International Social Work Careers

What is International Social Work?

International social work is a global field of social work that crosses international boundaries to help people in need. According to the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), international social work “promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.” International social work recognizes that multiple factors are at play when it comes to human wellbeing, particularly when these factors are impacted by or cross international borders.

The main goals of international social work are to ease economic stress on disadvantaged communities, ensure the basic needs of individuals are met, and assist in the liberation of oppressed persons. The needs of certain communities vary over time, and assistance is possible dependent on factors such as international funding, policy, and current events in the region.

The application of help in order to achieve these goals is dependent on numerous global organizations such as a country’s government, the United Nations, and formal non-governmental organizations like the IASSW. The most pressing concerns will receive the most attention and effort from active social workers. New issues that arise may shift the goals and current focus of the field of international social work at any given time.

What is an International Social Worker?

An international social worker is responsible for assisting communities and individuals across the globe, often regardless of international borders. They focus their efforts on whatever task is deemed to be critical in order to achieve the goals set forth by various international organizations.

International social workers may belong to several organizations, which will dictate where they work and what they are required to do. For example, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) has been granted special consultative status by the United Nations. International social workers who are members of this group are recognized as having special competencies for assisting individuals across the globe.

What Does an International Social Worker Do?

International social workers may focus their efforts in a number of domains. They may be concerned with child protection, feeding the hungry, assisting refugees, offering post-disaster assistance, or promoting gender equity. The day to day tasks an international social worker performs depends heavily on what field they choose to pursue and who they help.

International social workers who are focused on protecting children often travel to regions with high birth rates and high levels of poverty. They may spend their days assisting mothers with cooking duties, feeding children, or helping school children with homework. Direct medical aid (like providing vaccines) is an important job left to those with medical training; however, a social worker can help by recruiting communities and comforting individuals when receiving care.

Many international social workers focus their efforts on assisting and protecting women around the globe, which is a goal of many international social work organizations. They may administer educational programs that focus on safe sex, domestic violence, or improving physical and mental wellbeing. They can also assist women in seeking resources available to them. Some social workers focus specifically on sex trafficking and help to protect and educate women at high risk.

International social workers often perform extensive hands on care for individuals in dire need. In their unique position, they have the opportunity to speak for groups that often do not have a voice. Social workers may be involved in promoting and enacting foreign policy as well as communicating to global organizations as to what communities are in need of. They also often are in communication with local organizations and governments and may help groups at this level as well. Those focusing on assisting refugees may provide assistance by filling out paperwork and advocating on their behalf.

Not all international social workers apply their expertise directly in affected communities. Some may work at organizations like the Red Cross or World Health Organization where they help individuals answer questions over the phone or via email, or provide administrative support. Others may direct and help create service based and educational programs from afar, working closely with staff members of international organizations. Certain positions may require that international social workers apply for grant funding and engage in fundraising.

Where Does an International Social Worker Work?

International social workers work for a variety of organizations such as the United Nations, International Rescue Committee, and the Peace Corps, and are found in nearly every country around the globe. Many international social workers coming from Europe or the United States apply for jobs in areas of greater need, such as certain countries in Asia and Africa. Within these countries they may be employed in metropolitan areas to assist governments or in rural areas to help communities. The location is largely dependent on the job duties required by the organization.

Some international social workers will be employed in regions close to home. For instance, those focusing their efforts on assisting international refugees often provide assistance at the location the individuals are leaving to. The International Rescue Committee hires international social workers to provide their assistance teaching refugees and immigrants how to navigate the country and find work.

What are the Requirements to Become an International Social Worker?

Educational Requirements

Most international social workers will first fulfill the requirements needed to obtain a degree in social work in general. The requirements for social workers in the United States vary by state, but require a Bachelor’s degree at minimum, with many choosing to seek a Master’s degree.

A Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) program aims to teach students the basics of social work, and usually require 120 credits to complete. Classes usually focus on human behavior and psychology, communication, and administration. Most degrees require field placement, which may often be in a local community to the college.

Many BSW programs offered in the United States are designed to train social workers to help individuals domestically. Universities offering international programs (international relations, for example) may be a good option so students can take these courses or pursue a minor. It should be noted that several Bachelor’s programs focusing specifically on international social work are offered abroad, in countries such as Germany and England. These programs offer field placement into international regions, which is beneficial for future job placement.

A Master’s in Social Work (MSW) program often lasts 2 years and is focused on expanding the knowledge received in a BSW program. While general MSW programs are offered, there are many MSW programs available with a specific focus on international social work. Courses offered in International or Global MSW programs generally teach students specifics on issues such as women’s health, human trafficking, and often educate students on specific regions. Field work can occur in international settings or helping refugees locally for one or two semesters.

Licensure Requirements

In the United States, licensure can occur after the BSW or MSW has been completed. The formal requirements of which level is required is state specific, however licensure after an International or Global MSW program has been completed is recommended.

Recently graduated students will need to refer to their state’s requirements on licensure, since it is a very state-specific process. In most cases, students will need to gain 2,800+ hours of field experience under the guidance of a licensed social worker. Many states require an exam be taken, which is given through the Association of Social Work Boards.

After licensure and education requirements are completed the majority of international organizations recommend international social workers first employ their skills in a domestic setting for a few years. After gaining this experience, they will need to find placement in the setting they are interested in. Many of these opportunities will require workers to volunteer to first get their foot in the door. Because international social workers come from everywhere around the globe, paid positions can often be competitive. Having real world, relevant experience and knowledge of a specific culture is often required.

What Do You Learn in an International Social Work Degree Program?

  • Social Justice: A basic course on social justice will educate students on issues found globally. This is often the time students start to make decisions regarding which field they wish to apply their skills.
  • Communication: How to speak to groups as well as who students will be speaking to will be taught in BSW and MSW programs.
  • Administration: Recordkeeping is a skill many international social workers must learn how to perform in order to provide feedback and information to organizations.
  • Global Policy: Some programs may provide information on global policy issues in order for students to get a frame of reference for specific issues. This is when students start to learn about specific global organizations and the role they play in international assistance.
  • Refugee Issues: Learning how to assist refugees is a component of many MSW programs. This issue is often a stepping stone for students who wish to pursue other problems given that many refugees can be found domestically.
  • Women’s Issues: This topic is often interwoven throughout other issues and is therefore taught in many MSW programs. Students will gain knowledge on how to provide assistance with and educate women on birth control, human trafficking, and mental health.
  • Region-specific Education: Students unfamiliar with certain regions will first learn about them from afar in a classroom setting. Often the history as well as the current political, educational, and economic climate is taught.
  • Application of Skills: Many of the above skills are learned in a classroom without application. Many programs offering field experience will challenge students to apply what they have learned in order to assist individuals and communities.

What Does It Take to Become an International Social Worker?

  • Communication: The most common tasks an international social worker will be involved with require adept communication skills. The social worker may be speaking on behalf of a community, leading educational programs, or writing grant proposals.
  • Empathy: Individuals and groups in need of assistance often have stories that need to be heard and require an empathetic ear. Being able to put oneself in the shoes of those they are helping is a necessary skill.
  • Humility: Many cultures that social workers come from encourage self-promotion, however this often contradicts the cultural norms in areas where they work. International social workers should be able to put themselves aside and act with a sense of humbleness.
  • Speak a Foreign Language: While this skill is not always a necessity, it can greatly help to bridge the gap between social workers and the individuals they seek to help. Translators may be available in some cases, but connections with communities can be made more quickly when the social worker speaks the local language.
  • Organization: Being an organized international social worker helps international organizations to learn more about the communities they are assisting. International social workers may have to write organized and detailed reports on their daily tasks for reporting.
  • Leadership: Taking charge of groups is necessary when there is not a clear leader among a group of social workers, or when a clear agenda for assistance has not been laid out. Relatedly, the ability to work with others as a team is a key skill that goes hand in hand with the ability to be a leader.
  • Openness to New Experiences: While many international social workers have the ability to choose where they work, they can be unprepared for the culture shock they may experience. Being open to new ideas, ways of doing things, and cultures will greatly help diminish the time needed to adjust.
  • Tough Skin: International social workers are often placed in areas of great poverty, hunger, or in post-disaster areas. It is critical to be able to perform their job despite being in distressing environments and seeing human suffering.

How Much Does an International Social Worker Make?

The salary of an international social worker varies greatly depending on the number of years of experience they have, where they work, and what they do. Workers early in their careers are often required to volunteer in regions in order to gain experience before getting paid.

The major global organizations pay on average $35,000 to $75,000 per year, however international social workers should expect a salary on the lower end of this range until they gain more experience. International social workers employed with smaller organizations will likely have lower or fluctuating salaries, given that funding is not guaranteed.

What Professions are Similar to International Social Work?

International Community Health Workers: These professionals are often found in similar settings to international social workers, but they focus on the physical health of individuals and communities. They may run health and educational programs, assess the health needs of a community, and collect data on health-related outcomes.

Social Workers: Social workers found in domestic settings are responsible for helping communities and individuals find job and food resources and adjust to life issues. They may keep records on individuals as well as develop educational programs. The problems found in more developed regions are often quite different to those found abroad.

Humanitarian Aid Worker: These workers focus almost exclusively on providing aid after national disasters occur. There are often the first to arrive after disasters occur. Many are employed by the Red Cross, and help with medical relief, as well as solving food, water, shelter, and safety issues.

Social and Human Service Assistants: These individuals are tasked with making life better for individuals, often by providing basic care. They often care for the elderly in their own home, coordinate services, and employ treatment plans for individuals in recovery. These individuals may provide their care overseas but are often employed domestically.

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