SUNY Oswego Class to Visit Haiti, Offer Mental Health Workshops

Submitted by SUNY Oswego

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Rodney Jeannis, a Haitian-American junior at SUNY Oswego, plans to travel with seven other psychology students and three professors to Petit-Goave, Haiti, over winter break for the real-world culmination of a course in dealing with the cultural aspects of trauma.

OSWEGO — Eight SUNY Oswego students and three psychology professors plan to journey to Haiti next month — a trip that will overlap the Jan. 12 anniversary of a devastating earthquake — to work with community leaders in Petit-Goave on continuing issues of trauma.

The trip culminates a key college response to the Haiti disaster, a redeveloped upper-division and graduate-level course in psychology and in counseling and psychological services for students and professionals called “Ethnocultural Aspects of Trauma: Focus on Haiti.”

“We need to respect and understand the Haitian worldview, to make sure that we, with our good intentions, don’t inadvertently offend, complicate or disrupt the healing process already going on in Haiti,” said Dr. Barbara Streets, one of the course instructors, noting that some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and religious groups have blundered in with just that result.

Understanding their own cultural prejudices and limitations is an important learning outcome for the class members and professors, who plan to travel for more than a week to a country afflicted by an outbreak of cholera atop the well-documented trauma of recovering from an earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince, killed an estimated 220,000 people, injured 300,000 more and left more than a million homeless.

Safety first

Dr. Joshua McKeown, director of International Education and Programs at SUNY Oswego, said a pre-trip visit was crucial: The college would be sending students to Haiti knowing that the State Department and Centers for Disease Control have advised no unnecessary travel.

With student safety and the needs of the Haitian people in mind, Streets and fellow professors Dr. Karen Wolford and Dr. Roger Brooks made a weekend trip early this month to Petit-Goave, a mountaintop town that is a two-hour drive west of the international airport at Port-au-Prince, to meet with community leaders.

“Our impression based on speaking with our consultant and community leaders, is that our project is still a go and very much needed,” Streets said. She emphasized that the professors’ observations — the three pursued a specific mission for less than 48 hours — do not apply nationwide. The students will be staying in a hotel, have plenty of bottled water, will bring along several global cellular phones and have Internet access via a wireless router Brooks will connect through a DSL line in the hotel manager’s office.

The early visit convinced the professors of the safety of Petit-Goave, but altered the group’s preliminary plans for presentations during the Jan. 3 to 14 journey with students. In conjunction with consultant Dr. Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian-American scholar and department chair at the University of Miami, the professors met with representatives of an indigenous Haitian NGO, the Association des Paysans de Vallue, which assists workers of the region in taking charge of their own future.

Coping strategies

The group has added public service components to the trip: helping paint a new library for a school destroyed in the earthquake, participating in a book drive for younger students and providing coaching in English while continuing studies in Haitian Creole.

The SUNY Oswego students also will divide responsibility for three workshops, with a professor mentoring each, in areas of health and mental health, coping resources focused on children, and relaxation and meditation — with particular attention to the upcoming national day of remembrance Jan. 12.

The professors, all licensed psychologists, made it clear they are not going to Haiti to provide psychological services. Outside therapists are not allowed to practice in Haiti, the professors said. Their role is education, training and support.

“We’re doing what they want us to do, and we’re doing that based on our skills. There’s a match between our skills and our areas of competency, and what the community is requesting — and that’s beautiful collaboration,” Streets said.

One Oswego traveler, Rodney Jeannis, a junior, will bring a unique worldview. He is Haitian-American, lost aunts and uncles in the quake, and yet has never been to Haiti.

“Personally, I’m looking to learn and to connect with my heritage,” said the Brooklyn native. “I’m in an interesting position. I just know from Haitian culture that they’re going to view me as American. I can speak the languages, French and Haitian Creole, but I do have an accent. I’m working as an American — I don’t know anything else.”

Other students joining the trip are Britanee Eckhard, Katherine Harris, Amanda LeBeau, Ashlee McGlone, Samantha Shaw, Kiara Tull and Brittney VanWie.

All involved with the course and the effort believe the trip would tie curriculum with travel in a way that would be invaluable to students and their professors.

“Many students no longer want to just go and study in a foreign place — they want to do something,” said McKeown, who oversees four short-term study-abroad opportunities planned for winter break, as well as 80 longer term programs in 30 countries.