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Learning by doing

Social work students play, create and visit Netherlands' "coffee shops"

special feature: The Student Experience

Part of a special feature highlighting the student voice, student experience and the range of student supports and opportunities available at Memorial.

By Laura Woodford

Addiction care, art therapy and the creative social worker.

This past May, two bachelor of social work students explored the “Dutch creative” approach to social work at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

The three-week program, Health, Social Studies and Sports, focuses on the major issues facing society today and encourages students to be creative and to learn by doing.

The exchange program – a partnership between Memorial and HAN University – allows for two bachelor of social work students to receive a waiver for all program fees and a funded weekend trip to Amsterdam.

Along with Memorial University students Caitlin Dillon and Taylor O’Connor, the group was comprised of students from Ontario, Nova Scotia, the U.S., India, the U.K., the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Germany.

Taylor O’Connor, second from left, at the Netherlands Open Air Museum with some of her fellow program participants.
Taylor O’Connor, second from left, at the Netherlands Open Air Museum with some of her fellow program participants.
Photo: Submitted

Memorial’s Internationalization Office helps encourage students to study abroad whenever possible, especially if partnerships can help reduce the costs for students. It has more than 200 partnerships with institutions across the world, with about 140 universities available for international exchange, with a variety of programs.

Play, art, drama, music

Ms. Dillon, a fourth-year student from St. John’s, says she learns best by doing, so she was thrilled with the hands-on approach she experienced at HAN.

“We didn’t sit in classrooms and learn,” said Ms. Dillon. “I loved that throughout the play therapy program, for instance, we played and discussed how playing games helps with psycho-motor therapy. And in art therapy, we actually created art – paintings, pastels – and we did a workshop in visual art therapy.”

The students also did drama yoga and music therapy. Music therapy was taught by a music therapist, who asked the students to choose an instrument and then reflect on the instrument they chose and why.

“It shows you a lot of insight into your own personality. I’ve incorporated a lot of what I learned at HAN into three of my courses this term.”

Global lens

Other benefits of the program according to Ms. Dillon included learning how to apply for an internship in the Netherlands and learning about different values in different countries.

“We learned that the Netherlands and Canada have very similar values, for instance, compared to the Netherlands and Hong Kong or India. However, the Netherlands appear to have more long-term values, thinking about the bigger picture and embracing preventive approaches. Conversely, we are more short-term, reactive and focus on what is good right now, rather than what is good for the future.”

She also learned that if she were to apply for a job in Hong Kong, there likely wouldn’t be an interview – and that prospective employers would only be interested in her credentials. In Canada, the candidate’s personality would be taken into consideration.

“We learned about social issues from a wide, global lens.” — Taylor O’Connor

Third-year student Taylor O’Connor, who is also from St. John’s, says that the program was well organized, the instructors were “great” and she loved meeting a diverse group of people.

“The fact that fellow students were from Germany, Hong Kong, India, the U.S. and other places made the experience that much more immersive into different cultures,” she said. “We learned about social issues from a wide, global lens.”

“Coffee shops” and harm reduction

Ms. O’Connor says the addictions care aspect of the program offered a window into real-life practice – what addictions care looks like in other countries, what programs are available and what to expect if employed in addictions care in another country.

“We visited places to see what addictions really looked like – we went to the coffee houses where they sell drugs and to methadone clinics and medical heroin treatment centres. We saw how they made medical heroin every day and why. We learned about how the Dutch look at issues of addictions through a harm-reduction lens.”

Ms. O’Connor, who is currently completing her first practicum in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, says the insight she gained at the international level is complementing her social work program back home at Memorial.

The addictions care class at HAN University, the Netherlands. Taylor O’Connor, is in the second row, third from right; Caitlin Dillon, is in the front row, second from right.
The addictions care class at HAN University, the Netherlands. Taylor O’Connor is in the second row, third from right; Caitlin Dillon is in the front row, second from right.
Photo: Submitted

Same course, different takeaways

Both students say they enjoyed the play therapy component, but for different reasons.

Expressive arts and play therapies, such as visual arts, drama, music, can be beneficial when talk therapy might not.

“Using drama for clients with post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, or with high-risk youth with addictions,” said Ms. Dillon. “Play builds neurons in the brain. You can show academic achievement through play. It validated how I want to pursue my career as a social worker.”

Once she completes her undergraduate degree, Ms. Dillon is considering doing an expressive arts therapy degree at the Create Institute in Ontario, where social work or psychology degrees are prerequisites.

Ms. O’Connor’s takeaway is a little different. She says she can see how play therapy would be “really helpful” when working with the elderly. She says play doesn’t necessarily have to mean something overtly physical, like a sport – just an activity that takes a person’s mind off things for a while.

“We learned about how play has the capacity to create new pathways in the brain and perhaps with the elderly, help with memory challenges,” said Ms. O’Connor. “It was so interesting to explore activities that you could do with anyone – in a room with both children and seniors, for instance – some play activities could be stimulating for children’s brains and at the same time could help with creating and strengthening and rebuilding in seniors.”

Both women are in agreement about one thing, though.

“This was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Ms. Dillon.

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