Social Work Study Tour to Estonia

By Becky St. Clair on October 2, 2018

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In 2012, Helo Oidjärv, associate professor of social work, went home to Estonia to visit her parents. While there, she had a few preliminary meetings with social workers at the Tartu city government, and worked with them to develop a 3-4-week program to learn about the social welfare system in Estonia, based on that in Tartu. 

“Estonia has a totally different kind of social welfare system than the U.S.,” Oidjärv points out. “I thought it could be helpful for my students to experience and learn about the various agencies there, to get a broad overview of what different aspects of social policy look like in Estonia and compare it to what they’re used to experiencing in the U.S.”

At the time, Oidjärv was teaching social work at Walla Walla University (College Place, Washington), and implemented the program as part of the university’s graduate social work field practicum. Now that she is teaching social work at Pacific Union College, the program has been slightly adapted and has become part of PUC’s social work program as their Global Social Work study tour.

The previous teacher of Global Social Work at PUC had taken students to visit an organization in India that helped women transition out of the sex trafficking trade into normal living. Oidjärv picked up the torch and maintained her connections with Estonia as a good fit for the class.

The three-credit course was split into one two-credit lecture and discussion class and an optional one-credit tie-in study tour course. Oidjärv made the study tour optional so finances wouldn’t interfere with a student’s interest in the course. Additionally, the class and tour are open to anyone, not just social work majors, which makes for an interesting, well-rounded experience.

“Interdepartmental partnerships are really helpful to students because people from all departments bring different perspectives and worldviews and ideas,” she says. “Everyone has different things to say in class and it’s very interesting and educational, even for the professor.”

The Global Development Studies program at PUC has a social work concentration, partly for this reason.

For three weeks beginning in mid-August, Oidjärv and 2018 intercultural communication graduate, Bryttni Toddy, went on the study tour. While taking Fundraising for Nonprofits in the communication department, Toddy had helped raise funds for the organization in India the social work class had visited with Oidjärv’s predecessor. As a result, she was familiar with international social justice issues and social policy. 

“We started the trip in Poland, with a visit to Auschwitz,” Toddy says. “It was emotionally heavy, and a lot to take in. We also visited the KGB cells and the Museum of Occupations. The idea was to see human rights violations, and then when we got to Tartu we’d see things people were doing to protect human rights.”

Visiting historical sites and museums also allowed Toddy the context for why things are the way they are in Estonia and other parts of Europe. 

“History plays a role in how social services develop in a place,” she notes. “The Soviet rule of Estonia was relatively recent, and social services didn’t start developing until after the end of Soviet occupation in 1990 or 1991. That makes a difference in how they did things.”

Oidjärv points out culture also plays a role in what programs work and which ones don’t.

“For example, Estonians have tried foster care and it simply didn’t work,” she says. “Some families do it, and it is technically a public system, it’s just not culturally very appropriate with the way Estonians think about family or raising children.”

On the other hand, Toddy points out, the Estonian orphanage system is much more child-friendly, family-like, and conducive to the development and success of each individual child than anything we see in the U.S.

“The orphanage we visited in Estonia has a great program and a well-developed system to help kids from troubled backgrounds find independence and live healthy, successful lives,” says Toddy. “They set standards and expectations for these kids, and set them up for success. They have athletic and music programs, and many of the kids join folk music troupes and travel all around Europe. It’s amazing.”

Oidjärv and Toddy visited a homeless shelter, an orphanage, daycares, a shelter for children, child protective services, domestic violence shelters for women, a nursing home, the city’s food bank, and sat in on meetings with the government. At each location they were given a tour and a presentation by the staff of what they do and how applicable social policies work. Then Oidjärv and Toddy discussed with organization staff the differences between what is done in the U.S. and what they’re doing in Estonia.

“It was always about what we can learn from each other,” Toddy says. “I work at an organization that provides services for seniors, and I brought back a few ideas for us to consider.”

Toddy mentions intergenerational programs are something her organization has been trying to increase, and it’s something the Estonians do well. They also learned from the Estonian senior citizen center about how they successfully manage international sightseeing trips for the elderly. She was able to see some of those programs in action on the study tour, and will be sitting down to brainstorm with her organization’s director on how they can take a page from the Estonians’ book. 

“Study tours are quite flexible, so we can personalize it to the students’ needs and desires,” Oidjärv points out. “Most of the providers we interact with in Estonia speak English, so the presentations and tours are done in English. On the rare occasion there were no English-speakers present, I was able to interpret. Language is not a barrier to this tour.”

Toddy expresses the tour was exceptionally eye-opening to her, as she explored different ways of approaching similar issues.

“Constantly since I got back, I’ve been thinking about how we could create a system that works for everyone,” she says. “I’m a puzzler and a problem-solver, and I’m enjoying contemplating how to improve things not just at my organization, but in my community. I also learned more about what I’m interested in, which opens up new possibilities for my future. This trip was really inspiring and educational for me.”

Bringing the concept of social policy and human rights home for students is Oidjärv’s goal.

“I want to broaden the human rights emphasis in this class so students can see the issue as something closer to their way of life instead of just something Amnesty International or the U.N. is doing that doesn’t affect us,” she says. “I want them to understand how relevant it is to everyone’s daily life and how every person can do their part in helping the human rights of everyone else to be realized, supported, and protected.”

In a government press release from the City of Tartu published during Toddy and Oidjärv’s visit, they pointed out there is interest on both sides in continued engagement. Merle Liivak, head of the Social and Health Department of the Tartu city government was quoted as saying, "Professional international cooperation and contacts with educational institutions provide an opportunity to learn about other practices and introduce Tartu and what is being done here.”

“An experience like this is hard to replicate,” Oidjärv says. “You will learn something you will never forget. You will learn how people who may look like you and act like you but think and function entirely differently, and you will learn how that simple fact plays a major role in handling social services and human rights.”

Students in any major who are interested in taking this lecture/discussion class and participating in next year’s study tour to Estonia can register for SOWK 420 (class; winter quarter) and SOWK 421 (study tour; summer). Note that SOWK 420 is a prerequisite for SOWK 421.

For more information about the course and study tour, contact Professor Oidjärv at