Bryn Harris, a fourth-year graduate student in school psychology at Indiana University, spent part of her summer working with special-needs students in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The experience-funded by the 2005 David Pilon Scholarship for Training in Professional Psychology-gave Harris first-hand experience with the education system in Mexico, and will help her better understand the Latino children she works with who have come from similar backgrounds, she says. The $1,000 scholarship provides graduate students with education and professional development opportunities that they might not otherwise be able to pursue. In fact, the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students is now accepting applications for the 2006 award; the deadline is May 1.
"I work with a lot of Spanish-speaking students," says Harris, who, as an undergraduate, majored in psychology and Spanish and spent semesters in Costa Rica and Argentina. "I wanted to continue to learn about the Latino culture and improve my Spanish skills, but I didn't have much room in my schedule to take courses."
Harris used her scholarship money to enroll in the Encuentros Language and Culture Immersion Program in Cuernavaca, where she spent a month living with a local family and working at a special needs school.
In Mexico, special needs schools serve as a catchall for children with a variety of mental or physical problems, says Harris. As a result, a school may have students with everything from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to feeding problems. Resources are limited and services like speech and physical therapy are a rare luxury.
In addition to the problem of stigma, there aren't enough educational psychologists in Mexico, says Harris. Also, many psychologists' training has focused on assessment, rather than on designing prevention or treatment programs. The school psychologists that Harris met were starting to see more attention-deficit disorder and autism cases-diagnoses that were previously fairly uncommon. Psychologists and educators asked her a lot of questions about how U.S. schools accommodate students with these problems.
"My knowledge from my graduate program and attending APA conferences was very helpful," Harris says. Moreover, Harris learned a lot about Mexican schools that she says will help her in her own work with Latino children.
"We have a large Latino population in the United States," she says. "But we don't have an appreciation of the type of education, services and culture that students have been exposed to previously." Harris believes that understanding these students' background is key to offering them appropriate services in the United States.
For instance, she notes, in Mexico, schools only call the parents when a child has done something really wrong, like disrespecting the teacher or engaging in violence at school. Disrespecting one's elders is a much more serious offense than in U.S. culture, so parents would likely see this behavior as sign of a crisis, says Harris. If school psychologists don't take this into account when calling parents, the interaction may end up causing anxiety that gets in the way of solving problems, Harris notes.
She is already using what she has learned by volunteering to take on as many Latino clients as she can in her practicum. She has also been educating her colleagues about the issues these families face.
To apply for the Pilon scholarship, see the APAGS scholarship page.