A trip to Europe sometime near the end of college seems like a rite of passage.
And, a rite of passage is a fitting way to describe a European trip for four social welfare students. Although it wasn’t your typical backpacking journey through several countries.
This trip, though, opened minds and taught lessons – things that can actually be put in practice by this foursome rather than just fill conversation.
Of just 30 people worldwide invited to the Summer University 2012 at the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland located in Lausanne in July, Courtney Bleecher, Greg Flaxman, Eun Ha Suh and Diana Uribe represented the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs as part of a very select group of students and professionals to learn about another rite of passage – the end of life.
“We watched a woman die on camera,” said Bleecher, a Manhattan Beach resident. “It opened my eyes. It was a diverse group of people, it gave you a different appreciation, especially on end of life issues in social work.”
The Luskin foursome, all 2013 master of arts candidates in social work, were chosen when social welfare students were asked to submit a paper on end of life issues and their interests in it. Of the 15 who submitted papers, six were made finalists and the final four were sent to Switzerland.
For eight hours every day during the two-week excursion, the participants learned about end of life issues and ways to better approach them from a social worker’s perspective. Students also worked in small groups to discuss the issues at hand and grasp a better understanding of end of life scenarios from country to country.
“I was impressed about this girl from Senegal and how she mentioned how in her community the oldest person is the one with the most power,” said Suh, a Los Angeles native. “When that person dies, it’s not just a personal or a family matter. The whole community grieves about the death. They have huge respect for the elderly – white hair is considered beautiful and it represents wisdom.”
Learning about different cultures and different approaches to end of life situations allowed the Luskin group to think larger than the issues in California. Or America.
Like in Switzerland, where suicide assistance is legally tolerated, according to Flaxman.
Or in China, where a terminally ill patient will not be given that news by doctors. The theory is that it keeps up a patient’s hope by avoiding mental anguish.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around that,” Bleecher said. “How can you keep such a huge secret?”
Even when the work portions of the day were over, most days the attendees would continue conversing about the subject. It was too powerful and too relevant to everyone to ignore.
This formed tighter bonds amongst the students and a better understanding of approaches around the world.
The UCLA Luskin foursome has remained in contact with their international counterparts, which is vital as they move forward in their studies and their careers.
“It was good for me to see what social workers do all over the world,” said Suh, “because our jobs are so different.”
The UCLA Luskin students all had unique motivations for making gerontology their specific area of study – whether it’s Uribe saying “something clicked” when listening to a lecture, or Flaxman meeting with social workers when his grandparents passed – and this journey allowed them to take a broader look at their intended field.
Yet, they all feel that learning about gerontology at UCLA Luskin is already enough of an advantage because of faculty members like Karen Lee and Fernando Torres-Gil.
“They are doing amazing things,” said Uribe, a Baldwin Park native. “To have them here is like bragging rights.”