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Counseling Psychology News

Students reflect on ‘transformative’ service-learning trip to Guatemala

July 29, 2013

In three of the past five years, UW-Madison Professor Steve Quintana has led groups of graduate students to Guatemala to provide a cultural and professional immersion into psychological services and research in Latin America.

Most recently, in May, Quintana returned with a multidisciplinary team of graduate students from the School of Education’s departments of Counseling Psychology (Nancy Herrera and Mayra Rodriguez), Educational Psychology (Stephanie D’Costa, Jocelyn Kuhn and Maria Malachowski) and Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education (Rod Salgado and Lauren Wuchte).

Below are two essays by Herrera and Rodriguez reflecting on this trip. But first is a little history and insight about this service-learning research project, thanks to information provided by Quintana, a professor with the departments of Counseling Psychology and Educational Psychology:

• • •

These trips began in 2009, when five counseling psychology students traveled to the biannual conference of Society of InterAmerican Congress of Psychology in Guatemala, where they presented papers and toured community agencies.  This is when the students first visited ANINI, an orphanage for children with disabilities.

ANNI service learning project collageANINI is a compound in a rural part of Guatemala divided into an elementary school, Colegio ANINI, and six residential homes for children with disabilities.  With four teachers and classrooms, children from the neighboring community attend grades K-6 at Colegio ANINI.  The residential part of the compound includes the residential homes, a cafeteria, a chapel and facilities for physical, occupational, psychological, dental and medical services.

ANINI’s vision is to create family and home-like conditions for children who have been orphaned or, more often, abandoned by families unable to care for children with significant physical and mental disabilities.  As one of its core values, ANINI recognizes: “The intimate connection between suffering and love, making sense out of the senseless.” With few material resources, ANINI works what many would consider miracles with the children. 

Those who made this initial visit 2009 were so impressed with ANINI that they promised to return.

In 2011, Quintana and Gwyn Schell, one of the original visitors, coordinated a nine-day service-learning research trip to ANINI for seven counseling psychology students and one student from UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

And this past spring, Quintana returned with a multidisciplinary team. These UW-Madison graduate students started meeting six months in advance of the trip to plan the research and service activities, be advised about travel in Guatemala, learn about ANINI and what to expect upon their arrival.  Donations are collected prior to the trip for basic art supplies, books in Spanish, and other materials, and transported in large suitcases to Guatemala, where some basic items, such as shoe laces, are in short supply or too expensive.

The counseling psychology students received funding from a departmental award for Social Justice, which provided funding for supplies for the art projects along with reading materials to be donated.  The research project examined typically developing children’s experience of attending school with children who have disabilities.  Inclusion practices are relatively new to Guatemala, but ANINI provided an ideal site for this project. 

Upon their arrival, the students are welcomed with open arms into the ANINI family.  UW-Madison students experience first-hand the expression of Guatemalan and Latino cultural values of dignidad (dignity), cariño (love), and familismo (family connection) in how ANINI children are treated. The students spend their days split between the school and homes, doing art projects, conducting interviews, giving English lessons, playing games with the children, observing educational and psychological services being provided, and consulting with staff about research and current best practices in education and psychology.  They attend religious services in the chapel with the ANINI residents, many of whom play an active role in the worship services. In the evenings, the UW-Madison students reflect on their experiences, sharing successes as well as the challenges of work at ANINI. 

Traveling to a developing country, forming personal relationships with those who have faced unimaginable adversity, the UW-Madison students learn not only about culture and language, but also important lessons about suffering and human dignity, loss and happiness, risk and resilience, as well as exploring what it means to traverse national borders, cultures, and languages to help and assist others who are less fortunate.  The interdepartmental nature of the team of graduate students enhances understanding of different disciplinary approaches within the U.S. and also offers opportunities to reflect upon and dialogue about the intense experiences of cultural and linguistic immersion.  Students returning from these trips report benefits from the international perspective the immersion experience afforded them and a greater sense of purpose in their professional training.

• • •

Following are two reports written by UW-Madison graduate students about their experiences this past spring: 

Guatemala Service Trip: Reflection

By Nancy Herrera

The service learning trip to ANINI will forever remain as one of the most wonderful and transformative experiences of my life. The main beauty of this facility is the immediate sense of familia (family) and love that all the residents have towards each other and their “moms.” Although I was able to witness the different treatments (i.e., physical, medical) that the residents go through, it is the love and nurturance that they receive and give that seemed to predominantly influence their emotional, spiritual, and physical healing. Although, there were many instances in which residents shared with me their stories of trauma and abandonment, I feel that the loving space in ANINI offers them the opportunity for joy and acceptance amidst their saddening pasts.

On the first few days of the trip, I recall initially feeling frustrated because I did not know how I could be of service. I lacked former background in working with individuals with different capacities, thus often questioned how I would be beneficial. I was at a loss in knowing how I could help, but in pushing beyond the ambiguity and just being present in the residents’ happiness and tears was what was the most impactful for them, and me. Being able to trust in myself and tap into my cultural values were discovered abilities that allowed me to become a “co-journeyer” in the residents’ experiences.

Our similar cultural values of familismo (importance of family), personalismo (warm interpersonal relationships), and simpatia (kindness) — which helped deepen an initial trust — played a significant role in helping residents whose interpersonal styles were deemed as a “challenge.” Of the residents I met, I particularly remember the case of Eunice. Due to the physical abuse from her mother, she was paralyzed from half of her body, had underdeveloped cognitive abilities, and could not talk. I was told that other students have not wanted to work with her since she often becomes angry, and can get physically aggressive. However, in being able to spend time with her and develop a relationship, I understood many times her tantrums were from her frustrations with not being able to vocalize her emotions. I feel that such experiences helped me learn the value of tapping into my cultural values as a form of instinct to develop meaningful connections with the residents. In my development as a clinician, I learned how incorporating these salient cultural pieces into future treatment plans will allow me to provide efficacious and culturally sensitive treatment.

I will never forget what one of the supervisors told me about the ANINI residents: “They are smarter than us because they have been through hell and back.” I feel this statement encapsulates their resilience, authenticity, and beauty of their souls. I feel privileged to know that a big portion of my growth and reinforced passion to serve my Latin@ community is thanks to them. Part of my heart will stay in ANINI and Guatemala.

ANINI Service Learning Reflection

By Mayra Rodriguez

My participation on the 2013 service learning trip to ANINI, was a profound intercultural experience which reaffirmed my desire to serve as a future mental health clinician in the Latino community. Located in a remote area in Guatemala, ANINI is a non-profit organization which serves orphaned children and individuals with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities. Although I have acquired a great deal of understanding of myself over the course of the counseling psychology master’s program, my experience in Guatemala helped me gain deeper awareness of the importance of “walking within” the cultural context of the clients we serve. This service learning experience not only provided me the opportunity to develop skills to serve individuals with severe disabilities, but allowed me to give of myself in ways I never thought possible.

Over the course of just a week, I had the privilege of forming strong relationships with this community of residents who taught me more than they could ever know, about the power of genuine human compassion. Despite minimal resources and extremely traumatic and devastating pasts, the ANINI residents whole-heartedly showed me genuine kindness and integrated me into their familia. Although a native Spanish speaker myself, I feel my deep relationships with the residents were not simply rooted in our ability to communicate, but due to our shared value for warm interpersonal relationships (personalismo) which in turn fostered a sense of confianza (trust).

As I prepare for my practicum placement at Journey Mental Health’s Latino clinic this fall, I believe my experience at ANINI underscored the importance of applying diverse therapeutic interventions, which reflect the values of culturally diverse populations. I have discovered through this recent experience, the power of trusting my own cultural ideals as a Latina, to reach out and connect to others who are often misunderstood and underserved due to complex socio-cultural barriers. I will forever remember the angels in Guatemala who inspired me to continue working towards ameliorating systemic injustices which impact historically diverse groups, especially as it relates to mental health services in the United States and abroad.

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