Erica Holmes, PsyD, core faculty in the MA in Clinical Psychology, Trauma Studies Specialization led a study abroad this September to South Africa. It was the inaugural trip of what will be a yearly study abroad offering of a 3-unit immersive course for the specialization. Holmes designed the course to give students the opportunity to look at the lasting impacts of race-based oppression and to examine its impact on individuals and communities in terms of their struggles and their capacity for resilience.
The seed inspiration for The Legacy of Race-Based Trauma: Intergenerational Trauma Transmission and Community Resilience Study Abroad was planted early on in Holmes’ career as an academic lecturer and practicing clinical psychologist. She has been researching and working in trauma psychology and focusing on the intersectionality of trauma and race since 1996. When she was a student and early on in her career there was only one clinical text on trauma, Trauma, and Recovery by Judith Hermann, published in 1992. PTSD had just begun to be recognized as a civilian population experience as symptoms were officially recorded only as a military phenomenon post-Vietnam War until its inclusion in the DSM III in 1980. However, she and others working with black communities were seeing a pattern of cases of childhood trauma, PTSD symptoms, and addiction. Holmes’ dissertation was titled, “Unresolved Childhood Trauma and Crack Cocaine Use in African American Women.” While considering the development of a trauma psychology-focused study abroad course, Holmes wanted to create an experience for students that would be immersive. “What would take them beyond the core courses?” she said. “For many the studies can be very abstract.”
Her choice of South Africa as a destination was based on the similar histories of the United States and South Africa. Because South Africa is twenty-five years post-Apartheid and The US is fifty-years post-segregation, she saw an opportunity for students to interact with trauma patterns at an earlier (in some cases) stage of development, and to use the knowledge gained from the experience to help contextualize the behavior, symptoms, and identities of clients they might see in therapy in the US. The group observed both strong similarities and differences in the atmosphere and circumstances of the two countries as they struggle towards desegregation and equality. “On this trip, we found that there are a lot of black and colored communities fraught with high crime, unemployment, and substance abuse— which was not surprising… although segregation is not legal, those in political power control the economy and blacks are still struggling for economic equality,” Holmes said. “ However, because of the Reconciliation Act which was immediately effective after Apartheid was dismantled, in some ways they’ve come further than us in terms of healing over a much shorter span of time. They were given the opportunity to face their oppressor from a legal standpoint for crimes committed, which goes a long way in terms of perpetrator and abuser healing.” Holmes also pointed out that South Africa immediately elected their first black president after Apartheid, Nelson Mandela, whereas it took the US forty long years after segregation to elect Barack Obama.
This trip, because it was the first and they were determining the crucial elements of future trips, took sixteen days in addition to the three 2.5 hour pre-class preparatory meetings over the summer. Future trips will be boiled down to 10-11 days but will include all of the important points of the first. “We packed everything into this trip,” Holmes said. They visited three community-based agencies, including an orphanage where they were able to talk in small groups with the children about their challenges and their sources of strength. “Everyone was holding a baby by the end of that visit,” Holmes said. “It was incredibly touching.” They also visited the psychology departments of two universities, including Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU), where the head of the department spoke to them on programming they are developing around “reenvisioning psychology through an African lens.” On future trips, they will also visit various museums and landmarks such as Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
How did students feel about the experience?
“During and after the trip, students talked about grappling with their feelings of being a minority for the first time,” Holmes said. “Much of their experience was very emotional- seeing the remnants of apartheid. They were inspired and moved by the joy and resilience they saw in people, many of whom had very limited financial resources. They also said that the beauty of Cape Town was a highlight, and discussed their amazement at the similarities between the histories of the U.S. and South Africa. It was a life-changing experience, which they experienced with their whole person- emotionally spiritually, and mentally.”
by Malia Gaffney