After growing up in a tiny Louisiana town of 300 residents, Jorge Verlenden found herself on Cairo's teeming, traffic-choked streets when her husband took a teaching position at the American University there. She didn't speak Arabic, but she was determined to know the local community beyond the university walls.
"I was 24 years old and felt overwhelmed at first in this huge city of more than 20 million people," she says. "Cultural adaptation is challenging for anyone, and feeling frustrated or confused is part of that process."
Verlenden dove right in, learning Arabic with a tutor and teaching English to refugee children who had fled conflicts in Somalia and Ethiopia. Later, she taught English for a year at international schools in Jordan before returning to Cairo in 2003, where she worked for eight years as an instructor and researcher for a local teacher training project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Those international experiences fueled Verlenden's interest in preventive programs for children with academic or behavioral problems, ultimately leading to Tulane University, where she is now a third-year doctoral student in developmental psychology. "Working overseas informed my worldview and larger career goals," she says. "It also helped me be a more sensitive professional. I've worked with a lot of different types of people and individuals with extraordinary needs."
As it has been for Verlenden, international service can be a transformative experience for psychology graduate students and early career psychologists. Finding an overseas assignment takes initiative, but there are many organizations that are looking for help across the globe. Some grants or awards also can help with travel and living expenses. Here's how.
Ask around at your university
Faculty members or researchers with an international focus can be valuable contacts with leads for work at organizations such as the United Nations, World Health Organization, the Peace Corps or Save the Children, advises Bonnie Nastasi, PhD, a Tulane University psychology professor who has done research in Sri Lanka and India. Many universities also have international offices that coordinate study-abroad programs or shorter service trips for undergraduate or graduate students.
Some universities and professional psychology schools require international service as part of their graduate programs, including the Latino Mental Health and Global Mental Health programs at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. "It's definitely an important component of our students' training for them to experience what it is like to work in another country and be immersed in the cultural fabric of that society," says psychology professor Gemima St. Louis, PhD. Students in the program must complete one-month clinical assignments in Ecuador and Costa Rica, where they live with host families and work with local mental health professionals.
St. Louis also takes graduate students to Haiti for weeklong mental health care training trips. The program is an outgrowth of her work as president of the Haitian Mental Health Network in Boston. The organization sent mental health professionals to Haiti in 2010 to help residents cope after the massive earthquake that killed more than 85,000 people and left wide swaths of the country in rubble.
"No matter where you live, having access to culturally sensitive mental health care should be a human right," St. Louis says. "Students are sometimes nervous or apprehensive about how they will be received on the trip. They often come back transformed and feeling even more rejuvenated, and their work becomes a passion."
Do your research
Find out more about any potential international organization by doing research online, including through Guidestar and Charity Navigator, which provide ratings and financial information for various nonprofit organizations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has health advisories and vaccination lists for countries across the world. The State Department website also issues important travel alerts that warn of security concerns in various countries, including civil war, persistent crime or terrorist threats.
People considering an overseas assignment need to take those security concerns very seriously, says Chris Stout, PsyD, a University of Illinois, Chicago, psychiatry professor and founding director of the Center for Global Initiatives, which sponsors health-care programs for underserved communities in Bolivia, Tanzania and India. "People need to have their eyes wide open about the risks," he says. "Many people go in with strong passions and the best intentions, but they blind themselves to the risks."
During his work in Cambodia, Uzbekistan and China, early-career psychologist George Hu, PsyD, says he never felt in danger, but he always informed the U.S. embassy of his whereabouts and was deferential to local government officials and powerful people. In Uzbekistan, he was detained for several hours at a police station simply because he had registered to stay at one hotel but then decided to stay elsewhere. He paid a fine even though he thought it was unfair so he could continue working at a transitional housing center for adults with developmental disabilities.
While studying for his doctoral degree at Alliant University in San Francisco, Hu established contacts that led to a seven-month hospital internship in the Shaanxi province of China, where he treated patients and taught seminars. That experience led to other contacts and to his current position as a psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital.
Hu says he never felt more American than when he first traveled to China, even though he speaks Chinese and his parents lived in China and Taiwan before immigrating to the United States. He has become more attuned to local customs and plans on remaining in China with his wife and 3-year-old son because there are many opportunities for psychologists in an expanding field. "I feel a connection and responsibility toward this land of my ancestors," he says. "I enjoyed a lot of privilege growing up in the United States, and I want to give back to people in need who haven't had the same opportunities."
Hu says he was lucky to find international assignments that covered most of his expenses, but financial help is sometimes available for students and early career psychologists who want to head overseas.
For an international assignment, the biggest financial hurdle may be travel expenses, since the cost of living is often low in underdeveloped countries, Stout says. Many programs offer little or no pay but may provide assistance with local housing. Fly for Good provides discounted international airfare for people involved in nonprofit humanitarian work, along with an online platform for crowd-funding travel expenses through tax-deductible donations from donors. The Center for Global Initiatives also provides a helpful online list of grants, fund-raising options and social media promotion tools.
Funding is also available from APA's Div. 52 (International), which offers an international research award for psychology graduate students, along with travel and research grants for early career professionals. The division's website includes an information clearinghouse about fellowships, travel awards and other resources. The American Psychological Foundation also offers various grants and scholarships for graduate students and early-career psychologists.
Another key resource is APA's Office of International Affairs, which offers an online list of scholarships and grants, along with directories of international psychology organizations that may provide contacts or leads about overseas assignments.
Although it may take some digging to secure the right opportunity, those who have done international work say it can be career changing. "International service broadens your perspective about cultural differences and how we apply psychology across cultures," Nastasi says. "It's made me think more about the meaning of culture and how we define and assess it during research or work with clients."
International service resources
Looking for some international experience? Check out these resources:
- APA Division of International Psychology (Div. 52): Online clearinghouse of information on fellowships, travel awards, etc.
- APA Office of International Affairs: Online directories of international psychology organizations and other resources.
- Center for Global Initiatives: Information on international health-care programs and funding resources.
- Fly for Good: Discounted international airfare for people doing non-profit humanitarian work.
- Guidestar and Charity Navigator: Ratings of nonprofit organizations, including financial information.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Health advisories and vaccination lists for worldwide travel.
- U.S. State Department: Travel warnings and alerts about security concerns in various countries.
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