Saturday, December 29, 2012

Being Content in All Circumstances: Social Worky Post

I’d been married for about two years. I had been on the road to becoming a social worker for four years, and the year before I had finished my internship at a feeding program. I had spent the last year taking graduate classes, working at the Roberts Wesleyan College library, and volunteering at a local youth center. It was May, my classes had ended, and it was time to do my graduate internship. Before classes had started, I elected to do a full-time summer internship instead of a year-long, part-time one. At the time Roberts offered a summer MSW internship in Costa Rica. I was the only student who went. My wife came, too, and we shared a two-bedroom apartment with a young Costa Rican couple who knew a Roberts professor. They were warm, caring, and kind and included us in their extended family. I still keep in touch with them on Facebook.

I lived in a suburb of the capital, and worked at a drug rehab for teens in the country; to get there, I walked ten minutes to catch a bus to the capital, rode for a half-hour, got off next to a cemetery, walked another half mile to catch a bus to the country, rode for another half-hour, got off, walked maybe another mile or so uphill, hoped that the gate to the facility was open, and finally walked onsite and checked in. I enjoyed the walk, the weather, and the family I lived with; I even enjoyed the people I worked with on site. I remember walking from our home to an internet café to keep in touch with family in the States, playing card games (Dutch Blitz) with my Costa Rican family, and proving to everyone that I can even burn rice and beans.

The circumstances of my life there were pretty good, although we were far from anyone we knew. This was harder on my wife than it was for me. But the internship itself proved difficult. During the internship, I learned how to be comfortable in uncomfortable circumstances, and eventually was able to see how God’s hand probably guided me.

My role was mostly observational and relationship-building. If you read my post on my first internship, you saw that it was also unconventional. There were two immediate challenges with my internship, though. One – I didn’t speak much Spanish – I did spend two weeks at a language academy before my internship, but it didn’t bring me up to fluency. Two – I didn’t really know much about drug addiction and recovery. As I started to acclimate to my site, I made connections with the adults in recovery who volunteered at the site as well as with the teenage boys who were our main clients. And then, about five weeks in, the internship basically closed down and decided to no longer serve teenagers. All the boys were sent elsewhere, the staff were all fired, and my supervisor stopped returning phone calls.

So, here I was, living without income in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language, working at a facility focusing in an area I don’t really know, with no clients. So, the professor at Roberts helped me figure out a way to salvage the situation. I researched different theories about recovery, read articles on successful aspects of programs, reviewed the charts of the agency and noticed trends: In spite of a high turnover rate, kids who made it through the first couple weeks were likely to stick around. So I did research in hopes of finding ways that the site could encourage clients to buy into the program more quickly, so that they would make it over the three-week barrier. The site intended to transition to adult clients, but I hoped that my research would still be relevant.

My self-assigned “final project” for the internship was a report synthesizing the agency’s statistics with my research and providing recommendations for increasing retention. And then I translated it into Spanish. I’m not sure if anyone ever read it, but I can at least say that, in 13 weeks, I wrote a research paper on a topic new to me, in a language new to me.

I didn’t leave Costa Rica with enough hours to graduate, so I had to find a bachelor’s-level position, and my first few weeks there counted towards the completion of my degree.  It would have easy to write off my internship as a failure; or maybe to say, “well, at least I stuck with it until the end.” But here’s where I think see God’s hand in it.

When we came back to the States, we moved to Southern California for my wife’s grad school. I spent the first two months actively applying for social work jobs. The first job is always the hardest to get. Most places didn’t call back, and the first two interviews I had didn’t result in a job. Finally, though, I got hired.  And wouldn’t you believe it – the place that hired me was a residential drug rehab center for teenagers, most of whom spoke Spanish.  The language, the subject matter, the age group, and even the chaos of a group home all settled in to place because of the internship I’d had.

I wrote recently on another blog that I don’t think God designs all of the situations we go through, but instead finds ways to redeem them. Not sure what you’re going through right now, but I hope this window into my crazy grad school summer is helpful.

You might also enjoy these other social-worky posts:

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Photos from Flickr Creative Commons
* Costa Rica photo by tostie14; Dutch Blitz photo by Steakpinball


  1. That's very impressive how you wrote a paper in a second language that you'd just begun studying.

    We may never know what kind of fruit results from the seeds we plant. I bet you being in your Costa Rican village had a positive impact on those you interacted with.

  2. what an amazing experience for you and the villagers that you helped!

  3. I hope it was helpful; I keep in touch with a couple people from Costa Rica over Facebook, and it sounds like they're doing OK.

  4. And Lori - yeah, I wrote that paper with a Spanish-English dictionary open :)


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