Degree In Sight

A passport on a world map

Last summer, George Soto, a second-year clinical psychology student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, spent five weeks in Costa Rica as part of the school's Latino Mental Health Training Program. A second-generation Latino--his parents are from Puerto Rico--Soto is fluent in Spanish and thought that working at schools and community clinics in the Alajuela province would give him a broader understanding of the issues facing Latino immigrants to the United States. What he didn't expect was to come away with a mission spurred by a moving moment.

It happened during a group session with girls at a residential school for students who had been sexually abused--often at the hands of family. In addition to workshops on body image and self-esteem, Soto's team had the girls write down questions or comments--anonymously-on index cards. One of the girls--a victim of sexual abuse by a family member--had never in two years at the school talked about what happened, but after three weeks felt comfortable enough to open up to Soto's team and the group.

"It was great as two men coming in, that she felt comfortable enough to share with us," says Soto.

The experience changed the way he envisions his career. He now wants to supplement his practice in the United States with time spent in Latin American countries, and he hopes in both locations to help abused young women regain their self-esteem.

Soto's experience isn't unusual. Psychologists who have trained in a foreign country often say that their time abroad--whether it was six weeks, six months or six years-broadened their worldviews and expanded their goals.


Foreign study is supposed to be, well, foreign. But even with that expectation, some students say they are blindsided by culture shock.

For example, Erika C. Beckles, who studied in Mexico as part of Alliant International University's summer immersion program and is a self-described black Latina whose family is originally from Panama, always assumed that Mexican culture was similar to her experience of Panamanian culture.

"Mexico was different than anywhere I had been before," says Beckles, who received her master's degree in marriage and family therapy at Alliant. "I was exposed to ideas that created a new sense of awareness."

Beckles' program combined Spanish language and marriage family therapy classes with travel and hands-on experience. Students sat in on group therapy sessions and interviewed participating families and local therapists. They also worked with local shamans and other religious leaders to learn indigenous customs and health practices.

Adjusting to different cultural viewpoints was also a dominating theme in Lesley Gould's six-week program in Mexico.

"It's not just language and using the right verb, but learning to interact with different types of people," says Gould, a second-year clinical student at Alliant.

Students also learned to work within different kinds of academic systems, says Michael Proulx, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.

"On the university level, it's just run in a different way--very much more hierarchical, and more bureaucratic," he says.


As anyone who has struggled through French 101 knows, learning another language can be difficult--and is particularly so when you have to get fluent in the scientific world.

"One of the biggest frustrations is when you know that the work you're doing could be much better in your own language," says Jeffrey Calderon, a graduate student from Costa Rica who is earning his doctorate in Germany at the University of Munich. However, the education and experience he is getting makes it all worthwhile, Calderon stresses.

Proulx admits that after almost two years, his proficiency in German hasn't progressed much past the basics he learned from an initial one-month course, so it makes everyday interactions morechallenging. He is, however, getting a lot of practice.

"Some of the students I supervise are Eastern European, so they don't speak English--just German."

That fish-out-of-water experience can be an education in itself, says Gould. In fact, it gave her insight into what life is like for her immigrant clients in America.

"I felt very out of my element [in Mexico], so I understood what being removed from the culture feels like."

This experience is increasingly important as America becomes more diverse, says Beckles, who is currently a second-year doctoral student in family therapy at SyracuseUniversity. To work effectively with people from other cultures--whether as clients, colleagues or research collaborators--we need to seek experiences beyond our country's borders, she says. "The people that come into our offices are not all going to look like us," says Beckles. "We need to understand their differences.''

“The people that come into our offices are not all going to look like us. We need to understand their differences.”

Erika Beckles
Syracuse University