It’s nearly eight thousand miles as the crow flies from Keene, New Hampshire, to Soweto, South Africa, but the emotional distance can feel even wider.
PsyD students from Antioch University New England (AUNE) who have worked in Soweto with Susan Hawes, professor of clinical psychology, feel that emotional distance viscerally. For the third summer, Hawes and several of her students spent three weeks in August providing psychological assessments of HIV-positive children for Cotlands, a home-based care program in Soweto, a suburb of South Africa’s most populous city, Johannesburg. The AUNE students lived in a second-floor apartment, with young HIV-positive orphans living below, and in an orphanage where many Cotlands children move once they are old enough to attend school.
Vince Pignatiello, in his fifth year at AUNE, was one of those students. “What was striking to me was not that there was such abject poverty symbolized by the makeshift townships of metal shacks, but that the gap between living in poverty and living comfortably was so cavernous,” he said. “Next to some of these townships were multimillion-dollar malls. My thought was that, had one of the children whom we tested been born across the street, his or her life would be exponentially different.”
That divide also shocked Margaret Podkova, a third-year student. Yet she was also impressed by the strength of the Sowetans. “Wherever we went, we were welcomed with warmth and gratitude,” she said.
Hawes first visited South Africa to attend international psychology conferences in 2005. “I was inspired by being a witness to the eleventh year of South Africa’s democracy, and by the country’s history and beauty,” she said. “The psychologists there seemed more politically engaged than we were.”
AUNE Advocates for Education Help
The Community Outreach Program of Cotlands, the nonprofit agency with which the AUNE group works, provides home-based care services for HIV-positive South African children who are living with their mothers or other relatives in the communities of Soweto. Hawes and her students visit the children in their homes to assess their learning abilities and personalities. They use a battery of culturally sensitive tests compiled by Hawes. Cotlands uses its assessment reports to advocate for appropriate educational support for the children.
“Most of these children are orphans,” said Hawes. “What’s common is an elder looking after their grandchild, their own children have died from AIDS.
“Poverty, trauma, and HIV have been shown to have a major impact on cognitive and psychological-social development. And the school system in Soweto tends not to attend to kids who are not learning. So we try to help those children by identifying their strengths and weaknesses and making recommendations for their needs.”
The AUNE group helps in other ways. Beth Ketaineck, a fourth-year PsyD student who went to Soweto two years ago, told how their team raised money before they went to buy supplies for the children living in the orphanage where they were staying. They bought outdoor play equipment, books, and games for more than twenty orphans ages seven to twenty-one. Also, “the staff in the children’s cottages didn’t even have first aid kits for simple emergencies. So we bought them first aid kits, just a basic need,” Ketaineck said.
‘They Just Wanted to Be Loved’
Hawes’ students gain valuable professional experience. Performing assessments for the children brought home the cultural aspect of psychological testing to Podkova. South Africa has ten official languages in addition to English, and Sowetan primary-school children are taught in their own indigenous languages. So the AUNE students relied on the services of translators to communicate. “However, the cultural aspects as well as linguistic demands still posed difficulties,” Podkova said. “I learned that it is vital to know the cultural background as well as the degree of familiarity with the American culture of our clients.”
But the experience also opened windows into their own lives. Given the atrocities of apartheid, the forgiveness and openness of many black South Africans toward white people amazed Pignatiello. “That helped me gain some perspective on my own hardships and struggles, my views of forgiveness and my own ethnic and racial identities,” he said. “I came back to the United States with a greater awareness of the impact that context plays in our lives as well as a greater appreciation for how some people react to and engage these contexts.”
“Hearing their stories and what they endured, I want to say they were heart-breaking, but they had such resilience,” Ketaineck said. “They were the happiest kids. I remember feeling so struck by that and that the littlest things were such a big deal to them. Really, they just wanted to be loved.”
Learn more about AUNE’s PsyD program here.