UA Social Work Graduate Student to Begin Fulbright in September
By David Miller
Turkey, a country with next-level Southern hospitality.
It reads like a tourism slogan, but UA graduate student Shelby Smithson can’t describe the country, its culture and its people any better.
“Turkish people are so willing to move mountains for a guest,” Smithson said. “The warmth of the culture is very endearing.”
Like most Southerners, the Mobile native knows genuine kindness and hospitality. She experienced it firsthand when she visited Turkey for the first time last summer, spending two months learning the language, culture and social work infrastructure.
Smithson, who will earn a master’s degree in social work on Friday, received a Fulbright scholarship and will return to Turkey in September to teach English.
She recently took part in the long-running UA School of Social Work’s Washington, D.C. internship program, where she worked at the International Justice Mission, the world’s largest anti-slavery and anti-trafficking organization. She hopes one day to have a career as an international social worker and make her home in Turkey.
“I’m ecstatic and can’t wait to go back,” Smithson said. “I’ve joked with people that [the selection committee] must have thought I was just obsessed with Turkey and thought, ‘I guess we should just let her in.’ And I’m sure there was some academic consideration, but I’ve also been heavily involved in the Turkish community in Tuscaloosa – I was on the Turkish Student Association, and I studied the language for three semesters.”
International social work
Smithson’s travel passion stretches back to high school, when she first began international mission work.
She completed a one-week medical assistance mission in Honduras prior to enrolling at UA, and a two-month mission teaching English to children in Central Asia the summer before her sophomore year.
The trip to Central Asia allowed her to develop relationships with community members and immerse herself in a culture, aspects she didn’t experience during her snapshot of the poverty she observed in Honduras.
Smithson was keen to embed herself in Turkish culture last summer, hoping for a similarly rich experience from her previous service trip in Kazakhstan. In Turkey, she stayed mostly with UA PhD student and close friend Burcu Ozturk.
“[Ozturk] was a social worker in Turkey, so we were able to meet with social workers and visit agencies in Turkey,” Smithson said. “It was eye-opening.”
Smithson said she began to learn more about trauma and international human rights violations while working on her MSW at UA. She completed a yearlong independent study with Dr. Debra Nelson-Gardell, associate professor of social work and coordinator of international programs, which focused on neurobiological effects of trauma, and another independent study on international social work.
“Through the independent studies and other classes, I figured out the impact I want to make with social work. And it fit perfectly with my passion to be overseas. Then IJM was the perfect placement for me because it combined both of those things.”
While at the International Justice Mission, Smithson worked with specialists to develop training modules for field offices across the globe and provide research to plan and manage their programs.
Smithson worked specifically with the IJM’s aftercare team, which focused on restoring survivors of human trafficking and slavery and reducing their vulnerability. Throughout the spring semester, she developed training for the aftercare team’s new assessment tool and the accompanying guidance manual.
“We definitely got exposure to what was going on in the field every day, whether it was a rescue mission or a court case,” Smithson said. “I got to hear all these stories about survivors being rescued and restored, and what that looks like. They were great about giving me meaningful work.”
On her final day at the IJM, she received a surprise opportunity to help train the British Red Cross.
“I didn’t think I had any place being there,” she said. “But having that opportunity really showed me that, no matter what I was doing, it’s having a global impact.”
Internship experience aside, Smithson is grateful for the opportunity to work in D.C., an epicenter for public policy and international relief agencies. Networking was a built-in component facilitated by UA program coordinators, but students were encouraged to seek mentorships and professional relationships on their own.
Smithson said she’ll likely have to build considerable work experience before returning to Turkey full-time, but her experiences in Washington D.C. have provided contacts and a blueprint for her return.
“I didn’t realize what a difference the D.C. program was going to make,” Smithson said. “You could be on the metro with someone who works for the state department, or someone who can really make a difference. D.C. is unique that so many people who want to change the world are in this small area. I’ve made incredible connections that will take me far.”