From the language barrier to schools without walls, there were many acoustic and auditory challenges for the speech-language pathology students of Fontbonne University when they traveled to Costa Rica. The service trips opened their eyes to universal speech and hearing needs. "It gave me a global perspective on the profession. There are children everywhere who need speech pathologists," said Emily Hu, MA, CCC-SLP, a 2010 graduate.
Fontbonne University in St. Louis has a rich history of service and a connection to Costa Rica that made the service opportunity a great match. Costa Rican speech and hearing professionals have been coming to the university for graduate studies since 2009. In 2010, Susan Lenihan, Ph.D., CED, professor and director of deaf education, applied for a grant to take a small group of speech pathology and deaf education students to Costa Rica. The following year, a second group of students traveled to Costa Rica, and there are plans for another trip in 2013.
The first year, the selection process was rather informal, consisting of students who spoke Spanish and showed an interest. "It was exciting because it was new," remarked Hu. In 2010, Lenihan went with 6 Fontbonne students, one of whom was a Costa Rican native whose family they stayed with. Those students reviewed the application essays and selected the group that traveled to Costa Rica in 2011. One of those was Monica Doerr, MS, CCC-SLP. She said, "I was drawn to the location and the culture. It combined what I loved doing as a profession with a once in a life-time opportunity"
Preparations for the trip began long before leaving St. Louis. "Another student and I paired up and were in charge of gathering therapy materials," said Hu. We lugged two extra suitcases full of materials." These included handouts to give to professionals and parents and therapy materials like games and puzzles and books they could use during therapy. Other students collected assessment tools for Costa Rican hearing care professionals.
Children with speech and hearing difficulties in Costa Rica have a variety of options for treatment, but it is not as readily accessible as it is in the US. For example, when the first group visited, universal hearing screenings for infants were just beginning to get off the ground. There was a strong emphasis on inclusive education; 6 of the children at an early education center Lenihan and the students visited were deaf. The Fontbonne students got the chance to observe how service delivery and deaf education worked in another country.
One notable difference was the prevalence of cochlear implants in Costa Rica. Doerr noticed that they are not as common as they are in the U.S. At a school for deaf children, signing was the preferred method of communication. There are simply not as many surgeons or audiologists, but the use of cochlear implants is on the rise. Dr. Lenihan gave presentations to two universities and met with the cochlear implant team at a local hospital.
Challenges and Commitments
On both trips, the students conducted hearing and cognition screenings at both a child care center and a school for children with disabilities. Doerr estimates her group screened about 75 children. She called it an "acoustic nightmare." Between open-air classrooms without ceilings and highway traffic, finding a quiet space for hearing screenings was a challenge. At the main stream school they offered consultations to the teachers. "It was gratifying and humbling that they [teachers] were eager to learn from us even though we were students," remarked Hu. When they returned to the US, they continued the conversations over Skype.
Parents were also hungry for new information. At parents' night a question and answer session revealed that parents' desire for their children to succeed is universal, but success can depend on what resources are available. Hu said, "Parents want so much for their children but there are so many hoops to jump through." Access was another challenge. "We can do our best job but can only do so much," remarked Doerr. "Can kids make follow-up appointments or pay if they need more help?" One lesson Hu learned was to not take for granted the resources hearing care professionals on the US have at their disposal.
The Costa Rican trips firmed up the Fontbonne students' commitment to their chosen profession. "It was just phenomenal working with these kids," Doerr said. She advised current students who have the opportunity to do anything in their power to go. For her part, Hu said the trip reinforced her desire to work with deaf children. "The service experience has made me a better professional. It really changed my perspective."
Photos courtesty of Susan Lenihan.
Danielle Bullen is on staff at ADVANCE and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org