July 22, 2009
Panama experience is 'life-changing' for Northwest psychology students
A recent trip by a group of Northwest students and faculty to a Panama City, Panama, school for at-risk students was a life-changing experience, according to Dr. Carla Edwards, chair of the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Counseling.
E dwards, who was one of the four faculty members and four undergraduate psychology majors to make the trip during the first part of July, said she hopes future service-learning initiatives will continue to offer hope, help and new opportunities for students, families and teachers from both the United States and Panama.
While in the Central American country's capital city, the Northwest group worked with grade school and high school students and parents from socially and economically challenged backgrounds. Activities included self-esteem-building and motivational exercises plus conversations focusing on challenges posed by poverty and lack of educational resources.
"We gave the parents presentations on how to motivate their child to study and also on listening," said Edwards, who explained that perhaps the most serious issue observed by the group was a lack of communication between parents and teachers.
The group's work with parents hobbled by poverty, difficult family circumstances and limited education was perhaps its "major contribution" during the trip, Edwards said. However, she believes that insights gained by the Northwest students will, in the long run, lead to far-reaching results than cannot yet be measured.
"It was really an eye-opener, just a life-changing thing," she said. " Watching the students' eyes open as they started realizing what reality is like for some people was pretty amazing."
One of the most notable differences between the school in Panama and an American school was the lack of equipment and resources, Edwards said.
"We actually took some school supplies to them, which made the teachers cry, and that shocked us," she said, adding that the entire Northwest group returned to Maryville with a greater sensitivity to the needs of Central American children and families forced to live in difficult circumstances.
"Our students became very aware of the privilege we have (in the United States) related to education," Edwards said. "Another of the big things that we all got out of it was a commitment to community. I know that all four students have talked about, and are very excited about, doing something further, not only with this Panama project but in our own community. I think they've come to truly recognize the importance of philanthropy and community service."
Edwards is already working to push the Panama service learning initiative forward and wants to organize fundraisers later this year through various University organizations. The proceeds, she said, will go for books and school supplies.
In addition, depending on funding, Edwards wants to expand next year's trip to include more students, who would spend up to two weeks in Panama engaged in service-learning activities and research.
This summer's trip was funded through a Northwest Culture of Quality grant from the Office of the Provost and four $500 student research grants from the University's College of Education and Human Services.
Organizational assistance was provided by the Pro-Ed Foundation, founded by Panamanian philanthropist Alex Psychoyos. The foundation is led by Psychoyos' daughter, Debbie Psychoyos, who was Northwest's 2008 Ploghoft Lecturer and is currently an Ed.D. candidate in Northwest's cooperative doctorate program offered through the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Participating students, listed with the titles of their grant-funded research were: Kristin Stewart, senior, St. Joseph, "Family Dynamics in Rural Missouri and Panama City: A Comparison"; Michael Webster, sophomore, Nevada, Iowa, Cognitive Skills in Panamanian At-Risk Students"; Miranda Oehler, senior, Maryville, "Interpersonal Space Across Cultures"; and Jera Archer, senior, Riverside, "Second Language Learning in a Service Learning Group."
In addition to Edwards, Psychology, Sociology and Counseling faculty who traveled to Panama included Dr. Jerry Barnett, Dr. Roger Neustadter and Dr. Ryan Wessell.
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