What to Know When Considering a Career in International Social Work
July 08, 2020
A job as an international social worker may be more difficult than you expected.
In many parts of the world, extreme suffering and social injustice are a fact of daily life. For this reason, there is a strong need for social work all over the map. If you want to help others on a global scale, consider a career in international social work.
What international social workers do
It isn’t easy to work in a foreign setting—resources may be limited, regulations inhibiting, and home may feel very far away. Depending on where they're stationed, international social workers might practice their trade differently than they would in the United States, with respect to local customs and cultural norms. At its core, however, social work is about providing relief and support to people who are suffering.
Just some specializations for international social workers include:
- Child rights and protection
- Human rights and safety
- Disaster relief and foreign assistance
- Women’s rights and gender equality
- Immigration and refugee rights
- Refugee resettlement
- Community outreach
- Family planning and reproductive health
- Hiv/Aids support
- Epidemic outbreaks
- Access to safe water and nutrition
The Challenges of International Social Work
There are many factors, and challenges, to consider when pursuing a career in international social work. Working in diverse and unfamiliar settings requires international social workers to develop cross-cultural awareness in the work that they do. It also requires them to display tenacity, creativity, and resourcefulness. What might work for a social worker here in the U.S. might not translate in an international setting. With immense rewards come challenges and frustrations specific to global social work.
The most common issues international social workers face.
International social work comes with a unique set of ultural, administrative, and regulatory challenges. As an international social worker, you will likely need to adjust to new societal norms, familiarize yourself with institutional bureaucracies, and undersand what governmental regulations may impact your work. You will need to learn how to anticipate differences in how things work domestically versus internationally. Resources may be limited, and for this reason determination and resourcefulness will be your secret weapon.
A job as an international social worker may be more difficult than you expected. In the U.S., social workers are recognized as licensed practitioners in all 50 states, and play vital roles in our society. This may not be the case in other countries. As an international social worker, your role and identity may be less established. Hierarchies may be different, and you may need to establish your own authority, and carve out your role in the community.
Because international social workers often witness extreme suffering and difficult conditions, you'll need to emotionally prepare yourself. You may find yourself on the frontlines of devastation, with fewer support systems in place to help manage your own anxiety, anguish, and burnout. It is important that you develop skills to administer self-care and manage stress.
Qualifications for a career in international social work
Those who are interested in careers as international social workers, benefit from the following qualifications and experiences:
- Licensure in your home state
- Several years of relevant work experience
- Foreign language fluency or conversational fluency
- Prior international experience (can be volunteer work)
- Work with refugee groups in the U.S.
- Familiarity with/demonstrated interest in the foreign country of intended work
If you meet these qualifications, you may be ready to start applying for jobs in the field. Large international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Rescue Committee all hire international social workers on a regular basis.
Developing cross-cultural expertise in a rewarding social work career
There are many personal and professional rewards to becoming an international social worker. These include travel, adventure, cultural immersion and learning, and the opportunity to develop a unique skill set. But there are also many challenges.
If you are an independent go-getter, who wants to work with vulnerable and marginalized populations around the world, then international social work may be right for you.