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PhD student takes commitment to global health and kids’ learning to Ecuador

by Jennifer O'Reilly

January 18, 2014

Sarah Gray and Ecuadorian children

For Sarah Gray (pictured right), a 3rd year PhD student in the School and Clinical Child Psychology (SCCP) program in OISE’s department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, finding the perfect immersion program has given her new perspectives on supporting children’s learning in challenging environments.

Looking to combine her long-time goal of learning Spanish within a program tailored for psychology students, she was happy to discover The Ecuador Professional Program (EPPP), which provides international study abroad programs for mental health practitioners, education professionals and graduate students.

Spending a month in Quito, Ecuador last summer alongside fourteen other students from North America was an eye-opener for Sarah, whose research is in the area of inattentive behaviours such as ADHD, and their relationship to poor academic outcome. She agrees that the need for mental health professionals with knowledge of Spanish and Hispanic cultures is not currently being met. “My interest in this program sprang from a long-time goal of working in multicultural and linguistically diverse environments with resource-poor communities who have an interest in building mental health initiatives. Currently, the role of mental health professionals in global health is underdeveloped. I believe the field of psychology has huge contributions to make toward global health initiatives, and cultural immersion experiences may help prepare students to participate meaningfully in these initiatives.”

Residing with a local family, Sarah’s days in Quito began early with a 45 minute bus ride to her work site outside the city, an informally recognized daycare (or childhood center) for children aged three to eight years with learning disabilities and behavior problems. She spent mornings engaging with teachers about specific learning difficulties and possible strategies for helping children in a classroom setting as well as consulting with parents who had specific concerns about their children, typically relating to anxiety, learning and developmental concerns.

Afternoons involved a bus ride back to the city of Quito for a working lunch reviewing cases and projects with supervisors Tara Raines (University of Nevada) and Anton Berzins, a New York based school psychologist, followed by three hours of intensive Spanish lessons.

The knowledge and insight Sarah gained, both personally and professionally, was largely experiential. “The very aspect of being in a completely different culture, being the minority, being totally lost and confused and unable to communicate was overwhelming. That whole experience will help me as an individual therapist when working with clients that might be in the same situation in a city that’s as diverse as Toronto”.

She now more fully understands the power of non-verbal communication, due to her own lack of proficiency in Spanish which made the experience ‘truly collaborative,’ thanks to the graciousness of both of her supervisors and the parents and teachers she encountered. “While my Spanish skills are still a work in progress, having had the experience of navigating a new culture, including a different work and life environment, I am now closer to my goals of learning Spanish and understanding neurodevelopmental disorders from a different cultural perspective.”

The immersion experience taught Sarah that there is a huge disparity in access to early childhood education services between the city and the more rural Andean areas where some homes lack such basic necessities as running water. “It’s an extremely diverse country and that’s a big challenge for the early childhood education system there,” she noted.

One of the greatest contributions Sarah felt she made during her four-week stay was with the teachers she met. “The teachers were really happy to get our support with learning strategies, because their training didn’t always include classes on behavioral difficulties or learning diffrences. Of course, I learned so much from them too.”