As soon as I spoke with the Jamaica Field Service Project representative at my university's study abroad fair, I knew the program was the perfect choice. As a freshman communication sciences and disorders major, I was intrigued at the possibility of being a volunteer literacy and English teacher in rural areas of Jamaica. Soon after, I found myself in Boston Bay, Jamaica, with a backpack full of books and art supplies, and a lot of uncertainty. Did I really know enough to teach someone else? Was I really going to make an impact?
It did not take long to realize that yes, we were making a difference. With the education level in this area well below the national average, we—even with minimal college-level courses—could have substantial impact. The teachers and students showed their gratitude through chorus performances, certificates of appreciation, homemade jewelry, special lunches and many letters. Given the length of the trip—two weeks—we didn't really see significant positive outcomes. However, we gave the students additional one-on-one or small-group help, and we gave the teachers additional supplies and strategies to use. Most important, the children learned that reading and learning can be fun.
I remember meeting a young girl who, upon our introduction, without hesitation ran over to me, hugged my arm, and squealed with glee. I soon realized that she was completely nonverbal. She reminded me of a boy, also nonverbal, whom I met as an aide in a summer program for preschoolers with special needs. Hearing him speak his first true word, and knowing I had played a role in that accomplishment, was the exact moment that I knew definitively that I wanted to be a speech-language pathologist.
We hadn't known we might see students in Jamaica with special needs; there, they were fully integrated into an age-matched classroom with no specialty services. This girl was the most striking example of the need for special education in Jamaica, but a number of students I worked with likely had a learning disability or other significant diagnosis. I am sure our effect on these children was less than on the other students. Teachers focused mostly on behavior management for the children with special needs—the classroom environment, lack of structure and limited knowledge of special education made it difficult for the students to access the curriculum.
Any complaint about my trip to Jamaica (for example, the heat and inevitable sunburn, the dirt floor in my hut, cold-water showers, and spiders the size of dinner plates) is instantly nullified by the unforgettable outcomes. Never before had I met such appreciative and enthusiastic children. I could never have anticipated that a sharpened pencil with an eraser or a simple piece of lined paper would be so valued and desired that it would cause arguments among the kids; or that a letter "H" coloring sheet, a few crayons and the reading of "A House for Hermit Crab" could cause even sixth-graders to be so elated. I doubt many of the children even realized that they were not only playing or having fun, but that they were also learning sound-letter correspondence and phonemic awareness, and gaining the general foundations of literacy development.
It was not until I reached the graduate level, however, that I was able to fully appreciate the situation in Jamaica and the extent of what I learned. My current clinical placement at a public school in Massachusetts has given me a new perspective. The shortage of SLPs and special education resources, and the pressing financial circumstances in our country are recognized nationwide, but the availability of services here is still extraordinary in comparison to many other places. All too often, we take our assets for granted. I am emphatically grateful for my future career and the potential of the many people that our profession can affect.
As much as we, as students and clinicians, learn about cultures from textbooks and lectures, nothing can compare to experiencing a multifaceted cultural immersion and volunteering first-hand, and I confidently encourage anyone to participate in service learning.
I have every intention of returning to Jamaica, armed with new knowledge and skills and more motivation than ever. It is difficult to put into words how much I was affected by this opportunity. Experiences that allow you to wholeheartedly acknowledge, "That changed my life!" do not come often. I will be forever grateful that this one did.