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UISSW student Rachel Thyberg at the top of Acropolis of Athens, overlooking Athens, Greece. July 2017. 

If someone had told me before I  started graduate school that I would have the opportunity to study abroad, I would have laughed in disbelief. I always had goals of returning to school but never in my slightest dreams would I have expected to travel abroad, let alone twice.

I graduated from South Dakota State University in May 2013.  I needed a break from school, and I spent my time experiencing the world of “adulting”.  As time went on, I began to wish I had studied abroad in college.  I had friends who went to New Zealand, China, and many other places with stories and pictures to last for years to come.  I always envied their opportunities, yet never even looked at study abroad when I had the chance.  The sheer thought of traveling out of the country horrified me.  Needless to say, at 21 years old, I was very much a homebody and the idea of spending more than a weekend away from home terrified me.  After graduation, I spent time searching study abroad programs to see if it was possible to go back to school just to study abroad.

As time went on, I did some soul searching and returned to school in August of 2016 at The University of Iowa School of Social Work.  Little did I know that an opportunity of a lifetime was about to fall in my lap.  I was accepted to attend a social work based program for three weeks in India.  My background has included working with behavioral children in multiple settings.  In India, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend my days at Satya Special School, seeing how children with an overarching diagnosis of “special” were cared for. I saw how the school and the director, Chitra, were making waves in Indian culture to change how children with disabilities and their families are viewed and treated.  In addition to seeing such a phenomenal program, I was fortunate enough to interview parents of the children about life before and after their child began attending Satya. Hearing success story after success story is something that I will never forget. These are memories that I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life.

These stories and experiences remind me of why I chose to come back to school and continue to pursue the passions I have in life. In the spring, I started my practicum in a clinical setting, completely unsure of what direction I wanted to travel with my social work future.  All my life, I have had this passion working with children and as time went on at my practicum, I came to realize my passion lies even more in clinical therapy with children.

After returning to the States, I quickly realized that I had caught the travel bug.  My mind is always thinking of where I will go next, when it will be, who I want to go with me.  I had always dreamt of traveling, but it seemed like a far-off dream. But if I had survived India, I could survive anywhere.    Little did I know, yet another opportunity to study abroad would present itself; to Greece.  I was fortunate enough to spend 10 days studying abroad here learning about Humanistic Counseling and its origins. Learning about humanistic counseling also helped to solidify some of the theories that I relate to as a basis for how I see the world.  A principle of humanistic counseling that really struck true for me and was apparent in Greece, was the notion that individual humans cannot be described as parts of humanity, but rather as the whole that encompasses humanity.  This relates back to social work and the importance of seeing our clients as individuals rather than a problem or diagnosis, as well as all the systems that make up that individual.

So why study abroad? I have learned so much about myself as I have traveled to other countries.  Also, the Social Work Code of Ethics states that ethically, we are to be culturally competent.  What better way is there to become more competent in a culture than to immerse yourself in all its foreign wonder? The learning is exponential, well beyond the typical classroom lecture learning. You learn not only about the culture but about yourself as an individual.

Studying abroad in both settings has completely reaffirmed my belief that I am back in school for the right reasons and have goals of changing the world. My belief is that even if I cannot change the world in large masses, I can strive to make change one person at a time.  Even the smallest of change is change and will cause ripples through the systems.  I strive to spend my days promoting positive change for all individuals. Still, social workers spend much of our life depleting our cup to help others, but you cannot pour from an empty cup.  I have learned that traveling is something I have passion for and it refuels me when my cup is feeling empty. Self-care is so crucial in helping professions and finding ways to refill our cup is something we all need to find.  Had I never been given the opportunity to travel as a graduate student, I may have never found this incredible passion that I have or pushed the boundaries of my own comfort zone to see that traveling is something I enjoy.

I hope that everyone takes the opportunity to push the limits of their own comfort zone and is willing to try things that may seem a little, or even a lot, scary.  I hope that by pushing our comfort zones, we never become complacent or accepting of ourselves as finished.  I hope that we take new experiences and learn from them, whether the result is positive or negative. You never know what can learn about yourself without trying and you just never know when you are going to stumble across something you never knew would become your passion.

-Rachel Thyberg is an MSW student at the University of Iowa, and will graduate in May 2018.