Last week, the social work students were invited to spend a week at the Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social, one of the schools that make up UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Our week was busy as we participated in social work classes, shadowed a few practicum sites, listened to a few guest speakers, and got to learn more about how universities in Mexico are different than the ones in the United States.
The students and I in front of the central library during our UNAM walking tour
We were fortunate enough to be able to visit a few of the practicum sites that UNAM students have been placed at, and one of the ones we visited was Unidad Habitacional Nonoalco Tlatelolco. One significance of this neighborhood is that it involves the location of the UNAM student massacre that occurred in 1968. The area paid great respect to the victims of the massacre as well as honoring the movement and sacrifices these students made for change within their government. I found this to be a striking difference between the U.S and Mexico. Mexico wants to honor student movements and make sure their people never forget their sacrifices, but in the United States, student movements are often silenced with no effort to continue telling their story. For these students, this site is one of their first practicums and they focus on social work at the community level. For me, the fact that the students start their practice with community and then work their way to individuals was one of the most distinct differences between social work in the United States and Mexico. Mexico is a much more collectivist culture than the United States, so they put more value into community building than we do in the United States. While there are definite cultural differences between Mexico and the United States, after talking with the students of UNAM they expressed the same passion and feelings of the field that I have. I was able to see multiple benefits of this switched system and it left me wondering, is there a wrong way to teach social work?
We’re standing in the square of Tlatelolco, the site of the 1968 students’ massacre
UNAM is a school with around 300,000 students, so the campus is massive to accommodate all of the students. When students and a few staff members wanted to give us a tour of the university, we were only able to see a small part of the campus. However, just in this small part there were several beautiful murals and architecture each with a story of their own. For example, the students and I were able to hear the history behind the mural of the Central Library of UNAM, and how the art on the building incorporates aspects of the pre-colonial period, life during the Spanish colonization, and modern-day Mexico. After spending a week at the UNAM campus, I could tell how intertwined the school was with its country’s culture. I thought of how rare it is to see a university whose history is a large part of their identity, and how they want to continue sharing their stories as the university continues to grow in the future. UNAM is a beautiful school with a rich history, and I am appreciative of the students and staff that took time out of their schedules to make our experience memorable.
This week was the beginning of many transitions for the students and I. It marked the first full week that my fellow students and I have lived with our host families in Cuernavaca. Much like my rural host family, I felt immediately welcomed and a part of the family. On my first full day, my family took me to Parque Ecologico Chapultepec, a famous state park just outside of Cuernavaca known for its environmentally-friendly structure. My family has also taken me to various restaurants and locations throughout Cuernavaca to give me more opportunities to explore and learn the city. Additionally, on Sunday, the students and I were given the opportunity to visit Teotihuacán, a vast archaeological site located outside of Mexico City. We were able to bring our families along and I was glad that my sister was able to come along with me, so we could share the experience together. She had been to Teotihuacán several times before and knew a lot about each pyramid. Hearing about the rich history and culture of this site from someone who shares the culture made the experience that much more valuable for me.
My host sister and I in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
This week also marked my first official week at my internship, Las Palomas. Located in the middle of Cuernavaca, Las Palomas is a group home for older adults whose health problems prevent them from living alone. Since there are very few staff members, it is necessary for each one to balance many different roles. As a result, there is almost no structure or formal engagement with the residents of Las Palomas. My responsibility is to help create a stronger community and to engage the residents in activities. Since this internship has very little structure, the focus is less on the tasks I need to complete and more on learning from my environment and experiences with the residents. The benefit of an internship like this one is that I get to personally decide what I want to learn and get out of my experience instead of having to meet expectations and objectives asked of the organization of me. I know that this kind of experience is hard to come across in internships in the United States, so I am grateful that I have been given this opportunity in Cuernavaca.
My internship placement with Las Palomas
This internship has also really challenged my way of viewing the structure around care since Las Palomas is so different than the tightly structured group homes I have learned about back in the United States. I am interested in learning more about the impacts of different structures on the resident’s experience in group homes. Does the amount of structure have any impact on the care that the residents receive? Most of the organizations I have worked for in the past had extremely formal structures, so this new opportunity will help me answer the question: How can a social worker be effective in an unstructured environment such as Las Palomas? In addition, when I am back in Minnesota, next fall, I will have an internship. I will carry these experiences with me and they will provide a new lens with which I can see and critically analyze my internship.