Foreign social workers help solve America's problems

Take 200 social workers from 70 countries. Bring them to America for a year and ask them to live for their first 15 weeks with American host families. Then set them to work coping with American human needs and problems during the year, in jobs similar to the ones they hold in their own countries. What will they see? What perceptions will they take back with them? And what will their American colleagues and friends learn from their observations?

Fifteen of these visitors, all midcareer professional social workers, formed the Columbus contingent of the 200 who had left their jobs and families for a year to find out about the United States and gain practical experience in their fields under the aegis of the Council of International Programs (CIP). Bringing their own cultures with them, they had quickly begun absorbing ours.

A volunteer host family invites the social worker to be a guest in the home for five weeks. Then the guest moves on to two other host families for additional five-week periods to discover the variety in American life and get over the first cultural shock. Discussions with professors and social-agency staffs about American communities and social-work practices precede job placement.

At the same time, the visitors from abroad discover they have much to share among themselves. ''We are all of us uprooted,'' an African rehabilitation counselor says, ''and we slowly become our own kind of extended family, helping each other. This helps us work with our social-work clients, too.'' Sharing of impressions and contrasts with each other continues throughout the year.

All this began in 1954, when the US Department of State asked a Cleveland social settlement headworker to conduct a seminar in his native Germany, which was in the process of rebuilding. Henry B. Ollendorff had been a refugee who made a new life and career in America. Following the seminar, 26 German social workers came to the US in 1956, to live with American families and to learn American methods by working in social agencies. By 1957, 51 social workers from eight European countries wanted to do likewise.

From this first step grew the Council of International Programs (CIP), a voluntary agency with headquarters in Cleveland. The international outreach has continued for 25 years, with the encouragement of the US International Communications Agency (USICA), which sponsors international cultural exchange. Today there are year-long programs, sponsored by local volunteer boards, in six cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. University schools of social work sponsor similar summer programs in Denver, Indianapolis, Iowa City, Iowa; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Morgantown, W. Va., Washington D.C., and at Adelphi and Stony Brook universities in New York.

Americans may wonder why so much effort is given to an international program in a time of tightened budgets and unemployment. Or why such intimate views of complex social problems should be opened to others. In the 1960s many young American volunteered to go abroad as part of the US Peace Corps. These young people brought their ideals and skills to countries around the world. They also brought back broader insights, and an unexpected bonus was the deeper appreciation for their own American way of life. CIP accomplishes some of the same purposes.

''We need to learn how others see us, in order to understand them better, and ourselves,'' says Ruth Schildhouse, director of the Columbus area program. ''We want our visitors to see the variety, the services, human and other. We hope they will say OK to the TV, but not think TV and gadgets are the main thing about America. In their work here, the participants see our shortcomings and what we are trying to do about them. We do not try to hide our imperfections. They get a sense of our underlying values. There is the occasional mismatch, of course. That is a learning experience for all of us. When it happens, we switch the host family or the job, if that is necessary.

''As Americans,'' she says, ''we can learn about other cultures and ask ourselves - are we sacrificing something important because of our gadgets?''

What has surprised the program participants about the US?

A Ghanian regional outreach worker comments: ''At home, education is precious , it comes hard. In my day we sat on the floor, no chairs, no table. But these lacks probably made us more determined. Therefore I cannot stop being amazed at your school dropouts. I do not begin to understand, because you have these fabulous schools. In my work here with juveniles I tell them so.''

A Korean family counselor: ''I ask our children at home, what do you want to be when you grow up? They say, 'I want to be a general.' They want to be powerful because they think then they can do a lot of things. We have a lot of pressure to get a higher income to survive. Here in Columbus, when I ask the children living next door, they say 'I want to be a fireman, or a policeman.' My society is in a period of transition, and I can see it more clearly now.''

A British social worker whose territory covers four square blocks in the heart of London: ''We, like America, are ambivalent toward the elderly. The changing role of women is similar in our two countries. The daughter no longer stays at home to look after her aging parent. She has to go out to work.

''We both say people should take care of themselves, but you are more extreme on that. In Britain we have a vigorous sense of community. I might arrange for many different types of persons - skilled professionals and volunteers - to visit daily an older person who chooses to remain at home rather than go to a home for the elderly. Here I see your care as spotty. There are wide gaps, and many with limited means fall by the wayside here. Of course, much more is deducted from my paycheck to pay for all this back home. But when I think of it as community, I think: Good, we have to care for people.''

Foreign social workers in the Columbus Area International Programs (CAIP) arrive through the complex cooperation of their own social-agency employers in their respective countries, similar agencies here, the joint efforts of their own governments and the US government, plus support of university schools of social work and many American volunteers and host families.

To select the candidates each year several CIP staff and experienced board members interview applicants in their home countries and confer with former participants on how their year in America has affected their lives and work.

In the 25 years between 1956 and 1981, more than 100 countries were represented among approximately 5,000 participants in the program, including about 130 from Eastern Europe. Social workers from Western Europe formed the largest group, well over 50 each year. The second largest group originated in Asia and the Middle East. Africa ran a close match with Latin America for third place.

Peggy Burke, CIP national president and a past president of the Columbus area's board (CAIP), comments about the African exchange, ''In my visit to interview applicants I was impressed with the impact of the American experience on careers and the people helped. The dollars and effort invested in this program yield a lot of mileage.''

Of the two-way benefits, a Columbus minister's wife says: ''Our children would feel deprived if we did not participate each summer as a host family, even though they have to give up a bedroom to make space for the foreign guest.''

A CAIP volunteer: ''I took a few of the participants to visit a large museum. I don't know how much Western art there is in African and Asian museums, but I was pleased at how much interest they showed in Western painting. They asked me if they could see work from their own countries. We found a few examples on view. It made me realize how little, comparatively, we know about the art of many peoples. I was especially pleased when these young people lingered over the sections devoted to American hand-made antique furniture, lace, quilts, woodcarving - traditions going back to our earliest days.''

A Columbus schoolteacher: ''They find out that Americans aren't all that rich , not all of us - that everyone is working hard, the wife, too - the average person has to work hard. It's something the foreign guests become aware of, without our telling them. Often it is contrary to what they thought about America before.''

The CIP enrichment program has inspired foreign social workers to create similar programs in their own countries. They have set up over 40 national ''alumni'' branches.

The 15th international CIF conference in Bombay this November will focus on the 1981 United Nations theme, the Year of the Disabled, with the topic ''Full Participation and Equality of the Disabled.''

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