Social work student relishes rare opportunity in Thailand

Courtney Cray and Thai children on a visit outside of Bangkok during the symposium.

Delegates at the 8th University Scholar Leadership Symposium.
Photograph courtesy of Humanitarian Affairs Asia.

Fourth-year Bachelor of Social Work student Courtney Cray.

Fourth-year Bachelor of Social Work student Courtney Cray was one of more than 900 students from around the globe at the 8th University Scholar Leadership Symposium (USLS) held in Thailand in August.

The symposium, organised by Humanitarian Affairs Asia, hosted students from 78 countries in Bangkok in August. For the first time, the USLS partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and was held in the United Nations conference centre.

Held annually in a developing country in the Asia Pacific region, more than 4,300 emerging young leaders from more than 60 countries have attended the USLS since it began in 2010.

Mrs Cray says it was a remarkable experience, and one she never saw herself being able to be part of. “I look back to the beginning of the year, and never saw myself doing this. It was truly an amazing opportunity getting to meet with such a diverse group of people and learn how they were pursuing change in their communities. I came away feeling challenged and inspired.”

Along with listening to some inspiring speakers, Mrs Cray says it was her conversations with fellow delegates that provided an invaluable opportunity to deepen her understanding and awareness of various issues, needs and successes within different communities.

“Humanitarian Affairs UK Secretary-General Kim Solomon said, ‘Think global, act local and do personal’ which really resonated with me. Within New Zealand, and globally, even beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the social injustices taking place can be overwhelming.

“I found that by reversing the order of the quote to ‘Do personal, act local and think global’, it makes pursuing social justice a lot more doable. For me, doing personal means being committed to the issues and courses I am passionate about. Acting locally reminds me that while I can’t change the world, I can influence the community I am in and those I come across. And by thinking globally, I open myself up to the vast array of knowledge, networks and resources which might assist in understanding and addressing the issues faced,” she says.

The 27-year-old, who juggles study with part-time work and looking after her two-year-old daughter, is passionate about supporting families facing challenges. “I was first introduced to the world of social work when my family fostered three of my cousins. It made me appreciate the importance and need for effective social workers.

“I left high school never thinking I would go to university. By this stage I was over education, as I felt it only promoted one type of intelligence. Instead I interned for a Christian human rights organisation called Voice of the Martyrs, worked at an OSCAR [Out of School Care and Recreation] programme and went travelling. It was working as a nanny for my cousin after I had gotten back from travelling that I started to think more about what I wanted to do career-wise. I had thought about getting a qualification in youth work, but then someone suggested social work. I decided to become a social worker as it provided a greater scope in terms of areas I could work in – including youth,” she says.

Mrs Cray, a former Avonside Girls’ High School student, says a highlight of the symposium was visiting a village outside Bangkok where people are working to be fully self-sufficient. “During our time, we met with locals, and learnt first-hand about the Thai farmers lifestyle and how they worked collaboratively to be self-sufficient. The experience left me with a greater appreciation of the hard work that goes into producing rice, and admiration for the grassroots initiatives the community have in place. They consider happiness an important goal in developing a sustainable community, which I found really fascinating.

“The whakatauki ‘Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi,’ which means ‘With your contribution and my contribution, the people will thrive,’ summarises the feeling I took away from the symposium.

After completing her study, Mrs Cray would love to explore a role with the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, with her husband. “MAF fly planes in remote areas, like the Northern Territory in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and a whole lot of other places. My husband is a qualified pilot, so what I would love for us to do is be involved with a local community somewhere. I don’t yet know in what capacity I would serve, but I hope to contribute my skills in a way that would benefit to the community.”

Mrs Cray is thankful to her friends and family for supporting her over the past six years of study. “They have been invaluable at times when I have wondered what it is I am doing! I spent two years on the Manawatū campus, and my social work lecturers were all really supportive. That continued when I moved cities and became a distance student.”

She says it is important students take up the opportunities put in front of them. “I view myself as pretty ordinary, but I took up the opportunity to apply for the symposium and got in. However, it was only through obtaining the grant offered by the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey, that I had the means to attend. But it was the support of those around me, like my lecturer Dr Awhina English and my husband, that gave me the courage and practical help I needed to go for it.

“I think it’s one of those things where a lot of people disregard themselves before even trying. The only reason I got in was because I had the attitude, that the worst they could say was ‘no’.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of the delegates at the USLS.

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