Students Carry the University’s Mission to Guatemala

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Graduate students in Speech Pathology gain real-world experience during a unique study-abroad opportunity that combines classroom learning, practical experience and service to others. 

This unique initiative began in 2009 when Nancy Colodny, Ed.D., C.C.C.-S.L.P., an Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, decided to give her students a first-hand opportunity to witness the need for efficient medical care, treatment and supplies in an area different from anything they’d ever experienced.

For the past five years, children at an orphanage in rural Guatemala have benefited from the expertise of this compassionate professor who specializes in speech disorders. She and her students volunteer there for 10 days each May to help children whose health problems hinder their ability to swallow.

The hands-on experience is part of her graduate-level course, Management of Pediatric Dysphagia in a Developing Country. The class represents a collaboration between the Offices of Academic Service-Learning and Global Studies. 

"Our goal is to develop a learning community,” said Colodny. “Our students learn theories and practical applications and serve as role models for the hospital staff by demonstrating the correct feeding practices for infants.” 

She noted that the students who go to Guatemala see medical conditions and practices they may not encounter in this country. Children at the orphanage are at risk for dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which can lead to malnutrition, choking and pneumonia.

“This program is geared towards those individuals who aim to achieve practical skills in the theories of early intervention and patho-physiology,” she explained. “It is a wonderful opportunity for the students to integrate theory and practice and learn the importance of making recommendations with limited equipment, supplies and staffing constraints.”

According to Colodny, the program will help students foster their skills as future Speech Pathologists and obtain positions in hospitals, clinics, outpatient centers, private practices and schools. Speech Pathologists are experienced in diagnosing and treating feeding and swallowing problems as well as a variety of speech-language and communication problems across the lifespan.

Students often join Colodny to duplicate their experience in to Guatemala during the year. While this provides a valuable experience for the students, she noted that the greatest benefit is for the facility’s patients and staff. In the midst of their day, students not only assist with feeding, but also change diapers, wash dishes, mop floors and help in any way they can. They also spend time interacting with the children, most of whom have very little human contact.

Students agreed that while it might be initially disheartening to meet so many children facing complex health issues, there were many happy moments and small victories. Elena Damiani ’14G recalled a nine year-old boy named Henry whom everyone believed had limited communication skills.

One day, she recalled, "Henry said, 'Hola,' and I was in shock. Then he asked, 'How are you?' in English, and I called everyone over. It was amazing to discover that he could speak Spanish and English. There were other children who couldn't speak as well as Henry, but could communicate in their own way."

Since the opportunities for service in Guatemala began, Colodny has brought over 800 specialized spoons, therapeutic feeding bottles and a variety of other needed items to the facility. She also has participated in fundraising to purchase special medical equipment such as pulse oximeters and suction machines.

She applauds the University for its extensive support of the program. 

"The beauty of it is the collaboration between Global Studies and Academic Service-Learning,” she said. “Both offices have embraced the program and have asked me to give presentations. It's wonderful to have that kind of support, and the students feel that as well."