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First Students Complete Open Society Institute's Social Work Fellowship Program

By James Devitt

Sofia An, left, and Oyut-Erdene Namdaldagva

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, no one would have faulted Columbia social work students Sofia An, a Kazakhstan native, and Oyut-Erdene Namdaldagva, a native of Mongolia, if they felt even further from their respective homes. However, the two women, who graduate from the School of Social Work on May 22, felt an even stronger bond with the United States at the time and sensed the tragic events had unified disparate peoples around the globe.

"I feel that we live in one world," said An. "I'm from a Muslim country, yet even I think borders between countries are artificial. We're all part of the same world in which everything is interdependent."

"After September 11, I saw the unity of humanity," added Namdaldagva. "I felt a solidarity and a unity with people who want peace. America's patriotism was amazing to me after the attacks. I felt a part of it simply because New York is my temporary home."

An and Namdaldagva are two of the first six Columbia students to graduate as fellows of the Open Society Institute's Social Work Fellowship Program. The others are Inna Andreva, of Kyrgyzstan, Leyla Ismailova, of Azerbaijan, Andrei Nagorny, of Uzbekistan, and Ia Shekriladze, of Georgia.

Sponsored by the Soros Foundation, the Soros Scholars program is designed to provide training in social work to implement reform, create policy and foster the development of social work in the participating countries. The participating countries are Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Upon the conclusion of the fellowship, fellows return home to apply their new knowledge in practice.

Eight other fellows have just completed their first year at the School of Social Work. They will be joined by another eight in the 2002-2003 academic year. Both An and Namdaldagva found their two years at Columbia and practicing field work in New York City to be tremendously beneficial.

"This was a rare opportunity to study this field because in Kazakhstan we don't have social work education," said An, a medical doctor in her home country. "In New York, we had a diversity of experiences, working with different people -- both social workers and clients. We now see differences in those we serve and can apply our knowledge of social work in any setting."

"There is a discrepancy in living situations and socioeconomic status between here and Mongolia," added Namdaldagva. "But helping people across nations is a process -- there are common concepts and tendencies."

Both women plan to conduct much of their work in the area of gerontology. An intends to work for one of the international organizations that implement social programs in Kazakhstan while Namdaldagva will head a newly created master's program at the Mongolian State Pedagogical University in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.

Published: May 22, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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