, you’ll want to do extensive research about where you intend to work. Be sure you know as much as you can about the country you want to work in, the infrastructure and any political issues or bureaucratic red tape you may need to work through in order to get your job done. If you intend to work in a country with a different language, you’ll certainly want to be at least conversational in the native tongue.
It’s also helpful to have an idea of what your future career endeavors may be. Is this going to simply be a year abroad meant to get some experience under your belt, or do you plan to settle into this new country for several years? These sorts of considerations will likely make a difference in your job search, your activities and exploration in the new country, and how deeply you’ll need to immerse yourself in the new culture.
Many different international organizations employ international social workers, some of which are government related while others are grassroots organizations. A good place to start would be national embassies, which typically can be found in capital cities. Most embassies will have a list of organizations and programs that work with different communities within their country. Another excellent resource is the United Nations, which has many resources for those who intend to enter international social work; their careers network online has a list of openings that should prove helpful in your job hunt.
If a year abroad or even a long-term career in international social work sounds appealing, consider how an online MSW can help better prepare you for this endeavor. To learn more about how to broaden your horizons while helping others, check out the online Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and find the role for which you were made.
1. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from iassw-aiets.org/files/Global%20Agenda-firts%20report.pdf
2. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from socialworkdegreecenter.com/international-social-work-careers-an-overview/
3. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from socialworker.com/feature-articles/career-jobs/Is_An_Overseas_Job_in_International_Social_Work_the_Job_for_You%3F/
4. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from psychologyschoolguide.net/social-work-careers/international-social-worker/