Robert Gordon University (RGU) for the first time ever, had opened the opportunity for BA Social Work students to undertake a placement in Sri Lanka. I was lucky to have been chosen as one of the three students who went out as part of our 60-day placement.
Anticipations before going on placement
I was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Everest region of Nepal. However, at age of 11, I moved to Scotland with my family and grew up in a small town called Moffat. From my understanding, the Sri Lankan culture appeared to have some similarity to that of Nepal because they are both South Asian countires. Hence I thought I would be able to overcome the difficulties and develop further skills to become a competent Social Worker.
I had anticipated many challenges such as having to navigate and adjust to a new culture, the issue of language barriers and most importantly, the experience of being a social worker in two very different countries – Scotland and Sri Lanka. However, despite my anticipations, I knew I had the ability to adapt to new cultures and learn different languages.
First few days in Sri Lanka
Two of my classmates and I flew out to Sri Lanka with shared feelings of excitement and nervousness at the beginning of September 2018. I was placed at a school for children from the most deprived areas of Sri Lanka, while my colleagues were placed at an older people service and the school for children with visual impairments. We all lived together in a hostel provided by the placement organisation. Through the duration of this placement, the three of us quickly developed a special bond and friendship which contributed positively to my overall experience.
Firstly, unlike the cold rain in Scotland, the blazing sunshine greeted us followed by the people of Sri Lanka with open arms. The culture was full of vibrant colours which at times, enabled me to see a glimpse of my own experiences while growing up in Nepal yet incomparable to that of Scotland. I spent three months in a small rural area called Moratuwa and travelled roughly a forty-minute bus ride and then a short fifteen-minute walk daily to my placement setting.
Social work in the UK, I feel, is very much a ‘needed’ profession yet most of the time, it is not portrayed as desirable or positive in our society. Often we are labelled as ‘child snatchers’, ‘kidnappers’ and so on. It is difficult because professions such as teachers or doctors have an established role but as for social workers, our professional identity remains unclear. I believe this often results in social workers being frequently misunderstood by the public and receiving negative coverage in the media. However, in Sri Lanka, the moment I stated that I was a Social Worker (in training), the value and the respect I received was extremely encouraging and rewarding from the beginning to the end of my stay.
Few weeks later
For the first few weeks, my role within the school too, was misunderstood. The teachers and the students thought that I was there to teach. I worked in a pre-school in the morning and then a secondary section of the school in the afternoon with the school counsellor. English is one of the three established languages in Sri Lanka along with Sinhalese and Tamil. However, the majority of my colleagues did not speak English and although it is taught as a subject, the students I worked with also did not speak the language.
The language barrier was one of the difficulties I had anticipated however, I fell into a daily routine of work. It quickly became a social work intervention of its own as I was able to incorporate the process of building an important relationship with the children based on trust and mutual respect – fundamental values of social work. I was able to learn basic Tamil to engage with the children but also used music, art and body language to overcome the language barrier.
I arranged to be accompanied by an interpreter when carrying out home visits assessments to ensure effective communication since it can be intrusive. Being a reflective practitioner, constantly being self-aware and culturally sensitive were important aspects of my professional development throughout my time in Sri Lanka. Scotland has a history of being a multi-cultured diverse society and it continues to be in the current time. It is becoming more and more important for social workers to be knowledgeable of the multi-faceted culture of contemporary Scotland.
With the concept of working in multidisciplinary structure of health and social care, the exposure to the various issues in Sri Lanka has enabled me to develop confidence in voicing my perspectives and knowledge but also acquire and practice skills to engage with other professionals from different backgrounds.
Challenges of the placement
Sri Lanka as a country although not always visible, is still a patriarchal society and being a young woman and a foreigner, I had to ensure I was respectfully dressed and cope with often being viewed as vulnerable. If a girl was assaulted, she is first asked why they put themselves in that situation. I was not able to leave the service in the evening without a man accompanying me for protection.
I was familiar with such ideologies but being in a culture with strong beliefs and values of respect, it often made it difficult for me as a practitioner to challenge some ethical dilemmas at work. If we encounter a negative practice, we are expected to challenge the practice. However, this was difficult at times as the concept of culture was often used as an explanation to excuse the way things were being done.
Although it is not very transparent, Sri Lanka has a caste system deep-rooted in their history. As it was one of the poorest regions in the country, this caste phenomenon was very apparent. I was exposed to an oppressive nature of work undertaken where children experienced stigma, oppression and discrimination everyday.
It was difficult for me to uphold my professional and personal values at times as the oppression was often perpetuated through the teachers’ negative treatment of the children. Their role is to support these children but they themselves were caught up in the web of societal stigma. It was frustrating and mentally challenging to work in such an environment at times. However, for my professional development, the experience was invaluable. I was able to work around challenges, adjust to the culture and involve and influence other professionals to different approaches of working with children. I was able to reflect on my own upbringing but also reflect on my daily practice as a social worker. It enabled me to realise my own strengths and resilience.
I was lucky to be with the other students from RGU and we had the chance to meet other students from France, Sweden, Taiwan and Germany. We were able to share each of our experiences, knowledge and the differences in our perspectives. We also had the chance to travel and explore the beautiful country together at the end of our placements. This experience has been an absolute privilege and pleasure. It has motivated me further to become an empowering and competent future social worker. If anyone is thinking about a placement in Sri Lanka or another country, I would fully recommend the opportunity. It is an unforgettable experience with plentiful of learning opportunities. I am a firm believer in that the challenges we face in life often make us a stronger person, so get out of your comfort zone and give it good try!
Ang Sherki Sherpa – 3rd year BA Social Work
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