University of Calgary

Postcard from Jamaca

March 20, 2009

Postcard from Abroad – Jamaica

Brenda hard at work in Jamaica.

Brenda hard at work in Jamaica.
As part of her Bachelor of Social Work degree, Brenda Sutherland decided she wanted to do her practicum abroad. She found a great opportunity in Jamaica. Here is her postcard home.

Why do a social work practicum abroad?

After visiting Jamaica several times as a tourist I knew I was only experiencing a very slim view of the country’s ecology. I decided I would like to immerse myself into the culture and try to comprehend a broader understanding. Therefore, when the opportunity was presented to study abroad I thought what a great avenue to pursue. I did all the leg work and initiated doing my practicum for my BSW in Jamaica. 

Tell us about your practicum.

Upon arriving to Kingston I was placed in a social program which schooled boys from lower Kingston (referred to as youth from the ghetto).  These children come to school tired, scared and hungry.  Many do not have their own beds so families take shifts sleeping in the beds they have in their home or sleep at relatives various nights.  Hearing gunshots during the night and day is the norm. They have learnt to divert bullets.  You would see the boy’s hands out to eat any leftovers on the plate s when the teachers would be done eating their lunch. I t was like a scene from the movie “Oliver.”

Jamaican boys who participate in the social program.
Jamaican boys who participate in the social program.

How did the experience affect you?

By means of my academia experiences, I was quite aware I was to place myself in another culture and observe. However, it wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. I wasn’t prepared emotionally. I have strong feelings in regards to the rights of the child and ethically to put my beliefs aside and to witness corporal punishment in regards to the children was hard. I cannot deny I felt conflicting feelings with the dilemma of personal and professional ethics versus cultural acceptance and diversity.   

I had no idea what lessons in life I would learn from removing myself from a home and culture I understand and making my self vulnerable to the unknown. I had to trust my own instincts. You become so observant of your surroundings. When language is a barrier you have to rely on other cues. To be able to interact and feel you have established powerful relations based on nothing but who you are as a person validates your own self. The gift of knowing one’s self better is invaluable to me becoming a better social worker, a better person.

What was your favourite experience there?

One of my most favourable experiences was going to a traditional Nine Night. From my understanding within the Jamaican culture when a person dies the spirit is honoured in the journey by various means on different nights. The night before the burial is a huge festive celebration. On this night there was traditional drumming and singing and offerings of rum for the ancestors. The spiritual aspect radiated throughout my body.  I’ll never forget the beauty of par taking in this ritual.

Burial festivities of traditional drumming and singing for the ancestors.
Burial festivities of traditional drumming and singing for the ancestors.

Words of wisdom

If I was to share words of wisdom it would be to remember our own reality is very small. Life is much bigger than me or you. We must use a critical eye and thinking ability to constantly question what we visually perceive might not always be the truth. While standing on a street in upper Kingston a truck stopped and 2 young men with their machetes jumped out of the back and ran down the street chasing one of the street hagglers. In observation it looked hostile but in actuality it was a family doing intervention. His street friends told me his family comes from the countryside about once a month and load him up and take him back to the yard (meaning home) to try and clean him up from his drug habit but he always returns within days. I wish everyone could experience a cross cultural exchange because it impacts your life both academically and personally. I have been very fortunate to been given this gift. 

For more information on study abroad programs please visit the Centre for International Students and Study Abroad (CISSA) website (www.ucalgary.ca/cissa/). This postcard was supplied by CISSA.

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