Patricia O'Connor, Helen Wong, June Ying Yee
of the Internationally Educated Social Work Professionals Bridging Program

Recipient: February 2008

Before the Internationally-Educated Social Work Professionals (IESW) Bridging Program started at Ryerson University, there was no program in Canada which assisted qualified social work professionals educated outside of Canada to establish themselves in their career here. Patricia O'Connor, Helen Wong and June Ying Yee were at the forefront of this initiative since the beginning. June Ying Yee is Academic Coordinator, Patricia O'Connor is Coordinator, Field Programming, and until recently, Helen Wong was Project Director. They were interviewed together in advance of National Social Work Week, which is being celebrated March 3-9, 2008 under the theme: "Social Workers Advocating for Human Rights in a Diverse Community". They are being recognized by OASW as leaders in the social work community during National Social Work Week.

Asked how the initiative was launched, Helen explained that the Bridging Program started as a result of partners in the community recognizing that Internationally Educated Social Workers were being underutilized. A group brought together by Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Centre, including major employers, OASW and OCSWSSW, initiated a research project to identify and document individual and systemic barriers to employment and career mobility. What started out as a small mentoring program to challenge these barriers has become an email network of close to 500 IESWs and a comprehensive training program leading to a Certificate in Canadian Social Work Practice, in addition to non-credit professional courses, individual consultation and referral, and the involvement of a large number of employers.

Patricia underlined that the program has worked hard to avoid a cookie-cutter approach by offering a wide range of opportunities to support individual IESWs over the long term. June explained that one of the challenges has been to ensure that the program itself did not create barriers by giving the impression that all IESWs must complete the training to be ready to work in Canada, and that the purpose of the program is to provide a continuum of employment supports. As Helen noted, from the start, the Bridging Program has supported a holistic approach that takes into account what IESWs need when navigating a different cultural context and what employers can learn and how their organizations can benefit from seeing what IESWs have to offer.

All three expressed great appreciation to the Ryerson School of Social Work and the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education for their strong support of the Bridging Program. As well, they acknowledged the many employers and community agencies which have offered placements, mentoring and networking opportunities.

Having worked together on this project for a number of years, it is clear that June, Helen and Patricia share a vision. Together they are committed to offering IESWs the opportunities to display their strengths and skills, providing them with potential pathways and learning from these social workers from around the world. When asked what qualities have made their team so dynamic and successful, they offered: a commitment to challenge their own assumptions; an engagement in daily dialogue; constant evaluation; self-reflection; an experimental curiosity-based approach; the willingness to move beyond one's comfort zone and to admit mistakes; mutuality; and trust.

When asked about their personal view on the essential attributes of leaders, June suggested that leadership can be defined in terms of how you build capacity in others and making a difference. In her case, she has found that the biggest reward has been to see IESWs make an impact in their new workplaces. Helen admitted that at the beginning, there were some sceptics; but she has found it instructive to look at challenges as opportunities. She said that the team realized that the stakes were high and that it was necessary to always be ready to shift paradigms and identify new strategies as situations arose. Patricia added: "Being a leader is not being afraid or being paralyzed by complexity, but instead embracing complexity and contradictions."

All three have found it easy to retain passion for their work given the obvious results of promoting the involvement of IESWs and the responsiveness of employers. June stated that even when met with challenges, as a social worker, one finds alternative courses of action and adjusts. They agreed that the project has necessitated the ability to be fluid and to not expect clear-cut all-encompassing solutions. All three highlighted that while IESWs experience some common systemic barriers and challenges, they are all individuals with different skills and talents to offer to employers and colleagues. Patricia spoke of being inspired by IESWs' stories and their strengths. Personally, she has particularly appreciated that the project has been a unique blend of explicit social change and academic work.

For Helen, a rewarding aspect of the project has been to be part of the program from seed to fruition. She said: "It has been a real privilege to have the opportunity to help build community capacity in the field and to be part of a project which provides a platform for voices to be heard." In June's case, she has particularly appreciated the opportunity to teach in the program, meeting many IESWs: "Being able to teach keeps me grounded in the realities that internationally educated professionals face."

June, Helen and Patricia all expressed the hope that the project will secure ongoing funding, allowing it to expand and to remain affordable for IESWs. One hope for the future is to start developing online supports which would allow the program to reach social workers beyond the Greater Toronto Area and outside Canada. They are proud to have been part of this first bridging program for social workers in North America, which can serve as a model for other schools.

Helen Wong, June Ying Yee and Patricia O'Connor of the IESW Bridging Program are leaders in the social work community - optimistic, adaptable and committed to challenging barriers. During Social Work Week, March 3-9, 2008, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who advocate for human rights in a diverse community.