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San Diego State University


Cinthya Hernandez

Summer Immersion Reflections

Summer 2016

I did my undergrad studies at SDSU as a double major in psychology and Spanish. When I was close to graduating, I knew I wanted to work in education. I had worked as part of a program called “Gear Up” that services students in City Heights. We helped students starting in 6th grade and all the way to high school. We did advising, talked about college, trained them for exams, talked with the parents. I knew I wanted to work with students after this, and I realized school psychology was a way to do that. The students I started with as 6th graders there have just graduated from high school. So I really got to see these students grow, the continuum, and that was something special.


Stretching my critical thinking

I think all my immersion experiences were very valuable. The most meaningful one for me was my first year, in Mérida, Yucatán, because we were placed in a special ed school. In the U.S., students might be in a special ed class within a public school. But in Mexico, students go to a school specifically for them. These students are usually the ones with more severe disabilities. I’d never worked with students like this, so experiencing this in my first year made me think about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. A lot of the classes were for very low-functioning kids, and it helped me learn a lot. I learned how to be flexible, to understand that not every student will respond the same way. And I learned that with these developmental disabilities, you need to think outside the box and address the unique needs of the student to succeed academically, socially, developmentally. It stretched my critical thinking in school psychology. Of course, you generally think about the student who needs help in math or reading . . . but we need to stretch to think about what students in this population really need, on an individual basis.



I remember one girl named Cielo who was identified as being on the autism spectrum. She was so amazing. We did different interventions to help her express herself better because she was nonverbal. She’d cry or yell or make loud sounds that distracted her classmates. So we came up with a communication system to help her. It had different pictures that you could put on a piece of Velcro. We placed it all within reach of the student. If Cielo wanted food, she could grab that image, and put it next to the image of speaking, and this gave her a voice, a way of asking for food. We weren’t able to change things completely, but she was definitely starting to use it.

She used to cry when she wanted her water, and the water had to be kept up on a shelf. Early on, we didn’t know why she was crying. I remember how she put the water image next to the speaking image on the Velcro, and she smiled really big. That moment was so amazing. We also got to work very closely with her mom, her dad and siblings. We had a birthday party for her, and they brought food and a piñata and cake. I got to see that little, small change in her that was so amazing. And it was my first year on immersion, and I think that’s why I remember it so well.


Photo: Cielo using velcro board
 Photo:  This is Cielo in front of a visual schedule we helped the teacher incorporate into her classroom. Cielo was an amazing student who helped me learn so much about her own individual needs and successes. This picture was taken after she had helped us remove all the happy faces from that day’s visual schedule. (Mérida, Yucatán 2014)



Remembering that we’re all human

Something in Mexico that was different, that I loved, was how there’s such a loving environment and a connection between teachers and students. The teachers use words like “mijo” and “cariño” to the students, and they hug them, and they knew them their whole life story. They know each child’s mom and dad and all their siblings. We don’t see that in the U.S., and we’re told not to touch students and not to hug them unless they’re really young.

In Mérida, the students are hugged so much, and you just wouldn’t see this in the U.S. I come from a Mexican family where we show lots of love and affection, so it’s hard for me not to do that, because Americans see it as unprofessional. But in Mexico, you love your students, and you let them know and feel it. That’s a real difference between our cultures. So when I become a school psychologist, I’ll need to be very straightforward with my students. Depending on the child’s age, I would need to ask, “Do you want a hug right now? Would that make you feel better?” Not just go ahead and hug without asking. Still, we need to remember that we’re human, and it’s OK for us to let kids know that we feel along with them, and we care for them. I think I’m a very loving person, and I do get connected. I connect with my students a lot. I think I’ve learned how to still show care and love for the students I work with, without crossing the line.


Working with all kinds of kids

I love working with older kids — middle or high school — because I can have a conversation with them. We can talk about emotions, social interactions, stuff like that. Meaningful conversations. This last year in practicum, I was placed in both a middle and elementary school. The little ones are very funny. They have lots of things to say, and they are very loving. They want to please you and make you happy. They care about what you think, as an adult. So I definitely prefer middle and high school for conversations, but I love the little ones, too.

I also enjoy working with kids who are moderate to severe developmentally delayed or who have a significant learning disability. I learned this from my first immersion, where we worked at the school for these students in Merida. They are so willing to learn, and they are the students who take the longest to meet their goals. They definitely move the slowest. But when they do achieve any kind of goal, it’s the most exciting thing in the world. I loved getting to be with them, seeing them smile, and I think they’ve shown me the most love.

In my family, I have a sister and a brother who have learning disabilities. I go with my mother to my little sister’s IEP meetings now, and I know what they’re talking about, so my mom loves it that I’m able to go with her and explain, and help with different types of interventions.


Photo: Class picture, Querétaro 2016, Picture with one of the classes we worked with during the summer in Colegio Girasol (1st grade). They showed us so much love since the first day. I will always remember their warmth and funny personalities.


Understanding and valuing teachers

From my immersion experiences, I learned a lot about teacher interaction. How to go into a classroom and not assume anything about the teacher . . . how to let them know you’re there to help, not that you know everything. I learned things like the importance of collaboration with the teachers, and with everyone in the school — how to make that relationship grow.

If someone came to my school and came into my classroom, I’d be anxious. “Are they going to judge my teaching style?” We’re there not to judge. We need to keep an open mind, and not make them uncomfortable. So I learned to value the teachers. They do so much, and I don’t think teachers get valued the way they should. I got to practice making myself approachable: How do I guide them without giving answers? How do I become a person they can rely on but not feel that I’m telling them what to do because I know best? I want to understand that they have so much on their plate, and if a student is falling behind and they don’t notice it, how can I help the student and the teacher in the best way without making anyone uncomfortable.


Preserving local culture

During immersion, we go on excursions or outings to local areas. In 2016, we went to a town called Hñahñu. A university was started in this town for local people. They can earn certificates or diplomas, then be able to start a business — run a little store, or raise pigs or chickens for profit. It’s intended to keep the young people there, in the town. so they don’t go to the U.S. or leave for the city to look for work. They’re trying to create enrichment of the Hñahñu culture by providing people with the skills to make a profit for their families to sell goods locally.



Photo: A little glimpse of the Hñahñu Colegio museum. This museum showcases different indigenous cultures and their costumes, to bring awareness and pride.

Let’s say their family makes pottery; they’ll teach them how to make it profitable so they can stay in their town. They’re working to preserve their culture. We got a chance to interact with the students there, and see how they value their indigenous culture and how they understand that attending this school will benefit them. They have to pay for this program, and it’s worth it to them. They take classes in their indigenous language, and they teach their culture to young ones. And they perform plays locally and in different universities, to help others learn about their culture.


Photo: This is a picture of a beautiful Cenote known to have healing powers. We were all enjoying a swim in this amazing cave. (Yucatán 2014)


Cultural awareness

Immersion gives you a lot of hands-on experience instead of just book theory. For instance, being able to learn about and really see the different Mexican cultures. Mexico is vast, and there are so many indigenous communities. Immersion gives you the experience to learn about these different people and meet real families. People get so caught up with the cookie cutter idea. “Oh, they’re from Mexico.” As if they’re all the same. But having this experience helped me understand that the students I work with who are from Mexico may well come from very different cultures. I’ll know now that I should ask questions of them instead of assuming I know what their culture is about.

Even within the big cities in Mexico, you’ll find families who live there who are indigenous. You’ll see them out in the streets selling their handmade shirts, or dolls, toys, handicrafts. They sell these things to tourists or people who live in the city. Their kids might go to school only part time, because they can’t afford more. That’s an example of knowing the culture. You can’t assume that everyone from Oaxaca is the same. You have to be aware of the difference in opportunity.

As a school psychologist, I’ll be better prepared to know what questions to ask. For instance, “Did you have access to education?” Every student is so different, and I’ll take it with me to ask those questions and be more aware. I don’t think I can ever be culturally competent in every situation, but I can be culturally aware. And that’s important.



Photo: CAM classroom
Photo: CAM Classroom in Mérida, Yucatán 2014. This was a preschool and kindergarten mix classroom for students with high needs. Most of the students were non-verbal and required a lot of assistance. Pictured here is also Cielo’s mother. She would occasionally stay, along with other moms, to help the teacher.


Grateful for my Spanish

I’m the oldest of 5 kids. My parents are from Guadalajara, and I was born there. I remember going to school there, but not too much detail. We moved to the U.S. when I was 6. I remember it so well, when my American teacher would say, “OK now we’re going to switch to Spanish,” or “Now it’s time to speak English.” Then one year, she said we couldn’t speak Spanish any more, and I went home to tell my mom. I was so new to this country, and this proposition had passed, so there was no Spanish in schools.

I remember all of it very well. My parents worked so hard to try to teach us English. They’d show us TV cartoons in English. This was my mom’s way of supporting and helping us. Today, I speak, read, and write fluently in Spanish. My parents didn’t let us lose our Spanish in the home, and I’m very grateful that I kept my Spanish. It only took me only about a year to learn English because I was so young. By second grade or so I was already speaking English, but I’d still always speak Spanish at home.


Immersion wisdom

On the grant, you end the school year, and then it continues with the one month of being away — and it’s not a vacation. Some students might think this is too much work, and they don’t want to put themselves through that. But this immersion part of the grant is so valuable. You learn so much more by putting yourself out there and being vulnerable and open to a new environment. I really didn’t know what to expect. You learn so much about yourself. I always reflect on this every year, afterwards: How much did I actually help them, versus how much they helped me. And it’s always 100 percent more them helping me. It’s important just knowing that and being aware of that and humble about that. Immersion is only a month, and you can only do so much, but it’s what you take away from it and how you have grown that has the impact.

Carol has been my mentor. She’s all about energy and how you communicate your energy, how you give it out to others. She’s always very calm and she does a very good job of being committed to doing what she says she’s going to do. Especially as a third year student, working so closely under Carol’s supervision, her positivity and her energy made me really think about how I come across to others. She makes you feel welcome and understood and listened to. I learned so much from her . . . seeing how she speaks to principals and teachers, having that responsibility. Supervising all of these 20-something students in a school you don’t know, and making the school feel comfortable. That collaboration she has with teachers and staff and administration. Really. I was taking notes!


Future plans

In the future, I’m planning to stay here in San Diego. I’m a big family person, so it’s important to be close. My family is in Temecula, only 45 minutes away. I’ll be in San Marcos my internship year, and I’m excited with my placement and so excited to learn so much more. That is my plan, and I’m hoping my first position will be in San Diego county, as well.

Photo: Cinthya and kids"As a school psychologist, I’ll be better prepared to know what questions to ask.

"For instance, 'Did you have access to education?”' Every student is so different, and I’ll take it with me to ask those questions and be more aware.

"I don’t think I can ever be culturally competent in every situation, but I can be culturally aware. And that’s important."