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Paige Saddler
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Melisa López Lucena
The Complutense University of Madrid

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Erika Melisa Gutiérrez Ospina
The Complutense University of Madrid

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Iride Sánchez Capitán
The Complutense University of Madrid

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Catherine Woods
University of Sussex, UK

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Kelechi Udeh
University of Calgary, Canada

Emerging from Behind the Scenes: Spotlighting the Voices of Six International Student-researchers

Journaling in social work is a rarely discussed topic. In this article, we are six undergraduate student researchers who will examine our involvement in a project which looked at the implementation of journaling in social work. We come from the United States, Spain, England and Canada. The study is described through the distinct voices, roles, and perspectives of each student researcher, including personal application, literature review, survey design and administration, survey translation, and fieldwork.

The project, led by Dr Michael Wallengren-Lynch, Malmö University, Sweden, and funded by IASSW, aimed to identify, integrate, and evaluate pedagogies (and processes) that help build critical perspectives and promote transformative learning (TL) during times of COVID-19. Transformative learning (TL) captures ‘the process by which students engage in their learning at holistic levels (emotional, cognitive, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental) and the extent to which they experience a change in perspective of themselves or society ’ (Damianakis et al, 2019 (a), p 13).

Social work educators can use different reflective processes to help students with their TL such as the arts, music, photovoice, and creative journaling practices. The research project used mixed methods to explore the perspectives of social work students on the use of journaling to promote transformative learning during the Covid-19 pandemic in seven universities in seven different countries.

The research team identified that involving undergraduate students as both participants and research assistants could benefit student knowledge building, as well as help students to recognize how a research-informed approach to practice and pedagogy is actualized. Following the project introduction, each of the authors volunteered to join the project. Our motivations were similar: we were interested in the subject matter of the project, excited to have an opportunity to network internationally, and we hoped to gain experiences that would extend our budding professional identities as social workers.

Main Activities

Each of us engaged in separate roles throughout the project, all united under the common goal of supporting the execution of the research project. In the following sections, our research processes and reflections are highlighted.

Survey Creation & Administration
by Kelechi Udeh of the University of Calgary

Generally, it was exciting to be involved in crafting the online survey for the project. The survey was to measure the user’s perception of the journal ’s efficacy in generating transformative learning through the duration of their course amidst the pandemic. The software of choice — Survey Monkey— would allow the students from each participating country to take the survey at a mere click of a button, from the comfort of their own homes.

Of my duties, the most challenging task was manually transferring the translated survey questions, in the languages of Spanish, Swedish, and Hebrew, into the Survey Monkey software. Unexpectedly and for reasons unknown, I struggled with uploading the Hebrew language. Upon further research, I found that my lack of success was derived directly from its properties, in that it is written from right to left, which is in stark contrast with my English-speaking roots. So, while an “unintended consequence”, this experience has provided a greater understanding of language, simultaneously increasing my sense of cultural competency.

To highlight and supplement my greatest takeaway— every project is a learning process. And even though I had my fair share of challenges throughout, I would certainly do it again if the opportunity presents itself.

Survey Translation
by Erika Melisa Gutiérrez Ospina, Melisa López Lucena and Iride Sánchez Capitán of Spain of The Complutense University of Madrid)

From Spain, our experiences will be based on document translations. Overall, the most complex part of the translation process has been ‘back-translation ’, translating into our mother tongue and then translating into English. Through this method, we can occasionally lose the real meaning of the original document. At the same time, it is tremendously challenging to translate a survey about the journals without having experienced the use of this tool personally. Lacking this foundational knowledge, we could only make approximations we thought we understood, not to forget the added challenge of strictly online collaboration.

However, despite the challenges we encountered, we wish to highlight the team ’s great support of one another throughout this process. By improving our sense of belonging, we were more efficient and effective in reaching the expected outcomes. Furthermore, while unexpected, the translation process has allowed us to realize the richness of the lexicon of our country ’s native language — Spanish. For, it has many words with different nuances to express things that may seem the same but are not.

Overall, our contributions to the survey translation were sufficient although complex. However, as for the project in general, we would have liked to participate in creating the questionnaire, as it seems to us an essential part of the research process. Considering that each country may have unique perspectives, visions, and uses for their journals leads us to conclude that it would have been beneficial if we were part of the survey creation from the beginning.

Focus Group Observation
by Catherine Woods of The University of Sussex

The journal was first introduced to me in a contextual social work seminar and described as a creative tool for reflection. However, it has vastly exceeded that. For one, it has opened the door to a collaborative research project, allowing me to connect with international academia.

As a volunteer student-researcher, my tasks concentrated on the focus groups, which aimed to uncover the journal ’s role in promoting students ’ transformative learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. I was asked to take notes during these sessions and then create a summative document detailing process and content observations. Consisting of students from the USA, the UK, and Canada, the focus group had fostered an open and communicative space. I found myself wanting to add my thoughts as participants echoed each other ’s experiences. Ultimately, I resisted the urge and continued to type ferociously to keep up with the responses.

At times, I struggled— worried that I had missed a meaningful contribution while consumed with the process. Altogether, it was a scramble (my notes included). Yet, despite the fluster, my participation proved to be an exhilarating experience that I would be happy to repeat. Fortunately, I had plenty of material to create a summative, which offered a chance to reflect upon, learn from, and appreciate the responses. The focus group had been a success. Moreover, through these strange and solitary times, the sense of unity it brought me remained an unexpected poignancy to an already important project.

Student Collaboration
by Paige Saddler of The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I was assigned the role of “student liaison” for this project. On reflection, this was not one that I have selected if I were given the choice. I felt challenged in creating a steady mode of communication with students from diverse countries because it was not something that I had been familiar with previously. Nor was it or something that I thought I would need to become familiar with in my future studies. That I was mistaken in this view is now undeniable. Currently, I could not be more grateful for the experience that has come from this assignment. However, it should not be assumed that this was easy. And as I share my experiences through this article, which spotlights each of our voices and experiences, I have scrapped and disregarded numerous other drafts altogether.

Creating, writing, and structuring a cumulative document, based strictly on asynchronous remote communication, has been very challenging. I have never done something similar, nor faced equivalent stakes. For one, accommodating numerous time zones is no easy feat. Collectively, we settled on email as the most convenient way to converse, I struggled to create a respectful, personable, and inviting space. Reflecting upon this, I realize that I did not reach my full potential as our team liaison person.

Having said this, I would not trade this experience for the world. While I am aware that I have much more development to accrue on my journey to professionalization, I am impressed with the product that we have been able to produce while living thousands of miles apart.


The research team is currently writing up the results; however, some findings are emerging relating to the development of critical pedagogies in social work education during the Covid-19 pandemic. This enables a deepening insight for social work education possibilities in (diverse) learning environments, including in-person, remote, and hybrid delivery. The research team is currently validating the survey to be used in other teaching situations to assess transformative learning and are also analysing the qualitative data.

From our student-researcher perspectives, our varied involvement in this project has introduced us to the world of research and its many facets. One realization is that research is messy. With all things considered, the entire virtual world is quite messy too. So, the combination of both research and a virtual environment is an experience we will never forget. However, the nonlinear nature of research is valid for all learning and growing environments. As students and aspiring professional social workers, these characteristics are something we not only must become accustomed to but embrace for the betterment of our future trajectory— personally and professionally.

Consequently, we strongly recommend that other social work education projects consider students as collaborators. We even call for it to be a compulsory element of any university social work degree. While this statement may be radical, we have learned and displayed first-hand the benefits to all the parties involved. Students benefit by applying learned theory and methodology, the accumulation of real research experience and skills, the heightened intercultural enrichment inherent to collaboration, and the unparalleled hands-on professional development. On the other hand, professional researchers also benefit from the novel and creative ideas and perspectives that student participants provide while also directly aiding in the career preparation of future generations of social workers. It is a mutually beneficial experience that we believe all social work education programs should fully engage in.


Damianakis, T., Barrett, B., Archer-Kuhn, B., Samson, P., Matin, S. and Ahern, C.(2019a) ‘Teaching for transformation: Masters of social work students identify teaching approaches that made a difference ’,Journal of Transformative Education. doi: 10.1177/1541344619865948.