Like many psychologists now, I am spending my time at home, focused on a computer screen. I am talking with people I know well and care about tremendously, who are at a distance, and am seeing clients via the same small square on my lap or the table.
What is a little different for me is that many of the people I am “Zooming” with are in Haiti, part of a small college of social work there, and we have been communicating like this for a long time. What is unusual right now is that, in the past, our Zoom sessions were punctuated by my frequent visits to Haiti. I sorely miss being on our campus in person, meeting with staff at our outdoor table on the porch, having my teaching translated into Haitian Creole, speaking with our wonderful students as best I can in French.
Until the fall of 2016, my career as a psychologist was fairly conventional. I graduated from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (now William James College) in Boston in 1996, having loved working with kids and teens in South Boston. I then moved to Maine in 1998, worked at Pediatric Center for 12 years, where I chaired an Education and Training committee.
I then worked in private practice situations while developing a program offering workshops for clinicians in the community. Common themes were: work with children, women, families and teens; a focus on trauma and attachment issues, among many others; and a love of teaching and enhancing people’s clinical skills.
When my son was a senior in high school, knowing that I’d be an awful empty nester, I was shaken by a strong restlessness. I was the eldest daughter in an Air Force family and had the sense that I’d like to do some work overseas, where I’d spent much of my childhood. Spellbound at a conference in Colorado in the fall of 2016 (Trauma and Trust: Peacebuilding in Ruptured Social Systems), I asked an obvious question: How can I get started in this type of work? The answer: “Check out Idealist.org. They have many volunteer opportunities.” Within a week, I was responding to ads to teach in Liberia and Haiti. Haiti, being closer, became my chosen venture. I traveled to Haiti for the first time in March of 2017 and taught a two-week intensive course called, “Attachment: The Key Role of a Trusting Relationship in Infant/Child Development.”
It’s hard to describe the kaleidoscopic series of events that have taken me from first-time teacher in Haiti to, now, dean of a social work school. The images tumble in my mind in a way that defies the chronology: being struck over and over by the students’ intelligence, curiosity and passion for learning; sitting in meetings in French, translated for me by my close colleague in Haiti, at the Université Episcopale d’Haiti (UNEPH) in Port au Prince with four very demanding deans, as our proposal underwent a rugged critique; rushing to revise; and being accepted as an accredited campus of UNEPH in September of 2018.
It’s worth coming to a full stop here, as without this affiliation and accreditation – finalized in September of 2018 – the school would not have survived.
More memories and images: having a table full of students and staff laugh at me for suggesting that chicken bones might not be good for our campus dogs; learning that a student had decided that beating his nephew for misbehavior—expected of him as an eldest son – no longer seemed like a good idea; hearing incredible final project ideas from students’ close to graduation; meeting so many wonderful people who are now advisors, board members, volunteer professors, staff and students; helping to organize a social work conference on our campus in August 2019 with primarily Haitian professionals presenting, attended by more than 100 people.
The images exist also of difficulty and frustration: struggling to improve my French and sitting in so many situations, lost, with wonderful students and colleagues speaking Haitian Creole; dealing with the country’s lockdown in the fall due to political instability; and working now to further develop our distance learning program (using Zoom and Schoology) in the face of the pandemic; having to learn everything I can about running a very unconventional “business” and about fundraising, which is essential to our survival.
One of the best parts of this experience is the collaboration that is key. We have wonderful donors (and need more), wonderful professors (and need more) and wonderful board members (and need more). My husband, also a psychologist, is very involved with the school’s advanced students and is our board treasurer. Anyone interested in learning more and/or joining this effort is welcome to look at our website – http://ftshs.edu.ht – and contact me at email@example.com.
Sitting in my house in Maine, lucky to be with family, I am longing to go back to Haiti. I love the meals together with staff and professors, our planning, endless problem solving, working from morning until night and feeling moved by all of it. I know for certain that I learn more than I teach, that I get back more than I give. The color and humor and intelligence and connection I’ve encountered in Haiti are like no other I’ve ever known.
Miranda Phelps, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who lives in Waterville, ME. She has worked with children, adolescents, women, occasional men, and families for nearly 25 years and has organized educational programs in various settings.