From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Snapshots in Learning
Melanie Peckham

Melanie Peckham works as a behavioral therapist, specializing in individuals with severe disabilities.

Building Self-Awareness Abroad

For Melanie Peckham, working as a behavioral specialist means being on call 24 hours a day. It means working with individuals who pose a daily risk to themselves, can become aggressive at any time, and have severe behavioral disabilities. Yet, this is the population she loves helping most.

“They are my family,” she said. “They get labeled by their behavior, but there is so much more to them than that. To see their different emotions come out is just awesome. Sometimes it takes six years to get a particular skill down, but when they learn it—it’s a party.”

Peckham, MSS ’12, is a graduate student in the USU social work program and an intern at the Center for Disabilities. She counsels children and the experience allows her to see how behavioral issues manifest at an early age.

“I feel privileged to have that opportunity,” she said.

Since graduating from USU in 2000, Peckham has worked with disabled populations in group homes around Cache County. She returned to earn her master’s degree because she felt a better grasp of policymaking would allow her to make a bigger impact in her field.

Upon hearing of a study abroad trip to the Netherlands to learn how the Dutch manage social issues she knew she needed to go. The trip was arranged by Shannon Hughes, an associate professor of social work, who wanted students to see how other countries handle issues such as drugs use, prostitution, same sex marriage, and immigration. Five students participated in the trip, which included site visits to public housing units and the infamous red light district.

“There wasn’t really a study abroad program for social work before,” Hughes said. “I wanted to create something that was more tailored to our students.”

In the field, social workers may encounter individuals suffering from physical and mental abuse, plagued by addiction, or who are depressed, sick, or homeless. Hughes believes students need to be exposed to these issues so they build self-awareness about their beliefs and limitations before they begin practicing.

“You live in the world you live in,” she said.

For Peckham, she had limited experience outside the Intermountain West. Tolerant was a word she heard used to describe the Netherlands, but after three weeks in Amsterdam she found it has different meanings depending on the circumstance.

Students toured public housing designed to incorporate all classes of people instead of designating pockets of the city for lower income groups, she said. The idea is that there is no other side of the tracks, no wrong side of town, just next door. They visited a facility where heroin users come to receive injections administered by medical personnel. Peckham was surprised to discover that drugs are not legal in the Netherlands; they are decriminalized.

The laws treat drug users as an at-risk health population rather than criminals, she said. “The process allows serious users to be able to sustain some stability and quality of life. Some are able to hold down jobs.”

While Peckham appreciated the approach used by the Dutch for managing drug abuse, she was disappointed to find Netherland’s disabled populations remain marginalized and lack adequate public transportation. However, what affected Peckham most was not anything learned in class—for the first time in her life she was an outsider. Unable to understand the language, read store signs, or even navigate the roadways made her feel isolated.

“Everywhere I have gone I have been the dominant culture,” she said. “It gave me more empathy. I just never thought what it would be like.”

The experience in Amsterdam will forever change the way Peckham approaches practicing social work, she said. “While I am very grateful to live in this country, it definitely seems like there could be some modifications made, I can see benefits to both systems.”