At the start of summer, Robin Walters-Powell, assistant professor and chair of the social work program, headed to Vietnam for three weeks to share her social work expertise in HoChiMinh City, Vietnam.
Each year, Hiro Kawamura, Ph.D., chair of the language and culture department, selects a faculty member to be part of the Vietnamese faculty exchange program. The University of Social Service and Humanities of HoChiMinh City requests a faculty member with a specific academic focus, and in the fall, a scholar from that university visits UF. In the past, UF faculty members from disciplines such as communication, mathematics and education participated in the program.
Social work is a developing profession in Vietnam and the universities are trying to create professional programs and internship opportunities for students there.
“Hiro asked me last December if I would be interested in participating in the exchange this year,” said Walters-Powell. “I said yes, although I never thought visiting South Asia would be on my bucket list, and I’ve never had an experience like it before.”
Upon arrival, Walters-Powell noticed how different the culture is in Vietnam.
“Simple things like eating are such an experience because you don’t really understand what their customs or traditions are,” she said. “When I first got there, I would start in right away and look for my fork, but they only had chopsticks. I would have to sit back and watch before I could participate.”
As a visiting faculty member, Walters-Powell taught five lectures to the university’s social work program and professors from surrounding universities. Classes had just finished for the students, but 60 to 70 students still came to hear the lectures.
“The students there are very dedicated. They come into school at about 5:30 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m. while sitting on hard benches in hot rooms for three or four hours at a time. School there is a job and a privilege,” said Walters-Powell. “Their university is free for students if they make it there. Starting in kindergarten, families have to pay 50 dollars a month for each student they have. Parents earn about 10 dollars a day, so it’s a bug chunk of money to send their kids to school.”
Walters-Powell had the opportunity to learn about the social work profession and environment from the faculty there. While speaking with them, she found that with 36 faculty members in their social work program, there was only one bookcase of textbooks for everyone to share.
In addition to the lectures at The University of Social Services and Humanities, Walters-Powell also spoke about social work practices in the United States at the American Embassy, which hosts programs for high school students any time a professor visits their community.
Since the social work profession is about eight years old in Vietnam, Walters-Powell wanted to visit social service agencies to see how they operated. An agency she visited, Loc Tan B school for children dealing with HIV/AIDS, is a charity school for children with parents who can’t pay $50 a month.
“Vietnam had social work before the war in 1971 and got rid of it,” said Walters-Powell. “It was just reinstated about eight years ago and the director of this school is one of the original social workers.”
This agency had about 60 kids with parents who died or suffer from HIV/AIDS and several of the kids have it as well. The director works on a minimal budget and while Walters-Powell was there, the school was in desperate need for funding.
“Their water system was broken, so the director had to have bottled water come in every day for the kids,” said Walters-Powell. It was expensive and eating away at her budget, but they couldn’t afford to get the water system fixed.”
While Walters-Powell was there, she put a post on Facebook about the situation and was able to gather enough donations to leave with the school to get the water system fixed.
“I went for the teaching, but I got so much more than that while I was there,” said Walters-Powell. “I had to force myself to fight through some really uncomfortable situations because there was no out. That was really good for me. It’s good for anyone.”
Walters-Powell also spent a few days in Cambodia to see the culture and environment.
“I got a true understanding of what it feels like to be the minority, which is fantastic because I always teach my social work students that we need to be culturally competent,” said Walters-Powell. “I feel like it’s going to make me a better professor, a better scholar and a better researcher.”
Now back in the states, Walters-Powell hopes to continue supporting the university in HoChiMinh City by sending them textbooks each month. “I would love to take my social work students there to do a project, that’s something I’d like to develop,” she said.
“The sights, smells and people were all very different,” said Walters-Powell. “I feel like it’s going to make me a better professor, a better scholar, and researcher.”
Written by Sarah Foltz