Everything I did in Tamil Nadu helped prepare me to be a more effective social worker in the United States. Through my experience with SST in Padavedu, I improved my ability to do qualitative research in order to be able to advocate for policy reform. I also have a greater understanding of how cultural competency informs my social work practice and a heightened awareness of variations of case management.
Improved ability to research qualitative information to advocate for policy reform: During my time in Padavedu, I co-authored a case study about SST’s anemia camps and wrote an individual case study about SST animators. Before this experience, I had never written a case study and I was unsure of how to go about conducting interviews and gathering qualitative data. After completing the projects, I have more confidence in my capability to conduct case studies. I have also developed a sense of appreciation for the difference between qualitative and quantitative data, which I did not have before coming to Padavedu.
As someone who studies social policy, I have taken several classes on research that emphasizes how to collect quantitative data through surveys and statistics. I have had excellent professors in CUSSW who challenged me to recognize bias and limitations in surveys. They also taught me technical skills, such as how to code data using computer software such as STATA. Through these classes, I honed skills that are useful in demonstrating trends and programs’ effectiveness. I was taught that policymakers and stakeholders use statistical analysis taken from quantitative data to support needs assessments and advocate for the funding of programs and initiatives, as well as advocating for policies that address identified issues.
Having the experience working on two cases showed me how much individual stories can also illustrate trends that reveal community needs and agency effectiveness. Case studies are also useful in demonstrating how social, economic, and institutional factors affect community members’ lives. Moreover, case studies can be used to make policy recommendations and advocate for community needs. For example, the case study about animators revealed several animators’ life experiences and interests before, during, and after they became animators. As I learned more about animators’ work interests and background, I suggested that SST specialize animators’ professional areas of focus to further their expertise for the benefit of their communities. My experience writing case studies gave me insight into the value of documenting individual experiences and will be useful in my second year field placement at the Millennium Villages where I will be responsible for developing a field document using field notes from a site in Uganda.
Greater focus on cultural competency: Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively with people who come from differing cultures. This skill is essential in social work practice because virtually everyone comes from a unique culture informed by geography, language, family, education, values, ethics, and so much more. During my internship with SST, I established relationships and developed bonds with staff members and people in the Padavedu community who live thousands of miles away from me. Though we had different life experiences, we found common ground in our preferences for food, music, sports, culture, and art, among other things. After working in Padavedu, I have become more aware of how much we all share just by being human beings. When I focus on the differences that separate me from another person, I sacrifice potential relationships filled with love and respect. I hope to always be aware of how I can approach my professional positions with an unassuming air that allows me to discover how I can connect with others rather than separate myself from them.
Heightened awareness of variations of case management: Having observed SST’s model of development, I have widened my definition of case management and I no longer define the practice as narrowly as I did before coming to Padavedu. Because animators are from the communities they serve, they have a vested interest in the development of the communities in their jurisdiction. Their work directly affects their individual well-being as well as their community’s well-being. Each animator is responsible for working in two or three panchayats (groups of villages) and some animators share work in the same panchayat. All the families know the animators and the animators know them. The word animator means field staff and describes someone who is a local person working with villages to develop the community. Rather than being regarded as social workers who have clients and a concrete caseload, an animator’s role is that of an individual who fulfills responsibilities to their community. An animator’s relationship with their community does not have the implicit power imbalance that the social worker-client relationship suggests in the US.
When I returned to the US, I had the opportunity to work as a consultant case planner with Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families, the agency in which I was placed during my first year as a social work student. During my home visits and meetings with clients in August and September, I was more mindful of how I set boundaries with clients. I was also keenly aware of how I could be perceived as a social worker who lives in a neighborhood outside of my clients’ communities. Like SST, Sauti Yetu stays visible within the communities to which they provide services and reaches out to clients through religious venues and by hosting festive events. Both Sauti Yetu and SST’s work is based on models of social work practice that recognize the importance of unique cultural contexts; my experiences at both organizations have provided me with an enhanced understanding of how community engagement is integral to developing meaningful relationships conducive to community development.
As I look back on the time I had in Padavedu, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity I had to work and live in such a beautiful place. I will never forget the experiences and lessons I learned in Padavedu and I hope to have the opportunity to visit my new friends again soon.