WACO—When leaders of the Baylor University School of Social Work talk to students about making a difference in the world, they mean it literally. And they set the example through a partnership that provides social work education in one of Eastern Europe’s poorest nations.
The Baylor School of Social Work’s partnership with the College of Theology and Education in Chisinau, Moldova, began in 2005 under the leadership of Preston Dyer, a now-retired Baylor social work professor, and his wife, Genie, a part-time professor at the school.
From the onset, the Dyers spearheaded the effort to teach master’s-level social work to indigenous students in the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country between Romania and Ukraine.
The partnership served a dual purpose—to produce social workers to serve in Moldova, and to train a cohort of social workers who would be prepared to teach in the college’s undergraduate and master’s-level programs.
In July, five students graduated with their master of social work degree from the Moldovan college, and one additional student has graduated since then.
Since classes in Moldova began in 2007, Baylor faculty have made six trips to teach graduate students there social work practices and train them to teach undergraduates. Now, the Baylor School of Social Work is turning the program over to them.
“We have done what the director and the dean asked us to do in 2005,” Dyer said. “We have trained a cohort of social workers for the country, and we have trained a cohort where most of them are prepared to teach at the university.”
Dyer met the dean of the Moldovan school in 2005 on his initial fact-finding trip. Dyer admitted he knew very little about the country before Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor School of Social Work, asked him to lead the exploratory trip. He and a small team of colleagues flew to Moldova to investigate the possibilities of working with the school to create a master of social work program.
“I couldn’t even say the word ‘Moldova,’” he said. “I had never heard of Moldova. None of us here had ever heard of Moldova.”
The Union of Baptist Churches in Moldova founded the college in 1993, and it initially received funding from the Southern Baptist Convention and state conventions, Dyer said.
The Dyers taught the first classes five weeks in the summer of 2007. Through a Romanian translator, they taught two courses for eight hours each day.
Dyer found satisfaction in teaching students in Moldova, because he knew they truly appreciated him. It marked the first time in nearly 40 years of teaching that students consistently thanked him for his lesson in the classroom, he noted.
“I have never had students as appreciative of learning as these students were,” he said.
He quickly noticed the need to change some of his instructional styles to teach effectively in the foreign country. Assigning long essays or giving multiple exams, as he was accustomed to in the United States, was out of the question because of the language barrier. Students learned social work primarily through oral presentations, case studies and practical applications. Professors taught the master’s students basic social work skills, statistics, how to do research and social work technology.
Students in the program gained hands-on social work experience by volunteering or working—for little pay—with nonprofit organizations or foster-care agencies.
Dyer noted the Moldovan school’s undergraduate program placed more emphasis on the theory of social work rather than the practice.
“What they got was a lot of sociology and psychology,” he said. “They got almost nothing that was really practical or skill-based and probably out-dated psychological theory. They were able to teach them the empathy, the compassion, the biblical foundation for doing social work, but they weren’t able to give them social work technology. That’s what we were able to give them.”
Baylor professors taught students in a country in desperate need of proper social work training because of a multitude of social issues. Cynthia Harr, who taught the final courses of the program two weeks this summer, said the biggest social problems in Moldova are tremendous poverty, a high rate of alcoholism, unemployment and the prevalence of inadequately cared-for street children.
Many students in the master’s program took the knowledge they gained in the classroom and applied it by working with agencies that helped orphans prepare for independent living after the ninth grade.
Nearly 40,000 social orphans live in state-run institutions in a country whose population is only 3 million, Dyer said. According to Moldovan law, all child orphans must remain in those institutions until they finish the ninth grade, at which point they are required to leave. After that, 90 percent of those girls—typically age 14 or 15—end up in the sex trade, and 70 percent of the boys end up in organized crime, Dyer said.
Although few in number, Baptist social workers in Moldova are making a great social contribution by helping social orphans transition to independent living, he said.
“The Baptist churches in Moldova were head and shoulders above churches in the U.S. in terms of social ministries,” he said. “Everyone we encountered (was) involved in some kind of ministry.”
Students in Moldova were diligent in their preparation and in their studies, Harr added. She was impressed with their work ethic and the heart her students showed while practicing social work in Moldova. And she was equally impressed with the perseverance of the Moldovan people in general.
Doing a lot with very little
“They do a lot with very little,” she said. “They do it out of a heart of service and love, not because of any financial gain or any recognition they will get. … I think they have learned how to be resilient. They are survivors.”
From the end of World War II until 1991, Moldova was under the rule of the Soviet Union. Although the country has been independent more than 20 years, Russian forces have remained on Moldovan territory.
Although Moldova still remains heavily influenced by Russian and Romanian culture, it is becoming influential in its own right, specifically for social work. People from surrounding countries now attend the Moldovan school to learn and practice social work, Harr said.
“The cohort has become a place where countries who don’t have any social work programs send students there to be educated,” she said. “So, it is not only impacting Moldova. It is impacting the central Asia region. It’s starting to become something that is reaching out into other countries that we could not go into and that very few people could go.”
120 graduates since 2007
The Moldovan school’s bachelor of social work program is accredited now, and 120 students have graduated with an undergraduate degree since 2007. Many of their teachers were the graduate students the Baylor professors taught.
Although numerous staff and faculty made the Moldovan partnership possible, including a $14,000 gift that financed the last two trips, the Dyers have given the most to the partnership, Harr said.
“Preston has led out and stayed consistent in advocating for this program,” she said. “He has invested by going twice. He has invested a lot of his heart and his life, and so has his wife, by making this happen.”
It was worth the amount of time and effort it took to complete the Moldovan partnership because of the strong influence it had on the lives of many, Harr insisted.
“I think it was very well worth the investment because of the impact,” she said. “It wasn’t a huge impact in the numbers of those who received their degree, but the impact of those who received their degree in that part of the world, I think, is really tremendous.”