Social Work students complete first study abroad trip

Thursday, Dec 19, 2019

A group of nearly 20 Social Work students and faculty studying healthcare disparities among the U.S. and other countries traveled to Belize to research the topic.

Seventeen students and two UTA faculty members made the trip to better understand which people gain access to healthcare and how community residents are informed of their health options. The group conducted their research in Punta Gorda, Placencia and Belize City, all cities in Belize, in Central America.

“It was truly life changing,” said Amber Hovanec-Carey, a Social Work masters student, of the trip. “I was shocked and humbled by seeing and experiencing the quality of health and healthcare access in Belize.”

The travel to Belize was the first time UTA Social Work students and faculty had formally studied together abroad, or outside of the United States, faculty members said.

While other colleges and schools within UTA have taken such trips, the School of Social Work had not, the faculty said. The Social Work study abroad trip was taken over 12 days in late October.

Eusebius Small, an associate professor in the School, noted the significance of the international travel during a meeting last spring held by faculty for interested students.

“I’m excited for this program because, I think, as far as I am concerned, it will be the first of its kind here at the School of Social Work at UTA,” said Dr. Small, one of two faculty members who traveled with the students. “We are all excited about it.”

Assistant Professor in Practice Tracy Orwig, who has research interests in health interventions, disparities and heath literacy, joined Dr. Small and the students on the research trip.

The Belize travel was part of academic course work in two Social Work “Special Topics” classes, Comparative Health Policy and Community Health Promotion. The courses are taken by both undergraduate and graduate students.

In the Community Health Promotion course, students study “health literacy” or how people of various cultures understand messages about health sent to them through promotional materials or information outlets. They also study the decisions people make about their health.

In Comparative Health Policy, students compare governmental policies in various countries to better understand political decision-making regarding health and its effects on different groups of people.

Dr. Small said the course is designed to encourage students to consider what is fair in healthcare policy and whether everyone has a right to universal healthcare.

“When I think about comparative health policy it reminds me of Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s words ‘Why health?’ He said of all the forms of inequity, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”

In Belize, a former British holding, the government runs hospitals and clinics and offers health services free or at low cost to the country’s citizens. Most hospitals in the generally poor country, however, are unable to perform surgeries, treat complex diagnoses such as cancer or offer treatments like dialysis due to shortages of equipment, among other issues.

For some students, seeing disparities in healthcare between Belizeans and U.S. residents was eye-opening.

“I realized that many aspects of my daily life, including where I live, what I eat, my transportation and access to resources including healthcare are luxuries,” Hovanec-Carey said. “First-hand exposure to cultural differences in access to care helped me to put aside personal bias and differentiate subjective truth from objective truth.”

“I gained a more global perspective,” on healthcare issues, she said.