Social Work Student at Penn Helps in West Philadelphia and Overseas

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820May 12, 2014

Some University of Pennsylvania students are determined to change the world, while others set their sights closer to home by focusing on improving their local communities. Kristen Smith, a social work student at the School of Social Policy & Practice, wants to do it all.

Smith, who is from Wilmington, Del., has been an active member of QSP2, a group representing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning social work students, and a volunteer with SP2 Community Teamworks for the past year. In addition, she has served as one of the social work interns at the Sayre Health Center, a community clinic in West Philadelphia.

At the clinic, one of her greatest accomplishments was revitalizing the Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies program, an initiative designed to promote pre- and post-natal health. Many clients are low-income, first-time mothers, and the program resulted in healthier outcomes for their children.

Smith approached the program curriculum in a new way. She researched and designed information packets, which included tips for budgeting, getting necessary sleep, healthy exercising, proper pre-natal nutrition and stress and relaxation techniques. The folders also contained information about pregnancy’s stages, breastfeeding, organizations like the Nurse Family Partnership and a checklist on what to bring to the hospital when it’s “go time” for mothers-to-be.

“We successfully disseminated information about planning for baby, body changes and important resources for pregnant members of the community,” she says.

Smith chose the School of Social Policy & Practice because of its close-knit community, its field placement program and its opportunities for international travel.

Smith is heading to Kolkata for a six-week summer travel study as a part of T.J. Ghose’s course, Post-Colonial Social Work Practice: International Social Welfare in India.

The class centers around a sex workers’ collaborative in Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red light districts, and will feature a study of the group’s grassroots movement, class discussions and interviews with workers. Students will conduct research that incorporates existing literature on HIV, sex workers, feminist post-colonial theory and international social work.

Smith is excited that her overseas travel experience will take place in mostly non-tourist areas, so that the group can get a true feel for what life is like there, especially for sex workers and their families. She’s also excited to try authentic Indian food.

“It is a great way to explore international social work and what it means to be coming from a developed country to work with a marginalized population,” Smith explains. “I hope to learn more about implementing change processes through grassroots efforts by working with the sex workers and their collaborative.”

This trip will not only serve as an educational experience but also a personal journey, Smith says.  That’s why she’s sharing her international travel experiences through her blog,

She hopes to take everything she learns while in India and apply it to her career as a social worker.

On her return, Smith will go to Bangkok for a week to volunteer at the Thailand Elephant Sanctuary.

In a quiet, rural town, nearly three hours south of the Thai capital, Smith will live and work with elephants rescued from abusive situations throughout Southeast Asia. Because they have been domesticated, the elephants cannot be released back into the wild. But, at the sanctuary, they are cared for and given space to roam free for the rest of their lives.

Smith will help feed, bathe and play with them and even learn to use a machete in order to climb trees and harvest bananas for them.

Smith flies back from Thailand in early July, about the same time that her younger sister, Kelsey, will begin as an Advanced Standing social work student at Penn. They’ll graduate together in May 2015, each earning a master’s degree.