Social work class aims for empathy

By Katie Valentine, Michael McFall

A service-learning program and new immigration class are teaching future social workers more than just to have a big heart.

Every summer, the College of Social Work travels to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a language program that also incorporates community service. In Mexico, the group sets up service projects for students at the Universidad Internacional to help low-income families. The U students also take intensive Spanish classes at the Universidad Internacional, not only to communicate with their clients, but also to be thrust into a situation of an immigrant who has to learn a foreign language quickly.

“Students have more empathy from experience8212;not just from having a big heart,” said Christina Gringeri, a professor in the College of Social Work. “Especially students who are new to learning Spanish become very attuned with their own discomfort.”

Spending three weeks in Mexico provides students with a chance to gain empathy for clients they could have in the future. Students entering social work have an increasing chance of working with Hispanic immigrants in Utah.

In September of 2006, USA Today reported that minorities8212;mostly Hispanics8212;make up 16.5 percent of Utah’s population and could reach 20 percent by next year.

The College of Social Work is also offering a class this semester that hopes to duplicate the understanding of immigrants’ experiences that students on the service-learning trip acquire, without having to leave the U. The class began in 2005 as a seven-week seminar on the issues immigrants face in Utah. The goal is to help students gain understanding and empathy for immigrants.

Trinh Mai, special assistant to the dean for community-based research in the College of Social Work, teaches the class with Yda Smith, assistant professor of graduate studies in the Division of Occupational Therapy. The Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Award, an $8,000 teaching grant, funded the creation of the class.

The class is meant to help students learn to recognize the complex experience of immigration and allow them to develop skills to bridge social, health and educational gaps, Mai said in a statement. To do this, the class brings in linguistics, nursing and health experts from around the U as guest speakers to guide students toward a better understanding of how to bridge different cultures.

The service-learning program in Mexico is open to students of all majors.