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How social work makes a major international impact

by Lisa A. Yeager

While many social workers dedicate their time to their local communities, some use their skills to help the underserved and needy in other countries.

Working as an international social worker provides great opportunities to learn and work with various people. Immersing yourself in the culture of others helps you gain valuable experience and conflict-resolution skills that you can use in any job.

International social work allows you to learn and experience new cultures

Working closely with regular citizens in a different country allows a social worker to learn a lot about the culture and people from a unique perspective. Visiting a country as a tourist and interacting with locals is far different from diving into their communities and helping them access resources, support, and assistance that can improve lives.

Living and working in a different country can be a very rewarding and even life-changing experience. Working in a new place offers many learning opportunities and chances to see how other cultures deal with some of the issues we all have in common.

International social workers often work with government or non-profit agencies.

Social workers often gain employment through their own nation’s government or the government of another country that needs assistance with outreach to implement their social programs.

Non-profit groups often go to other countries to provide support and services to those in need. Working with a non-profit can offer opportunities to specialize in a core area, such as helping women and children or providing mental health resources and support.

International social work can be quite stressful at times but very rewarding.

In some cases, international social work can be significantly more stressful than sticking to work within your native country. The reasons for this may include language and cultural barriers, civil unrest or war, extreme poverty, disease outbreaks, and challenging economics.

You should only choose international social work if you are likely to be able to handle a major stress load at times. It is important to mentally prepare yourself for the problems and situations you will most likely see. Learning as much as possible and watching videos can help prepare you for entering service in a foreign land.

Language classes are recommended.

While interpreters are often available, it is always better if a social worker has some understanding of the native language. Interacting with locals freely will make it far easier to do your job. Knowing the language where you are assigned results in more trust between yourself and the local population. You are much more likely to form a great connection and get people to open up to you if you make them comfortable.

Spanish is a language spoken in many countries, including the United States. Become fluent in Spanish to open up many opportunities both at home and abroad.

You will learn about globalization’s societal effects as an international social worker.

The effects of globalization on every society are hard to miss. Globalization means goods are produced and shipped all over the world. Working conditions, living facilities, and wages vary greatly based on the company and products. Social workers will quickly see the effects of unfair practices on one side and the availability of inexpensive goods on the other.

Social workers can learn how to help workers advocate for themselves and improve their lives as much as possible. Seeing the problems occurring in societies throughout the globalized world will teach aspiring social workers how to approach some situations in their own country when trying to help others.

How to start a career in international social work

International social workers are in demand, but there are some skills you need to succeed at helping others abroad. The following steps will help you to develop the required skills:

Earn your master’s degree in social work

It would help if you had a certain level of education to become a licensed social worker and be competitive in the job market. The gold standard is to earn a master’s degree in social work. The good news is that many online courses are now available to earn this degree.

So, what is an MSW degree? An MSW degree is a graduate-level degree that offers students the skills and education they need to qualify for social worker licensing where they wish to practice. Degree programs, such as the one provided by Cleveland State University, include a field placement where students gain real-world experience before beginning practice as an independent social worker. Advanced and accelerated programs are available for those with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.

Sometimes, you can even arrange for an international placement as part of your master’s degree program. If your degree program offers field placement services, you must let them know well in advance of your interest in international social work. It is possible to complete your entire field placement in another country.

Community service hours

Your degree program will require that you complete a set number of field placement hours. Whenever possible, faculty and staff within the social work department will work with you to find the field placement most suited to your interests and career goals.

In addition to this placement, you should consider doing community service whenever possible. Even a few hours a week can make a big difference on your resume, and you will be helping others simultaneously. Doing extra community work demonstrates that you are a motivated and caring individual.

Hone your cultural awareness.

The more you know about the cultures and people you are most likely to encounter during an international placement, the better off you will be. A global social worker must be open and willing to work with others from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.

Knowing common customs is important before embarking on any international trip. Some general stereotypes of Americans are perpetuated worldwide. Understanding these stereotypes and taking steps to negate their effects is important.

Learn to love research.

While you will undoubtedly need to perform research beforehand, you should be prepared to do extensive research and paperwork during your international assignment. No matter how hard you prepare beforehand, there is always something to learn.

Consider just how much travel is okay with you and your family

While traveling will happen more if you are an international social worker, it is important to consider how much travel or being away from your native country you can handle. There is a big difference between a month-long assignment and one where you stay six months or more.

In a foreign country, there may be considerable travel, too. Locations may be very remote, and you may have to move around to do your job. Travel in some countries is significantly more dangerous and may take much longer due to rough roads, terrain, and weather conditions. Travel may be more cramped, too. Having some experience traveling for a week or longer helps prepare for social work assignments abroad.

Make sure you can get a passport.

A passport can take some time to get. To do social work abroad, you must have a valid ticket. For most people, this is not a problem; however, there are some offenses and situations where a person may be banned from international travel for a specific period.

Remember that a passport cannot be issued instantly. To be on the safe side, you should allow at least six weeks for a new key.

International social work may involve very physical manual labor tasks.

While talking to clients and connecting them to help and resources may be part of your job, there are other aspects that you may perform that are far different than what you would expect in other areas of social work. For example, if you are assigned to work in a place lacking housing, you might spend some of your time helping build or renovate homes. If a natural disaster has hit an area, you might work with people within the community to make repairs and rebuild necessary infrastructure and services.

Ensure you are ready and capable of performing the physical duties before accepting any international positions.

Examples of international social work duties

As an international social worker, you might do many things in your daily duties. From offering emotional support and counseling to picking up a hammer and helping frame a house in a natural disaster area, international social work provides many rewards and excitement while helping others lead their best lives.

Post-war humanitarian aid includes social workers.

Wars have permanent effects on countries and the people within them. After a battle, there is a lot of damage to infrastructure, housing, and people. Mental and physical health problems can go on for far longer than any war.

Social service workers may also serve as grief counselors, helping people cope with their feelings after a war and discover ways to overcome daily challenges.

Environmental recovery efforts sometimes involve social workers

Many areas of the world are trying to protect their environmental resources and reduce the impact of poor environmental practices on their citizens. When a country decides to take a more active role in the environment, some repercussions and changes may significantly impact the lives of its citizens.

In some cases, an environmental disaster can make changes mandatory regardless of how strictly the government of a country is interested in true environmentalism. For example, suppose a major industry in an area is shut down due to new pollution control measures. In that case, there may be a temporary or even permanently devastating effect on the local economy, leading to more poverty and mental issues. A social worker can offer supportive counseling and help workers and their families find resources to help them through these major life changes. This may include temporary assistance with food, housing, utilities, and medical care. Allowing displaced workers to find new employment is another important goal.

Social workers can increase economic development in underserved populations.

Many countries and areas within countries lack economic development. While people have some marketable skills, they lack essential resources that allow them to start businesses. Social workers can help unite people to create economic growth in their communities. By working together, people can help one another establish enterprises and offer services to others that have a major impact on the quality of life and financial stability.

Making economic development happen can take some time, but social workers need to encourage communities to take steps, even if they need to take many small ones, to reach their goals.

Social workers can help broker peace deals between groups of people

Conflict resolution skills are very important when working with people from different backgrounds. Social workers can help people overcome their differences and work together. In many cases, assisting others to embrace the things they have in common and work together for mutual benefit is critical for long-term prosperity.

Helping resolve conflicts that can hold people back is truly invaluable. Having a neutral party to help with negotiations can make a major difference in getting two opposing parties to listen to each other and develop a solution that offers a fair deal for all.

Social workers help improve community health.

Access to adequate medical care is important. Without good health, society cannot advance in any area. Social workers can help establish medical clinics and educate others about good health practices.

Introducing and offering birth control options can help people better plan their families and achieve greater financial security.

International social work can help prevent violence

Violence is often the result of stressful events and circumstances. When social workers come into an area and start to work to help people overcome challenges and improve their lives, rates of violence tend to go down. This means a reduction in abuse at home and the workplace, as well as violent crimes within society.

Finding help for victims of violence helps them heal and recover and provides them with time to see what options they have for moving forward.

Social workers can help with drug and substance abuse issues

Illicit substances are a problem all over the world. In modern times, more people than ever are addicted to both legal and illegal substances. This can lead to a variety of issues, including homelessness, mental health decline, and inability to work. Other health issues are also quite common.

Social workers can offer counseling and work with other programs and facilities to provide rehabilitation support and services.

Mental health services

All countries would benefit from an improved mental healthcare system. Access to counseling and therapists can improve society’s mental health outlook and morale. Major mental illnesses left untreated can lead to serious consequences and reduced quality of life.

Access to mental health treatment and medications can make a big difference in society. Overcoming mental health stigma is one of the main challenges of mental healthcare in developing countries where resources are limited in many areas of daily life.


International social work is a great way to be the change you want to see in the modern world. You can travel and meet interesting people while learning about their culture and helping improve their lives.

Social workers have been proven to be very effective in creating positive effects in communities with limited financial resources. The habits and work ethic they often instill have long-lasting effects. Thanks to online education and good field placement services and programs, achieving a degree in social work is easier now than ever before. Advanced placement programs also exist for those who hold at least a bachelor’s degree in any field.

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