ISU professor brings social work to the world, and the world to her students

April 28 2006

Governments of developing countries look to the United States when trying to figure out how to spur private industry or promote democracy. Universities in other countries turn to Robyn Lugar when it comes to social work.

Lugar, interim chair and assistant professor of social work at Indiana State University, has been instrumental in developing the departments of social work at Tambov State University in Tambov, Russia; and Hassan II University-Mohammedia in Morocco, northern Africa.

When Lugar met the chairperson of the Tambov State social work department 10 years ago at a conference in Philadelphia, the profession of social work was new to Russia, and Tambov State was in its first year of providing it as a major. The department consisted of two faculty members, 19 students and no textbooks.

Seeing an opportunity for her students to be part of another country's social work profession in the making, Lugar asked about a student exchange between the two universities, and it happened that summer.

Bringing students, knowledge and books to Russia

This exchange led to a long-term relationship between the universities. Over the past 10 years, Lugar has made the 5,300-mile trip to Russia 12 times. During each trip, she has lugged about 40 pounds of textbooks for the students, has continued to help develop the social work program, and lectures to hundreds of Russian students about what the U.S. approach would be to various social issues.

Today, Tambov State University's social work program has 500 students and an English textbook collection that is the only one of its kind in that part of the world.

In addition, as a result of Lugar's work, Tambov became a sister city of Terre Haute in 2002, and then-Mayor Judy Anderson traveled there with a delegation.

Lugar's most recent visit to Russia was in March for an international social work conference, where 10 years of collaboration between ISU and Tambov State was celebrated.

"Both ISU and Tambov consider our relationship with each other one of the longest international programs in existence," Lugar said.

ISU social work students have benefited from the relationship forged by Lugar with Tambov State, and there have been three student exchanges as a result. Most recently, ISU students were in Russia last summer, and several Tambov students are coming to ISU this June.

"The goal is to expose students to the social work profession in a real and global setting," Lugar said.

Oleg Shadsky, associate professor in the Institute of Pedagogy and Social Work at Tambov State University, said he considers the student exchange program a main element of the universities' collaboration.

"Though not many students can afford it financially, those who can, receive a priceless experience of international social work and collaboration on the international level," he said. "Russian, as well as American students, not only get to know the working mechanisms of social protection systems and social work agencies, they also receive a cultural experience, make friends, and overcome the prejudices which unfortunately defined the relations between our nations for decades."

Emily Greene of Richmond, ISU graduating senior social work major and President's Scholar, participated in the exchange with Tambov State University in July 2005.

"The trip motivated me to be more culturally competent and value differences," Greene said. "While it may be assumed that the United States is leaps and bounds ahead of Russia, there are areas in which Russia is more progressive.

"The idea of preventive care and rest is emphasized in Tambov. The Russian people work very hard, but they are also encouraged to take care of their physical and mental health. Unfortunately, preventive care is not a concept that is widely valued in the States."

Max Gumarev was in the first student exchange group to come to ISU from Russia, and after being here for four weeks, he decided to stay and finish his degree.

"I looked at the social work program at ISU and felt that it was a very good program," Gumarev said. "Even though in Russia the social services sector is well-developed, the profession is not defined."

Most people working in social services in Russia have a degree in psychology or elementary education, but not social work, he said.

"Going to the program that had established the curriculum [in Tambov] and has trained social workers for many years was a very attractive option," he said. "I saw the move to the U.S. as an opportunity to get an education at an accredited school and in an accredited program that is designed to prepare you for a future practice in social work."

Gumarev, 29, graduated from ISU in 1998 with a bachelor?s in social work, and in 2000 with a master's in psychology. He has worked as a statistician at HealthCare Excel for the past five years, analyzing trends in the health care provided to Medicare beneficiaries in Indiana.

While here, Russian exchange students intern at a local social services agency. The first group of Tambov students to come over wrote an academic paper on their experience, which is still being used today as a textbook in Russia, Lugar said.

"Each of the 13 students was assigned to a different agency in town," she said, "and they each wrote a chapter."

An organization that has hosted many exchange students and has a long-term relationship with the ISU department of social work is Vigo County Homes for Children.

Sheila Priester, executive director, says the exchange program gives the children the chance to meet people from other countries, and it gives the students a taste of the social work profession in America.

"An interpreter helped our kids ask questions of the Russian students, and vice versa. The social work students taught the children everyday words in Russian," Priester said. "We were able to show them how our Homes for Children is different than the orphanages they utilize in Russia."

About 25 ISU social work students have taken part in the Tambov exchange program, as well as several ISU faculty members. None who have made the trip have been exempt from serving as beasts of burden for Lugar.

"Everyone who has gone to Tambov, I have loaded down with as many pounds of textbooks for the students and toys for the children as the air carriers would allow," Lugar said. "I worked with textbook publishers, and asked if I could have their older editions that would otherwise be pulped, and I collected old editions of our textbooks."

Due to Lugar and her contingent of packhorses, Tambov State now has the best academic collection of international materials on social work, Shadsky says.

"For those who want to pursue an academic career in our university and enter the post-graduate program, it's one of the requirements to pass the skills test of working with English-language research texts," Shadsky said. "Our collection is very popular, because young researchers come and work with the books, not only getting new information about American social work and social welfare, but also polishing their English skills."

Lugar has published many articles and participated in international conferences, sharing her knowledge and experience in the social work field. Her scientific contribution is recognized by the Russian Academy of Social Education, which accepted her as a member several years ago. This year, she was accepted as an Honorary Member of the Union of Social Pedagogues and Social Workers of the Russian Federation.

Bringing the social work profession to Morocco

Hassan II University-Mohammedia is establishing the profession of social work in Morocco with Lugar's help.

Indiana State and the Moroccan university have been working together on a variety of activities since a collaboration agreement was signed in 2002. When Hassan II University decided to start a social work program, which would be the first at any university in the country, they called on Lugar for help.

Lugar traveled to Morocco in February 2005 to share the model used in ISU's program, and "they liked what they saw," Lugar said.

In the fall 2005 semester, Mhammed Abderebbi, chairperson of the sociology department at Hassan II University-Mohammedia, came to ISU for four weeks with the task that when he went back, he would have a proposal for starting a new social work program put together for their president, Lugar said. She worked with him continually during that time, explaining the importance of a code of ethics and showing him different academic models.

"We visited a number of agencies here," Lugar said, "and spent numerous days on the roles of the federal and state governments; and how the county, non-profits, mental health organizations and children?s services fit in, so he could see all the different possibilities for their students and their internships."

Lugar went back to Morocco in February 2006 and did something that Hassan II University-Mohammedia had never done before. She brought faculty together with representatives from several community agencies.

"I went to a number of agencies and talked to them about having interns, and that was a novel idea to them," Lugar said. "They'd [university] never visited the social service agencies to develop a relationship with them, so they could get their students doing this community engagement and to get the field experience.

"There was a big discussion about the field component and how that would work there, but it was well-received, so I really feel like we made a big contribution in that respect, otherwise they might not have gone down that path."

Abderebbi says it was Lugar's influence which spurred them to add a real-life component to their curriculum.

"She has strengthened the capacity of our staff to teach our students," Abderebbi said, "by pointing us in the direction of collaborating with social service associations, so our students can experience what their profession is like in the real world."

Lugar says Hassan II University-Mohammedia intends to start social work classes in fall 2006, and ISU intends to help.

"We hope to do weekly or twice weekly Web cast sessions, where our faculty will teach their students," Lugar said. "We'll also include students in this so they can learn from each other. We hope to have a student exchange with them, like we have with Tambov, and bring ISU students over there during spring break."

Bringing an international learning environment to every student

The Web cast format already is familiar to ISU social work faculty and students who have been participating in distance education courses with Tambov for the past three years.

"Not many students can afford a trip to another country," Shadsky said. "To bring the foreign experience to a broader number of students, Robyn offered to develop a distance education course on the comparative analysis of Russian and American social welfare systems. She is the mastermind and the engine behind this project."

Lugar says it's a way to bring an international element to everyone's college experience. "Part of the problem with student exchanges is that only the students who can afford it can go," she said. "This way, I can get 100 percent of my students involved internationally."

Lugar says this is important because social work is a global profession, and it's growing in different countries all the time.

"We've internationalized our Freshman 101 learning community," Lugar said. "They do two lessons on the Blackboard computer platform, and they get into discussion boards and dialogue with the students there."

Lugar and professors from Tambov State lecture to each other's students via a speaker phone system and a translator.

"When you have an 8 o'clock class that comes out totally excited, you know you've done something good," Lugar said.


Photos: Publication-quality, high-resolution photos are available at:



RussianStudentsNew: Social work students from ISU and Tambov State meet each other during the July 2005 trip. In addition to the Russian students pictured, who will be coming to ISU this summer, are: (from left) Emily Greene, ISU senior; Kelli Atkins, ISU senior; and Robyn Lugar, ISU professor, and her daughter Katie.

DogBoneNew: Daniel and other children at Bolshoi Lipovitz orphanage in Russia play a new game taught to them by Indiana State University social work exchange students - "Doggie, doggie, who has your bone?" Accompanied by Robyn Lugar, interim chair and assistant professor of social work at ISU, students participated in an exchange program with Tambov State University in July 2005. For some of the children at the orphanage, the toys given by the ISU students were the first things they had ever owned.

Casablancanew: A social work program at Hassan II University-Mohammedia fits in with the National Initiative for Human Development launched in May 2005 by King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Robyn Lugar captured this picture of a neighborhood needing assistance in Casablanca, near Hassan II University in Morocco. Social work students trained at the university will work to improve the living conditions of the country's poor.

Contact: Robyn Lugar, interim chair and assistant professor of social work, Indiana State University,, (812)237-3428.

Writer: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or

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Story Highlights

Robyn Lugar, interim chair and assistant professor of social work at Indiana State University, has been instrumental in developing the departments of social work at Tambov State University in Tambov, Russia; and Hassan II University-Mohammedia in Morocco, northern Africa.

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