After studying French in high school and college, Cynthia V. Catchings wanted to experience “an education program like an exchange program, only on my own.’’ So she went to the University of Bordeaux in Pessac, France, for one semester in 2006 to practice the language and learn more. Staying a while after her classes ended, she said, was “actually the beginning of the whole story.’’
An Explorer is Born
Catchings, LCSW-S, is founder and director of the Women’s Emotional Wellness Center in Alexandria, Va., and a second location in McAllen, Texas, where she also is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. When her husband was transferred, they moved from Texas to Washington, D.C., in January 2018.
In November, she was elected to the NASW D.C. Metro Chapter board of directors.
After finishing her studies in Paris, Catchings was walking around and passed a beautifully kept orphanage. As she walked, people smiled and said hello to her. She went back to look at the orphanage again.
“I thought it would be nice to see how people in that part of the world worked,” Catchings said, “what some of the programs they had or developed were, and most of all, which were the most successful relating to community services and helping individuals.”
That thought was the spark that began Catchings’ trips to learn—traveling usually twice a year, for a current total of 32 trips
“so far,” she said.
Sometimes a person she meets will recommend another country and a person they know there, opening a door for travel to a different place. Catchings returns to some countries, including France and Turkey, visiting people she met before.
“Some places are more inviting,” she said. And in most places, she finds people who speak English.
“First, I learned acceptance,” she said. “I think many times we have preconceived ideas of how people are. Once you go, you learn how people really are and what they do, and you can accept how they are—accept one another.”
She connects mainly with other social workers, finding that those relationships often lead to new connections in other places. For example, in Bangkok, Thailand, while visiting a human trafficking site, she met a social worker from India who directed her to a friend. So she went to Mamallapuram, India.
“While I was there learning what people there do, I met my tour guide—a 7-year-old girl,” Catchings said. The girl explained how women had to work and what they did so they could give their earnings to their families to survive.
“What I learned about social work, the number one thing, is the collaboration with other agencies and the working with communities as a whole,” Catchings said. “I see that in every place, and when I see that, I think ‘it takes a village.’”
“First, acceptance and love for all there is,” Catchings said. “Social work and the work we do, it’s all going to benefit people. I often think the work is not that much, but we’re all doing it, and in the end, it benefits many people.”
Why Social Work?
Catchings started her studies in psychology, and was required to take an elective.
“I took a social work course and met an amazing professor, and I realized I was in the wrong field,” she said. “I wanted to make changes. I wanted to work with communities, so I immediately transferred” and began studies as a social work major.
She has discovered that world travel and social work can go hand-in-hand.
“They both are learning experiences,” Catchings said. “Another similarity is when you’re out there, it’s really easy to see what the needs are. Being in a community and seeing what it’s like, it’s easy to see what people need.”
Catchings did not travel in 2020, but continuing to travel is a given for her. She already has an idea for the next place she wants to visit: Africa.
“Being an experienced traveler,” Catchings said, “I’d love to bring people, to help people get out there—so they can learn more about social work as well.”
Her recommendation to anyone who wants to travel is to start with looking at information about what it is like in a preferred destination, including the kind of social work they do. Next, try to learn about some of the named programs around the world.
To finance her trips, Catchings tries to do something extra, like teach Spanish or French, and puts away that income.“I think the most important thing for social workers to know and remember is traveling on your own is not something to be afraid of,” she said. “People are willing to help and work with you, and you can bring information from other places to where we live. Don’t be afraid — just do it!”