From the US to Norway: MSW Students’ Experiences

On August 26, 2017, three students from the MSW department at CSUDH, departed for a 10-day study abroad experience in Norway, to learn about international perspectives of social work practice and to conduct independent research.

Throughout our time there, we visited several social work practice settings (child welfare agencies and schools), participated in presentations and lectures with professors, and engaged in nearby excursions that highlighted the beauty of Norway’s nature. We each have our own story about our experiences and our impressions of our trip, here is just a bit that we would like to share.

Michelle Interestingly enough, Norway is an international leader in LGBTQ+ rights compared to other nations, including the US. Their progressive stance on various issues including adoption, gender-neutral marriage, healthcare, and military as it concerns the LGBTQ+ population is evident in their policies and laws. Through the interactions and interviews I had with my host family, professors, and students I came to learn about LGBTQ+ experiences in Norway. More importantly, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the contrasts I was seeing between the way of “being” for LGBTQ+ identifying people in Norway and for those in the US. Instead of spilling out the details of my research thesis here, I wanted to share one interesting thing I learned and encountered: In schools, students are taught about gender identities & expressions, and sexual identities. They are taught that it is perfectly normal for boys to like boys, girls to like girls, or for boys and girls to like both boys and girls. This became apparent during dinner one day with my host student’s family. The student asked if I had talked to my girlfriend and wondered how she was doing.

I almost choked on my food. Why? Because her family was sitting at the table and ready to listen, acting perfectly normal-because well it is normal, but I guess because it wasn’t my normal.

So I’m sitting there and I have all these thoughts running through my mind and well they are probably wondering why I have a hot face and was taking so long to answer a simple question. It was such a weird moment for me, I mean right this moment my queerness was just brought forth at a dinner conversation with her children. No big deal right? I just couldn’t help but think about how different it was... it felt like a good kind of different; it felt extremely valid. I’ll leave the analysis for my thesis, but in any case, I can say that this experience really opened my eyes to distinct cultural experiences. I’ll share some thoughts I had throughout my trip to give a snapshot about what went through my mind:

“Oh Wow. Food is pretty expensive” “What? You can drink water from the faucet?” “People sell toilet paper to fundraise for school activities because everyone needs toilet paper!” “I can’t wait till Saturday to enjoy my Saturday chocolate” “OMG, look at the trees, look at the mountains, the lakes… it is so beautiful here” "Food is so delicious… but still so expensive” “It’s cold here” “It’s really cold here” “Oh... Yeah... It's raining” “I hope Jeff doesn’t knock us off the boat” “Do we really have to go to class tomorrow?” “The flight won’t be so bad, I have so many movies to choose from” [5 hours later, 2 movies later] “OMG. Still 6 more hours? Nope… This is going to be bad”

Jeff

As far as the treatment of its’ citizens, it became quickly apparent that Norway is leaps and bounds ahead of us here in the United States. The attention paid to making sure that ALL citizens are taken care of regardless of their identity and SES was remarkable to see, and learning that homelessness only existed if the person chose to be homeless was such a foreign concept to me that it was difficult to fully wrap my head around. Needless to say, I found it completely ironic that a lot of the policies, models, and interventions used in social work there were taken directly from studying our social welfare systems. The difference however was that policies and procedures were constantly being scrutinized, reworked, and updated based on feedback of not only the social workers that implemented them but also the clients who benefited from them as well. Rather than having social work agencies run on antiquated one size fits all models and policies that only periodically get replaced every decade or so, their procedures were actually constantly in flux with the best interests of the clients always in mind. The thought of how can their agencies best profit from their clients was not even considered for a second, but instead the idea of service and how to best provide it was all that was focused on. This was apparent in every agency and program we visited.

Yes, Norway is an extremely wealthy country with a very small population, only 5 ½ million people, so some may argue that it is much easier to provide for your citizens if you have a lot of money and a lot less people to look after in comparison. I would agree but only to a certain degree. Somehow the idea of serving others as a top priority has been missed by our social work system here in the U.S. Even many of the agencies with the best of intentions here still seem to be answering to a goal of productivity rather than of service. One of the big takeaways from my trip was that our field will only progress if we bring the focus back to the client and away from the bottom line. From what we have been taught about the history of social work in this country, it was not started under the auspices of people seeking financial gain, but instead was set up by true humanitarians and philanthropists with the goal of helping vulnerable populations. I don’t know when exactly we lost our way, but I think until we find our way back we will never be anywhere near the caliber of a country like Norway that seems to never have forgotten who they are working for.