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Social work majors thrive during internships in South Africa

January 25, 2012
Kyrie Smith and Brianna Niemi
Social work majors Kyrie Smith (left) and Brianna Niemi spent the fall 2011 semester working as interns in child care agencies in South Africa that serve children with a variety of needs. Submitted photo.
EAU CLAIRE — Four social work majors from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire completed their final semester of studies by completing an internship program in South Africa.

"Social workers need to have specific knowledge about how to work with diverse cultures, and this experience will enhance the students' future practice," clinical instructor Jeffrey Wright, who oversees the university's 10-year-old South Africa internship program, said of the international social work program.

The internship program — first developed by Dr. Nicholas Smiar, professor emeritus of social work and adjunct lecturer of social work — currently has social work internship sites in Durban, King William's Town and Cape Town.

During their semester-long internships, UW-Eau Claire students work in child care agencies in South Africa that serve children who are placed with the agencies due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Emily Marie Girard, a senior from Winona, Minn., said that her internship experiences in King William's Town provided her with many opportunities to put her social work skills into practice, and to learn from the children and staff with whom she interacted.

"This experience changed me in so many ways, for the better," Girard said. "The four months in South Africa showed me experiences that I would never have had in the United States. It has prepared me to work and excel in any social work position I will hold in the future."

Brianna Niemi, a senior from Pulaski, worked at the Durban Children's Home, which houses 76 children and provides services to many others. The agency's programs range from caring for HIV-positive orphans to substance abuse treatment to supporting children, some as young as 10, who are caring for younger siblings after their parents have died or left them.

"South Africa has such a diverse population in terms of race, culture and income levels, and it was a great experience to work in this area," Niemi said. "The social work caseload is very large compared with the United States because of such high need in the community. It was interesting working with more of a grassroots approach to social work."

After graduation Niemi plans to spend a year working in community development with the AmeriCorps program.

Andrea Krunnfusz and Emily Girard
Andrea Krunnfusz (left) Emily Girard were among the UW-Eau Claire social work majors who completed internships at child care centers in South Africa during the fall semester. Submitted photo.
Andrea Krunnfusz, a senior from Baraboo, worked at King William's Town Child and Youth Care Centre. The center houses 117 children considered to be at risk due to a variety of factors, including psychological, social, economic, familial and health reasons.

During her internship, Krunnfusz met weekly with six teenage clients in individual sessions. She also met weekly with a group of six adult child-care workers.

"My favorite part of the internship was truly getting to know my clients and experiencing their personal growth," Krunnfusz said. "I am humbled by their stories and strengths. There is nothing like on-the-job training. With an entirely different culture, political atmosphere and additional intricacies, participating in the international internship opportunity was an unbelievable and inexplicably wonderful experience."

Kyrie Smith, a senior social work major from Ashland, also studied in South Africa during the fall 2011 semester.

Students are selected to participate in the South African internship program based on their commitment to learning and serving in an international setting, their interest in child welfare service, and their demonstrated ability to handle the challenges of adapting to a new environment, Wright said.

During their internships, the students engage in group work with the children, but also spend one-on-one time with them.

"The work they do with the children is focused on education and helping to meet the therapeutic needs that many of these fragile children might have," Wright said. "They provide support to the staff as well, work in fundraising on occasion, and are required to be familiar with the Children's Act in South Africa, which is policy regarding child welfare."

For more information about the internship program, contact Jeffrey Wright at 715-836-3580 or



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