Skip page navigation

Skip page navigation

School of Social Work students travel to Croatia for an international service learning class

Students and faculty from the international service learning class in Vukovar, Croatia
Students and faculty from the international service learning class in Vukovar, Croatia View print-quality image


September 9, 2011

Contact Information:

View Related Releases:

View Information About:

Share This:

  • Share

Looking out a bus window at the Croatian countryside rolling by, Indiana University School of Social Work student Kristina Brenneman was surprised by how much the scenery reminded her of Indiana. But as they approached a small town of Petrinja, 35 miles southeast of Zagreb, the similarities end.

Houses and businesses are pockmarked by shrapnel. Others had been reduced to rubble. There are also warning signs about landmines in woods. “We are most definitely not in Indiana anymore,” Kristina Brenneman, a Master of Social Work student, wrote about her experience in Croatia.

Brenneman and six other students from the School of Social Work traveled to Croatia recently for a new class, International Service Learning: Social Work Practice in Post-War Communities. It was developed by Dr. Carmen Luca Sugawara, an Assistant Professor at the Indiana University School of Social Work.

Dr. Luca Sugawara, who brought with her a wealth of experience and knowledge about international social work when she joined the school in 2007, saw the need for providing international service learning experience to students as a way to better prepare them to work in a global community.
“As our demographics are changing in Indiana, our students are challenged to work with new comers that have experienced wars, natural disasters and many other challenges of our day; thus, our school has to re-shape its curricula and embrace new pedagogical approaches that will better equip social work students to serve our communities. International Service Learning is a pedagogical approach that pushes students to learn outside of their comfort zones and their boundaries, which will ultimately better prepare them to work with our 21st Century clients.”

Dr. Luca Sugawara decided that while she could give them a sense of what it might be like to work with the global community, the best way to truly learn, “is to be engaged, to be a citizen of the world, to be an active agent for change in the global community.”

Before joining the School of Social Work, Dr. Luca Sugawara worked in the international arena as a program officer with the Academy for Educational Development. There, she was responsible for AED’s Eastern European civil society strengthening portfolio and served as a consultant for UNICEF in Romania, where she worked on developing partnership programs between governments, schools, and child welfare agencies.

Dr. Luca Sugawara, a native of Romania, drew on her past work, including extensive research in Croatia to see whether parents’ involvement at their children’s school could become a stepping stone in the reconstruction of the social fabric in communities torn by war. While doing her research in Vukovar, a community that endured a siege and bombardment during the Serb-Croat War in the early 1990s, she developed close ties with the University of Zagreb Department of Social Work, and a non-government agency, PRONI Centre for Social Development.

As she was working on enhancing the school’s international curricula, Dr. Luca Sugawara decided Croatia would be a valuable setting as it would helps students understand the complexity of the social development arena, the role that social work plays in this sphere of practice and develop an awareness of community practice in post-war communities. Dr. Luca Sugawara noted there are an increasing number of people who have experienced war. “We have to expose students to communities that have experienced war, take them to an area that was nearly destroyed by an ethnic war, so they can gain an understanding and reflect on that in preparation to becoming a social worker.”

Throughout the international service learning experience in Croatia, students met with faculty at the social work department at the University of Zagreb as well as spent time with university students. They also had a unique opportunity to meet with officials from UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Zagreb to discuss and learn about their work in Croatia. “It was so vivid and powerful and strong for students to learn about the importance of international stakeholders,” Dr. Luca Sugawara said of the experience.

Dr. Luca Sugawara talked with colleagues at PRONI, a nongovernmental agency that has worked in Vukovar for more than a decade, to see what the IU students could do to help Croatian communities. As part of the service to the Croatian community in the Vukovar region, IU students were asked to develop presentations on youth services as they pertain to improving social skills, employability and voluntarism of youth in Indiana. The presentations were delivered in one of PRONI’s Community Info Centers in Osijek. In addition, at the community’s request, the IUSSW teams under the leadership of Dr. Lisa McGuire presented a critical thinking workshop to community practitioners, Croatian faculty and students from the University of Osijek.

After their 10-day trip to Croatia, the students wrote about their experiences. Brenneman found the trip personally moving. “Seeing the devastation on the land from the war is something that will stick with me. Especially, having always lived in the United States, it is easy to ignore all the warring in the world. Having the debris present as a constant reminder was powerful and, at times, a little hard to process.”

Another student, Mason Hutcheson, wrote, “Having had the privilege of traveling to Croatia to see social work practice in a post-war community has enabled me to develop a clearer vision for professional social work in Indiana.” And even though they witnessed the destruction that war brings, the students also reflected on what they learned from the social contact and culture of Croatia. “Although it would be difficult to create the same outdoor culture here, the importance of networking, cooperating, and seeking to understand will be central concepts guiding my work with agencies, government programs and colleagues,” Hutcheson wrote. “Croatia has helped me to understand our society better and realize how much social work remains to be done to reach the level of social and community development that Croatia has reached.”

Dr. Luca Sugawara hopes to offer the class again next summer and extend the stay from 10 days to 20 days.