BCSSW’s renowned MSW Global Practice concentration has taken students to five continents to serve in refugee camps, child abuse centers, women’s empowerment programs, and a wide range of other social service agencies.
Kelsey Komich recently graduated from the program, spending her global field education placement at an NGO in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Kelsey was also a member of the first Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) cohort to complete their degrees at Boston College. Each of these experiences have helped to both shape Kelsey’s career ambitions, and further her understandings of our increasingly global realities.
In this Q&A with BC Social Work, Kelsey discusses her love for the people of Guatemala, an initiative that linked the organization she works for with the LLI, and teaching aerobics to build community.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Kelsey. To begin, why did you decide to pursue a global field education placement in the first place?
Kelsey Komich: Before coming to the Boston College School of Social Work, I had already been living and working in Guatemala City, Guatemala for two years teaching and helping with a family nurturing program. I fell in love with the people, the culture, and the community I was working in. Although I enjoyed teaching, I knew my real passion was working with the families in a more social work setting, but found that I was lacking the tools to pursue that. When I was researching social work programs, I realized that BC’s global program was a perfect fit: I could acquire these tools while also remaining focused on international work as my end goal.
I also saw that the Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) was going to be offered the semester I would be expected to start. Knowing that I was going to be able to work internationally as well as take half my course load in Spanish, I knew that the global/LLI track was going to be the perfect program to come back stateside for.
Tell us more about your connection with Guatemala.
KK: I’ve been interested in Guatemala for awhile now. The NGO Safe Passage/Camino Seguro, where I have been working since 2011, was started by a woman from my home state of Maine in 1994, so I had often read about the program while growing up. In 2010, I first spent some time in Central America, studying in El Salvador, and the region has held a strong place in my heart ever since.
During my time here, I continue to be moved by the incredible people who let me into their lives and share their testimonies with me. For a country that has experienced so much brokenness as a whole, the community that I have been working in continues to be full of resilience and strengths despite a lack of basic resources.
Talk about this community that you have come to know, and your specific role during your field education placement.
KK: Last August, I returned to Guatemala City for a visit, and met with individuals at Safe Passage/Camino Seguro to see if I could continue working with them during my MSW program at BC. Happily, they said yes.
Safe Passage serves a community that surrounds the Guatemala City garbage dump, which is one of the largest such dumps in all of Central America, and a place where thousands of families live in abject poverty. Creamos (which means both “let’s create” and “we believe” in Spanish) is a social entrepreneurship association within Safe Passage that works with women from this community to build opportunity through shared business endeavors. Creamos began when a volunteer started teaching the women in an adult literacy course how to make paper beads out of recycled materials. Now it includes three separate collectives (a recycled jewelry collective, a sewing collective, and a recycled towel collective) designed to teach the women how to launch, administer, and manage businesses themselves.
I work with women from each collective on social and emotional development.
Tell us more about your role in social and emotional development.
KK: Prior to my internship with Creamos, the organization wasn’t set up to provide any formal social and emotional support to the women who came to the organization seeking guidance. The two women who run Creamos decided it would benefit both the women and the rest of the staff if there was someone specific that the women could talk to about their personal lives. That’s where I came in!
I work with around 35 women who are associated with Creamos. When I first got here, the current health teacher for the organization was transitioning out. She had been teaching aerobics to the women of Creamos a wellness class three times a week. When I arrived, my co-workers asked if one of my first tasks could be taking over that class. Although I had never taught an aerobics class before, I knew the women wanted to continue and it would be a great way to begin to build relationships. I went in with an open mind and now I am teaching every morning for an hour!
While teaching aerobics is just one of many responsibilities that I have at Creamos, it has really been a great way to gain trust and a channel for opening more serious group and individual conversations. Apart from the wellness class, I hold individual sessions where I do case management and make connections to outside services if the option is available. We also work on skill building and creating individual service plans towards certain goals our clients would like to attain in various areas of their lives, and I lead two different self-esteem groups each week.
I’ve been trying to meet the women where they are, while introducing new skills and tools that they can use to deal with whatever they are experiencing in their lives.
You’re a member of the inaugural graduating cohort of the LLI. At graduation, each of you wore pins made by women who you work with in Guatemala. Talk more about this initiative.
KK: After participating in the LLI, I think we all felt that our cohort had become more than just a group of classmates, we were now a family. It’s a group of people I know I will continue to stay in touch with, and share experiences with.
The LLI pin idea came out of a class conversation we had shortly before I left for Guatemala City, when we were discussing wearing something distinctive on our graduation robes to represent the LLI. I mentioned that the women I was going to be working with made recycled jewelry, and were part of a sewing collective. Professor Calvo thought this would be a great opportunity to have something handmade, while at the same time, provide visibility to my program.
The pins are made of typical/traditional Guatemalan material, with the initials LLI crafted in handmade recycled beads. They’re so beautiful and it made me beyond proud to see all of my classmates wearing the work of these incredible women that I get the pleasure of working with everyday.
What’s next for you?
KK: I came back to Guatemala after graduation and plan to stay here until August at least. The hope is to continue to grow the social and emotional space for the women at Creamos, and I am in the process of searching for funding for this dream to be a reality. The need is definitely here, it is just a matter of making this work! I am hopeful we will be able to continue to provide the space for these women and offer more social and emotional programs in the future.
What does a global field education opportunity mean to you as a social worker in 2015?
KK: I believe that we as social workers have such a diverse set of skills to offer, especially in a global setting. We also understand our shared global responsibility as citizens of our world.
More than ever, I am so excited to continue to work in a setting where I can impart what I have learned, while also learning from the women and community members I serve. They are truly the best teachers. As one of my Global professors used to always remind us, I continue to stay hopeful and curious every day I am here working in Guatemala.