International Experience in Multicultural School Psychology: A “Do-It-Yourself” Guide
By Julene D. Nolan
“I never learned that in graduate school!” How many times have you thought this in your practice as a school psychologist? As a third year doctoral student I have heard this phrase, or some form of it, uttered by each of my professors, supervisors, and mentors. It seems that in graduate school you gain the theoretical knowledge and fundamental skills to function as a competent school psychologist, but practical understanding and expertise comes only with experience. I find this reality especially concerning when it comes to multicultural school psychology. The few classes that are dedicated to this subject, no matter how well designed or filled with cogent material, cannot adequately prepare an early career professional for working with students from diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds.
The diversity of student populations in U.S. schools is well documented. The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 40% of students in K–12 schools come from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, for nearly 20% of students, English is not the primary language spoken at home (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Yet, only 5.5% of school psychologists come from diverse backgrounds (Curtis, Hunley, & Grier, 2004, as cited in Merrell, Ervin, & Gimpel, 2006). Undoubtedly, school psychologists and the students they serve are culturally different from one another. But what can students and professionals do to gain the real world skills needed to serve these students? One of the most exciting and rewarding vehicles for this experience is an international practicum.
When I began my doctoral program, formal avenues for an international exchange geared toward school psychology students were not readily available. I was certain, however, that an international practical experience would be necessary for me to develop multicultural competence and address a continuing special interest of mine. I became a student member of the International School Psychology Association (ISPA) and attended their 2009 annual conference in Malta, where I met like-minded students and professionals and began my journey to formally gain international school psychology experience.
At the same time, I began to discuss my desire to do a practicum or internship abroad with my advisor and other faculty. I am fortunate that they supported my interest in this direction and told me that I could arrange any experience I wanted for my advanced doctoral practicum as long as it met the NASP standards and APA accreditation requirements. I began looking abroad for a K–12 school willing to take me on as a practicum student.
I soon learned about the small island of Curacao, Netherland Antilles. This Caribbean nation is home to more than 50 nationalities and citizens who speak several different languages, including Dutch, English, Spanish, and the native dialect called Papiamento. There I discovered the International School of Curacao (ISC) that especially interested me because of its tremendously diverse population. Students from all over the world, including the Netherlands, the United States, Venezuela, India, Canada, Columbia, China, and Germany are served in this K–12 school with a population of just over 500 students. I contacted Dr. Kim Prins, one of the two psychologists working in the school, and sold her on the benefits of agreeing to supervise a practicum student. Through a series of e-mails and phone calls, Dr. Prins and I devised a plan that would allow me to work at the school during my breaks from college and would provide an opportunity to apply many of the skills I am learning in class. My advisor, Dr. Kevin Filter, made sure that this experience would comply with NASP and APA requirements, and together we drafted a contract listing my professional competencies along with the kinds of experiences I could expect to encounter. In December of last year I left for my first 2 weeks of this exciting experience.
At ISC, I was able to teach a social skills curriculum to elementary-age students from many different countries. Additionally, I helped facilitate team-building exercises aimed at combating aggressive playground behavior with diverse students. I learned about the cultural importance of spirits and ancestors in mental health consultation for many populations and was able to gain hands-on experience with these issues. Along with a group of Honor Society students from ISC, I delivered Christmas presents to local schools whose children live in dire poverty, without indoor plumbing, proper clothing, or enough food to eat.
On my return trip, in March of this year, I spent a week benchmarking students with reading and early literacy probes. This provided me an opportunity to work oneon- one with students from many different countries. Additionally, I was able to offer valuable data to the school regarding student performance in reading, something they had not done for younger learners on a school-wide basis. Although my practicum is officially completed, I have a continued relationship with this school and hope to return next year to continue with reading assessment.
Create Your Own International Experience: Resources and Opportunities
If you are a school psychologist who is interested in expanding your multicultural competence and experience, professional organizations like NASP and ISPA are valuable resources. In fact, ISPA has a committee dedicated to professional international exchanges. More information is available through the website (http://www.ispaweb.org). Additionally, attending conferences sponsored by NASP or ISPA, particularly those sessions that address international or multicultural school psychology, will assist you in making contacts with people who can help make your goal a reality.
If you are a graduate student, explore your university for international opportunities. It is likely that a department on campus sponsors an international trip and with a little additional work you could turn that trip into a practicum experience. Contact your advisor and the chair of your department to express your interest in such an opportunity.
Additionally, you can create your own practicum opportunities from the ground up, with the support of your advisor. If you have no idea where to start, The Handbook of International School Psychology (Jimerson, Oakland, & Farrell, 2007) offers information on the practice of school psychology throughout the world. Additionally, Jimerson, Skokut, Cardenas, Malone, and Stewart (2008) provide a current snapshot of which member countries of the United Nations offers some form of school or educational psychology services. Browsing these resources may ignite your interest in a specific area or culture in which you might like to work.
Next, search for international schools in the countries of interest, as international schools are often similar in style and function to schools in the United States. Look for schools that offer a diverse student population and, if you are a doctoral student, one that employs a doctoral-level school psychologist on staff. Contact the staff, the administrator, or both, with a letter of intent and a CV outlining your skills as they relate to school psychology. Try to be as concrete as possible, indicating what you can do for the school and what your needs will be (e.g., housing). Once you have identified a placement, your advisor should contact the potential supervisor to discuss contractual and programmatic requirements. Creating this opportunity for yourself could be one of the most challenging and rewarding professional experiences of your career. Additionally, it might ignite interest within your university to create a formal experience for all qualified students and practicing professionals.
Financing such an experience is an issue for both students and professionals. Although I did not have a clear picture of how I could afford this experience when I began, I was able to find some avenues for funding. First, a grant on campus was made available for students pursuing interests in diversity. I applied for and was awarded this grant, which helped defray some of the cost of travel. Second, although the international school I worked for did not offer a travel stipend, it did offer me lodging with staff families. These family stays enriched my experience further and allowed me to immerse in the culture in a way that a hotel stay could not. Ultimately, I financed this experience myself through work and student loans, an investment in my education and competence.
I believe that practicing school psychologists and school psychology graduate students need to heed the advice they often give to students and parents. Advocate for your own education. Seek opportunities to engage with people from other cultures on both a personal and professional level. Create your own opportunities to develop competence with unique, hands-on experience that an international practicum can offer. If you didn’t learn it in graduate school, learn it now. Prepare yourself to serve rich and diverse student populations by gaining hands-on experience in another culture.
Jimerson, S. R., Oakland, T., & Farrell, P. T. (2007) The handbook of international school psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Jimerson, S. R., Skokut, M., Cardenas, S., Malone, H., & Stewart, K. (2008). Where in the world is school psychology? Examining evidence of school psychology around the globe. School Psychology International, 29, 131–144.
Merrell, K. M., Ervin, R. A., & Gimpel, G. A., (2006). School psychology for the 21st century. NY: Guilford.
U.S. Department of Education. (2008). National Center for Educational Statistics: Fast facts. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts
Julene D. Nolan is a 3rd-year doctoral student at Minnesota State University, Mankato. After working for more than 15 years in international tourism and as a travel columnist for a regional magazine, she has returned to school to pursue her doctorate in school psychology, combining her interests in international travel, psychology, and education. Her research interests include international school psychology, international adoption, and culture bias in early literacy measures.