Psychology in action

Psychology in Action--The Challenge of Travel: Notes from a Fulbrighter

When you look through the Fulbright possibilities, every country has a specified need. Cyprus specifically mentioned domestic violence.

By Tasha Howe, PhD

My suitcases were still piled up around my living room ten days after my return from my Fulbright experience in Cyprus. It’s amazing how a mere 5 months in a foreign country can physically and mentally exhaust you! But if applying for a Fulbright is even remotely on your radar, I can give you a whole-hearted, 100% affirmative assurance that all of the exhaustion is, indeed, well worth it. But before that, any kind of academic or intellectual experience in a foreign country will greatly prepare you for the intense work of a Fulbright.

I think it’s always been in my personality to travel. I’ve traveled abroad almost every year of my adult life. As I became an academic, I realized that I could travel and the experience could be more than just a tourist’s adventure with foreign foods, restaurants, and accents. I started investigating how international travel could be integrated with my work in developmental psychology. I initially participated in a program with the Kentucky Institute of International Studies, where I took students to Europe for summer classes. I arranged all kinds of great experiences for the students (but mainly for myself!), like a feminist tour guide who took us on a walking tour for a re-interpretive look at Victorian Vienna for my history of psychology course. Then there was the trip by my child development class to L’Archives Jean Piaget where we got to see his original protocols, like the 3 mountain goats task, that helped him develop his theories. 

But even before I started traveling for work, the seeds were sown during my college years. When I studied developmental psychology in college at U.C. Santa Barbara, I did field work at a preschool for faculty and student children. I had the opportunity to design behavioral intervention plans where I started learning more about child development in general. Also, when I was in graduate school one of the professors had received a grant to work with abused children in residential treatment and I ended up working with those kids, which I absolutely loved. What was interesting was that they seemed so normal and were going through the same developmental stages as other children. Overall, they seemed happy, even though their parents had done horrible things to them and they had behavioral and emotional challenges. This made me look at the parallels between normal and atypical development. I realized other people were writing and doing research about the same thing—this new field called developmental psychopathology. They emphasized the importance of culture and context in human development.

I took these messages to heart when I studied child welfare services in Northern Ireland or observed computer programs for Street Children in Brazil. The best learning takes place outside of the ivory tower (provided, of course, you’ve learned what the tower-folk wanted you to learn and you can then apply it). As a professor myself, I try to get my students out in the community, interviewing folks, observing children, working with non-profits, tutoring homeless kids, etc. And I always involve my students in my work with violence prevention trainings and parenting classes, using the ACT Against Violence program (www.actagainstviolence.org).

This has all culminated in me spending my sabbatical on a Fulbright Scholarship in Cyprus where I taught classes in both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. I also gave a large public lecture for community leaders and citizens, as well as presenting at conferences. I chose Cyprus as my Fulbright country for both intellectual and practical reasons. When you look through the Fulbright possibilities, every country has a specified need. Cyprus specifically mentioned domestic violence. I went through all of the literature and the more I read about the history of Cyprus, and how it became divided, the more I wanted to work there. Like my work in Northern Ireland, in Cyprus I was very interested in looking at how living in a divided society affects family relations, views of discipline and parenting, and especially, how social policy regarding family violence was developed and implemented. On a more practical level, the support they provided for accompanying family members made the decision very easy for my family of four.

During my stay, I worked in the Greek Cypriot community at The European University of Cyprus. The South is more developed, as it has recently become part of the European Union. In the Northern part of the island, the Turkish Cypriot Community, due to the military intervention of Turkey in 1974, most countries do not recognize the area and so it has more of a “developing” feel. The two groups have lived separately since the 1974 war, but even before that, Turkish Cypriots were being sent to live in smaller enclaves as tensions escalated. However, the borders are now open and I was pleased to see so many bicommunal friendships, work, and play activities taking place.

In terms of family violence, in the Republic of Cyprus I was able to train 30 Greek Cypriot social workers in the ACT program, as well as having a police officer from the domestic violence unit and two social workers come and speak to my child abuse class. I was struck by the concentrated sincerity I saw in every worker, and an intense caring for the children in their community. They have very few opportunities for formal training in evidence-based practices or research-based approaches and they were so thankful for the experience. They work hard to help children, despite there being no real established foster care system or social programs to aid them.

In the Turkish Cypriot community of Northern Cyprus, English fluency was a bit more of a challenge so I wasn’t able to be part of the community as much as I would have liked. I was teaching at Near East University, though, and got to work with both undergraduate psychology majors and graduate students in clinical psychology. I taught a developmental psychopathology class for the graduate students and it was such a great learning experience for all of us. I also had the opportunity to observe a residential treatment center managed through the Austrian-based organization, SOS Kinderdorf. The center showed quite a keen understanding of the needs of abused and neglected children, all of whom go to public school there, and also receive individual therapy. The center also provides guidance on hygiene and sexual issues, and even helps them get apartments and job training once they become adults. To see this in a developing area was remarkable.

The main challenges for all Cypriots include the development of a more structured foster care system. Both communities still keep much family business private so they really don’t have a system where people unrelated to the children can take care of them. Of course, the other thing that would be wonderful is for more clinicians and scholars to go to Cyprus to train nurses, psychologists, and others in social welfare on the latest evidence-based practices, as well as helping them with fundraising and program development. I saw all segments of society open to this kind of assistance.

For my family and myself, the experience in Cyprus was life-changing. We all learned a little Turkish and some Greek. We were immersed in a rich and complex history that was endlessly fascinating. We worked daily on tolerance, flexibility, and really listening to people’s stories. I studied the research that had already been done there on family violence and then made myself available to help develop a bicommunal child abuse prevalence study. We traveled to every corner of the island and tried new foods, new religious experiences, new holidays, and were there for the historic opening of another part of the “border” crossing between north and south, the new Ledra Street checkpoint. Professionally, this experience will enhance my teaching of cultural and contextual issues in child and family development. It gives me a new lens through which to formulate research questions. I have made friends across the world, who welcome us back to their homes any time. And for my children, the importance of anti-racism is foremost in their minds as they went to an international school with children from over 70 different countries and experienced what it was like to be a cultural minority.