“If You Want to Learn They Will Teach You”

My name is Samantha Hoeltge and I am Junior Social Work major at Champlain College, currently studying in Ireland with Champlain Abroad Dublin.  Being a social work student has become an enlightening experience for me, and the fact that I get to spend some of my college learning in another country is a gift.  As a future social worker, it is important to work with a variety of people and cultures, being in Ireland is only enhancing this skill.  To further cement my work with diverse culture, I have been fortunate enough to take part in a class that allows me to be placed at a local community agency.  Just in the few months I have been in Dublin, I could not be more grateful for this class, as it has allowed me to work with people in need but also allowed me to feel accepted and immersed in the city.

The agency that I was specifically placed at is called, Exchange House.  The Exchange House is dedicated to helping the Irish Traveller population and is centrally located in a local shopping district within Dublin, to allow for easy accessibility to the spread out Traveller population. By Traveller, I am not referring to the tourist population; I am referring to what many people know as the “Gypsy” population.  The important difference to understand is that the word Gypsy is actually a derogatory and racial slur.  This population is openly discriminated against and faces many social hardships.  Some of the struggles that the Travellers have to go through are only made worse by the fact that the Irish government will not acknowledge them as a minority population and in fact much of the Traveller life style has been made illegal today.

Exchange House location in Dublin City Centre. 

 Travellers in the past, lived a lifestyle that is what their name would suggest, they traveled.  They tended to live in caravans or “trailers” and often would move from town to town.  Travelers have lived in Ireland for as long as the settled population has.  They used to be known and appreciated for traveling and selling their crafts and wares.  But, as time went on and people became less nomadic, the Travellers became unnecessary.  Their crafts and merchandise were no longer needed as products became openly available on the global market, thus ending their working traditions.  Travellers still continued to travel around Ireland, except the settled community did not like their nomadic ways and slowly started objectifying them.  Laws were passed to prevent caravan parking and the general public started separating themselves from the Travellers.  Poverty within the population grew due to lack of job opportunities (with an unemployment rate of 84.3%, Ireland census) and education.  The Traveller population only makes up about 1% of the Irish population and only about 1% of the total Traveller population is able to complete school and obtain a college degree (Pavee Point).  This is part of the reason that the Traveller population wants to be recognized as a minority within Ireland, it would allow for the better allocation of resources that could alleviate many of their work and education struggles.Exchange House logo

Until then, organizations like the Exchange House try to work with the Traveller population to help them work towards breaking through the struggles that often plagues them.  The Exchange House focuses on services that help to education both the adults and adolescent of the Traveller population.  They hope that in educating their clients, they can help increase their chances for obtaining a job and ultimately creating a better life for themselves.  The Exchange House seeks out Travellers who are looking to find jobs and further their education.   If they meet the program requirement, the Traveller can be accepted into the Exchange House program but for their time spent at the Exchange House they receive a work check.  The Exchange House is ultimately training the Travellers to get jobs but until they leave the Exchange House, they learn and work like they would any other real job.  It is a really amazing initiative and the participants of the program have expressed extreme gratitude for the Exchange House creating this opportunity.

Samantha Hoeltge
Champlain Abroad Dublin Spring’14

My role at the Exchange House is split into two parts.  The first part of my day is to work with the level one and two adult learners.  This education level is similar to kindergarten and first grade.  I work specifically on reading and writing skills.  The second half of my day is working on researching alternative education entry programs and scholarship/ grant opportunities for the soon to be college age students.  I work at the Exchange House once a week for a few hours.  My favorite part of my work is with my adult learners.  I can have different students every week, each student with a different learning level.  This means that each week when I prepare my lesson I need to ensure that I have multiple lessons, depending on the individual student’s needs.  It does amaze me how motivated some of my students are and how much they have progressed in the three months I have worked with them.  I have worked with students who could barely read a three letter word, progress to reading the newspaper in the morning and understanding what is being read.  The best part is they are some of the nicest people I have ever worked with.  They always ask how I am doing and what I have been up too, always remembering what we talked about in previous weeks.  They made me feel welcomed from the second I first stepped in the door.  The second part of my work is still rewarding but is more has me work more with the full time staff members.  It is valuable information, in that it allows me to understand the management side of an organization.  This work may sometimes not be as enjoyableas working with my students but it is still rewarding in that the information that I am researching is helping the high school students find ways to further their education.

The time I have spent at the Exchange House has been enjoyable and I am sad to see that it is slowly coming to an end.  I will admit I was nervous when I first started working there.  I had never heard of Travellers and I did not know what working with an adult population would be like.  I am glad that I was assigned the Exchange House.  I work with a population that has such a diverse culture, and a culture that is different from some of the settled Irish, it has helped me to become more aware of the diversity that can be present when working with different groups of people.  Just because someone can come from the same area does not mean that they may hold the same history, social norms, or belief systems.  As a future social worker I understand why it is important to be aware of this diversity that is present everywhere.  Being at this placement has helped greatly in illuminated the true importance of it.  Not only that I was able to work with a people who appreciated the help and work we did together.  It has been a truly rewarding experience

“If You Want to Learn They Will Teach You” (Exhange House Client)

Samantha Hoeltge 
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Spring ‘14

Champlain College, Social Work ‘15