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The Ecuador Professional Preparation Program: A Multicultural Experience

By Tamara Salamon

There is an unmet need for school psychologists who are culturally and linguistically competent to work with Latino students and families. Meeting this need is a vital part of NASP’s mission, which includes diversity as one of its six strategic goals. NASP’s pledge “to populations whose diversity may be expressed in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, religion, and/or language” (NASP, 2007) is specifically addressed through its commitment to promote cultural competence among school psychologists and its advocacy for educational policies and practices that meet the learning and mental health needs of a wide range of diverse learners.

Recognizing this need for enhancing culturally competent practice skills, three psychologists developed the Ecuador Professional Preparation Program (EPPP), which is a study abroad program uniquely designed for graduate students or working professionals in clinical, counseling, or school psychology. The program’s overall goals align with those of NASP in cultivating school psychologists who utilize culturally responsive practices and are positive change agents in their communities. During the summer immersion program, EPPP participants engage in Spanish language lessons, acquire knowledge of Latino culture, and work as volunteers in a clinical or school setting.

EPPP participants engage in work and learning 4 days per week for 4 weeks during the month of July. Participants include a small group of mental health professionals consisting of school, clinical, and counseling psychology graduate students from the United States who together provide counseling, assessment, social skill instruction, and a variety of other therapeutic activities to those in need. At La Clínica Subcentro de Salud in Quito, the participants listen and provide guidance to Ecuadorians with all types of concerns, ranging from domestic abuse and infertility to child behavior problems and depression. In addition to the clinic, participants may work at an orphanage engaging in direct contact with children or an elementary school conducting developmental interviews with parents. When not working with clients, graduate students work one-on-one with Spanish tutors to improve their language proficiency and enjoy planned weekend excursions, which allow participants an opportunity to explore the country.

A Story from La Clínica Subcentro de Salud

La Clínica Subcentro de Salud provides free medical and dental help year round to the local inhabitants of Quito, Ecuador. Understandably, there is always a large crowd of people gathered outside. Yet, on the day when the psychologists and graduate students from the United States were on staff, the patients lined up at the clinic’s reception window earlier than usual and in greater numbers. In the patients’ eyes, one could see a range of emotions consisting of pain, anguish, fright, and a desire for help. Many mothers expressed “esperanza,” or hope, in the clinic’s system to help meet their emotional goals: hope for improved familial relationships, hope for dealing with everyday stressful events, and hope for a better understanding of their depressed feelings. As the psychologists and students prepared to meet with the clients, they considered important cultural differences, such as how many Latinos avoid eye contact with professionals. The students were informed that this nonverbal cue did not mean they lacked respect for those in roles of higher prestige or authority.

One of the first clients seen that day was a middle-age father, Marco, who spoke quickly. He initially addressed his situation through stories about his youth: “Cuando era un niño siempre me gustaba ir a la escuela. Mis maestros me decían que ponía mucho esfuerzo en mi trabajo.” [“When I was a boy, I liked going to school. My teachers told me that I put a lot of effort into my work.”]

Tamara Salamon (top, third from left), other volunteers, clinic staff, and children waiting to see the doctor.

Marco then expressed concern for his son, a 12-year-old boy, who was not doing well in school. He described his young son, David, as unmotivated with a tendency to overeat. Marco continually pushed his son to succeed; yet nothing seemed to improve his school performance or family relations.

Marco simply could not understand why his son was unresponsive to his parenting. David’s performance was important to Marco because he was Marco’s only son and Marco wanted him to carry on the family name and legacy. As Marco spoke with the psychologists and graduate students, he described his guilt that he often was not home because he worked late nights at McDonald’s to provide for his family and attended school during the day. Sometimes, he thought, it was his fault David had trouble in school. He poured his heart out while the psychologists and students sat quietly and listened. By listening to Marco’s concerns, the students were able to recognize in themselves any subtle racial, class, gender, cultural, and other biases. Being at EPPP informed them about the way these biases influence decision-making, instruction, behavior, and long-term outcomes for students. The psychologists were cautious in giving advice right away because they knew it was important to be cognizant of those potential biases. This methodology worked to their advantage as Marco appreciated the attention and felt his concern was important. At the conclusion of the session, Marco anticipated a recommendation or solution, but instead the psychologists asked him to bring in his son. El dijo, “Si. Prometo que voy a llevarlo manana.” [He said, “Yes. I promise to bring him tomorrow.”]

The next day, father and son arrived at the clinic. They both appeared anxious and nervous. The psychologists split into two groups and one spoke with the father while the other spoke with the son. The psychologists and graduate students observed, with the son, the differing standard of space when speaking with someone from Latino culture. In general, people of the Latino culture stand closer together when speaking than those of the American culture. Utilizing this knowledge, the psychologists and graduate students did not feel awkward when speaking with David as their personal space was invaded by a teenage boy. Instead, they saw him as a sensitive young boy. A boy who felt degraded by his mother and ignored by his father. He felt scared to sleep alone and feared being beaten up by his older sister. Tears ran down his cheeks as he told the psychologists the last time he remembered spending time with his father. It was when he was 6 years old walking in the park with him. At that point, David knew he wanted to tell his father how he truly felt, but simultaneously he was terrified about how his father would react. When the two were brought together, David told Marco that he felt depressed and sad and that he had been missing his father for a long time. They both began to cry. The psychologists and students knew at that moment this family was on the road to reconciliation.

Learn More About the EPPP

If you are interested in learning more about the Ecuador Professional Preparation Program, visit the program’s site at http://ecuadorppp.com. You will find the e-mail addresses of the two program leaders (Tara Raines and Anton Berzins), photographs, personal accounts of participants from previous trips, and an overview of the application process.

I found it was the unforgettable cultural exchanges that made this volunteer experience vital to my future practice as a school psychologist. The EPPP was a great step forward in my journey toward becoming a culturally competent school psychologist. Due to the ever-expanding Latino population in the United States, it is essential that practitioners learn about the nuances of this unique ethnic group and translate that knowledge into culturally sensitive practices. NASP’s goals coincide with those of the EPPP in that this training program abroad gives graduate students and practitioners experiences to help fill the unmet need for culturally competent practitioners. For those learning about Latino culture, EPPP provides great experiences congruent with increasing culturally competent practices, such as learning about differences in eye contact, personal space, and consideration of personal biases. For me, these were a few of the important practices I learned through my experience at EPPP.

I am a believer in learning through doing. Going into my internship year, I found skill and confidence-building to be two of the many critical take-aways from the EPPP. As I practice what I learned, I plan to recount these experiences and apply them to my future goal of becoming a Nationally Certified School Psychologist.

Tamara Salamon is a third-year graduate student in the school psychology program at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Currently, she is completing her internship with Pittsylvania County Schools. Tamara plans to continue working with students from diverse backgrounds and to publish a research article comparing Hispanic and non-Hispanic performance on the Wechsler Non-Verbal Scale of Ability.


National Association of School Psychologists. (2007). Vision, mission, and goals. Retrieved from http://nasponline.org/about_nasp/strategicplan.pdf.