Expanding the Borders

SSA alumni face many familiar issues when working overseas, but it’s the cultural, structural and administrative differences that really test their abilities

By Ed Finkel

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


They were born in the U.S. or abroad, work in a wide variety of clinical and administrative roles, always planned on finding a job overseas or made the decision while in school—or even years after graduation. There are many different stories among the SSA alumni who are working internationally. One thing they have in common, though, is an education that has prepared them for success in a variety of countries and cultures.

Fabric with intricate patterns


SSA graduates who work overseas find that what they have learned at the School has prepared them for a diverse set of roles in a variety of countries and cultures. This article explores the experiences and perspectives of three such alumni: Shermin Moledina, who is consulting for the Caucus for Children’s Rights in Tanzania, which combats child abuse and neglect; Lisa Austin, who is the director of medical administration for the Sidra Medical and Research Center in Qatar; and Sarah Aulie, who launched the social enterprise Hand & Cloth in Bangladesh to give work opportunities for women on the streets. In the past several years, the School has added a growing set of courses and programs dedicated to international social work.



“The world is a big place. Every context offers its own differences and challenges,” says Robert Chaskin, an associate professor at SSA and the deputy dean for strategic initiatives. “We have alumni working in Western industrialized welfare states and many focused on issues in the developing world.”

Chaskin says there are definite differences in social work and administration between the developing and developed worlds, starting with the fact that social welfare policy and institutions are considerably better-funded and more sophisticated in industrialized nations.

Shermin Moledina, AM ’11, who consults for the activist and research group Caucus for Children’s Rights in Tanzania, says that her job is in large part about helping to build the types of established institutions in which she worked when in the U.S. “We are trying to set up a child protection system in a place where there isn’t a developed, operating social welfare system,” she says.

Because she’s employed by a nonprofit, not the government, Moledina says she first must convince public officials that their current system does not ultimately protect children and that they have to invest in doing so. “Tanzania’s child protection system does not operate nationally,” she says. “Only a few of the districts in Tanzania have a [child protection] system, and even there, they have a huge need to develop these further and to professionalize them.”

Stanley McCracken, a lecturer at SSA, says he recalls many long-distance conversations with Moledina after graduation, as she grappled with the steps and details of building new systems. “How do we train people? How do you provide supervision to people that are preparing for work in the field? How do you collaborate with people on the ground who know the situation, respecting and honoring their knowledge?” he says.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the role of social workers in the U.S. and in developing countries is completely different, says Chaskin, who helped create and runs an SSA program that places students in India and is heading the School’s latest forays into partnerships with social work schools in China. While the level of urbanization in Western countries is higher, for example, the gap is closing rapidly in some developing countries, leading to a whole range of urban problems familiar to social workers in the U.S. even as they are playing out in substantially different contexts.

In Qatar, a relatively wealthy country that has resources more akin to developed nations, Lisa Austin, AM ’93, says she sees some similarities to the United States. After nearly a decade at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago as a social worker and as a risk specialist, Austin moved to Qatar in 2013 to take a position as director of medical administration for the launch the new Sidra Medical and Research Center. The country has built a significant child abuse protection service, for instance, and Austin says that when Sidra opens, its emergency room protocols will be similar to Lurie’s, although based on experiences with other facilities in the country, response times will be considerably longer.

“It might be a few hours in Chicago; here it might take a couple of days,” she says. “But doctors coming over here [from the United States] are surprised there’s anything. There is a program over here. We just have to tighten it up a little bit.”

Chaskin also says there are similarities in the U.S. and in developing countries in terms of “the extent to which and ways in which poverty is related to not only material deprivation but also to a broader set of dynamics around social exclusion. [The poor] tend to not be very well-integrated into systems that provide them with opportunities for social and economic mobility. They may also be less engaged and influential in political debates and processes.”

SSA alumni working abroad can also attest, though, to what Chaskin identifies as the “dynamics of culture and cultural expectations. They need to be aware of ways in which ethnicity and identity and gender roles play out,” including social norms against educating girls.

In Bangladesh, where Sarah Aulie, AM ’11, partners with local organizations for the social enterprise venture she founded, Hand & Cloth, learning how things work locally has made a big difference. “It’s really important for me to have a relationship with people who are from Bangladesh and understand these women, and where they’re coming from,” she says. “And even in terms of exporting a product made in Bangladesh, I never would have known all the steps that would entail, the different hands that the product needed to pass through.”

Sidra and other medical centers in Qatar are using a North American model in terms of quality, safety and clinical risk practices, but Austin says those similarities also mask some differences. “You have to get used to coming from an environment of constantly working, having expectations, and if people don’t meet deadlines, there are consequences,” Austin says. “Here, the deadlines are: ‘We’ll get it done.’ They’re not anxious. But they’re driven. The country has high goals and expectations. They just get there in a different way.”

“There’s a lot of real, contextual learning that has to take place, in terms of adapting our national models to more of a global setting,” says Jeanne Marsh, SSA’s George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor, whom Austin names as a mentor. “The other big challenge, which social workers are very well prepared for, is to understand how their particular work fits into a larger political system and economic system—basically to think systemically.”

For years, many graduates from SSA have worked abroad, using the expertise and knowledge from their time at the School in these new contexts. “An education at SSA offers an integrated set of both micro and macro skills, with a comprehensive emphasis on critical thinking and an understanding of the underlying theories of International Social Welfare Program of Study, which is comprised of a series of elective courses and includes a required fieldwork experience abroad. SSA also has two ongoing student exchange programs available, one with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, and the other with Hong Kong Polytechnic University (for more on SSA’s work in China, see A Bridge to China). “The program was really rich, getting to study and visit [social services organizations] in Mumbai,” says Aulie, who participated in the first year of the Tata Institute program in India.

Although she initially wanted to focus on counseling at SSA, Aulie says she realized the language barrier made management a more practical option. “SSA was a good fit because I would be able to do studies in trauma theory, and SSA had a strong management track,” she says, adding that she also appreciated the ability to take courses elsewhere in the university, such as women’s health in the medical school and social entrepreneurship in the business school.

Moledina, who came to SSA with a passion for protecting women’s and children’s rights, says that the social work skills from class and field placements at SSA have been hugely beneficial. “My time at SSA enabled me to be exposed to and gain experience in mental health services and front-line social work,” she says. “It also gave me a little insight into the child protection system here, as well. That’s all valuable in terms of what I’ve been able to take back.”


Read about another pair of SSA alumni working abroad: For nearly 40 years, married couple Brian Auslander, AM ’74, and Gail Kizner Auslander, AM ’74, MPH, PhD, have been integrally involved in the growth of the field of social work in Israel.