Students Return To Their Roots

Two USF grads return to their Caribbean homelands to introduce psychological services in their public school systems.



By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (July 28, 2010) – Two USF students – Leeza Rooks from Trinidad and Kristelle Malval from Haiti – who are graduating this summer from USF’s College of Education with specialist degrees in school psychology are returning to their Caribbean homes to face a common, daunting challenge.


They want to use their expertise to help students struggling with any number of learning, emotional or behavioral challenges stunting their education find success.


For both Rooks and Malval, however, the task is enormous. Unlike in the United States where psychological services are integrated into the public school framework, there are no school psychologists in the public systems in either country. Compounding the issue is the fact that the role of psychology, in general, is poorly understood.


“Seeking out psychological services is regarded as ‘taboo’ in both our countries,” said Malval.


Rooks and Malval spent the last three years at the University of South Florida preparing to change that.


After earning master’s degrees, they continued with additional coursework and research, completed year-long internships in the Psychological Services Department of Broward County Schools, and as a final step toward earning their specialists certifications, completed and presented empirical theses. Along the way, as the only international students in their cohort and with similar career goals, Caribbean roots, energy and determination, they became close colleagues and friends.


Rooks’ interest in a career working with special needs students began at home. Because of the lack of services in Trinidad, when her younger brother was struggling in school her mother brought him to the United States for evaluation. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, and her mother learned how to work with him to implement the necessary interventions that eventually enabled him to succeed in school.

According to Rooks, her personal experience is far from the norm.

“In Trinidad, even though there are clinical psychologists in private practice, services are essentially unreachable for the students who need them most. Either parents can’t afford them or they don’t understand how to get help,” Rooks said.

Rooks wants to bring attention to the idea that it’s important to offer these services in the public system where they are accessible to all students. She believes that with the current atmosphere of optimism pervading Trinidad following the election of the country’s first female prime minister – who is a former minister of education – the timing for such change couldn’t be better.

“Education is now coming more to the forefront,” she said, “and I hope to connect with the right people in the new government to facilitate change.”

In Haiti, education has long been regarded as a pathway out of poverty. Yet, the national school system was among the poorest in the world long before this year’s catastrophic earthquake. Today, while many schools have cleared away debris and classes have resumed, albeit largely in tents, Malval said that one of the greatest challenges is students’ inability to concentrate.

“While there are a lot of people trying to help, not a lot has changed in the last six months. Many people are still sleeping in cars because they’re afraid to go back into buildings,” she said, adding that post-traumatic stress syndrome is rampant.

Similar to Rooks, Malval’s original plan was to work with the public school system to begin making psychological services available to all children. And while she still intends to pursue that as a long-term goal, currently she is focused on helping meet more immediate needs.

For example, with students in Haiti attending school throughout the summer to make up for lost time after the earthquake, Malval and several cousins initiated a project to give children and adolescents an opportunity to express themselves creatively through drawing, painting, and acting. “We are trying to break their daily routine and give them something to look forward to while, at the same time, giving them a way to express their worries, sadness, joys and hopes in a productive way.” The goal is to identify the students who could benefit from additional services.

“The College of Education is proud to have the effects of our School Psychology Graduate Training Program reach so broadly,” said Shannon Suldo, associate professor of school psychology, and major professor for both students. “Kristelle and Leeza will be able to contribute to the training of other mental health professionals in their countries, which is sorely needed given the shortage of school psychologists in these countries.”

By providing one-on-one support, Rooks and Malval know they can make a difference in the lives of young people. But it’s also the first step towards even bigger change.

“If you want to make a difference in the future of a country, you need to start with education,” said Rooks.

“Education, as well as children and adolescents’ overall well being are key, particularly in a country where everything needs to be rebuilt,” said Malval. “The future of Haiti will depend on these youth, and I think that it's important to start early if we really want to see a positive and long-lasting change.”

Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.