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Leaving a Bright Spot: Practicing Therapeutic Arts with Underserved International Populations

Interns making art with children in Ghana

Interns lead a painting session in Ghana.

Stemming from her own experiences delivering art therapy workshops around the world, Ikuko Acosta, director of NYU Steinhardt’s Graduate Art Therapy program, and clinical associate professor, wanted to offer her students the invaluable experience of practicing art therapy internationally.

More than a decade ago, Acosta established a global internship program at Steinhardt to provide “the opportunity for students to develop racial and cultural self-awareness, work with diverse communities, hone critical thinking skills, and explore the role of art therapy in another culture.” Says alumna Krystal Atwood of her decision to enroll in the internship in Buenos Aires, “I wanted to learn everything I could to provide the most nuanced and culturally fluent art therapy services possible to a range of client populations.”

Coordinated in collaboration with several of NYU’s global sites, Acosta’s interns have practiced therapeutic arts in a wide array of foreign settings, including Florence, which welcomes its third cohort in July 2019. Some of this year’s group will serve a geriatric population that has worked with two different intern cohorts. Acosta recalled that this population was especially receptive to engagement in creative activities, noting “their facial expressions became cheerful, moods were boosted, and their social interactions improved.” In Accra, Ghana, students have worked at a rehabilitation center for young men with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities. A grouping, Acosta said, that contrasts with “facilities in the US where patients are usually separated based on the nature of their disabilities.” The men are also provided with “job training and various types of skills to survive in society” explained Acosta. During the three weeks that the men worked with interns, she emphasized that “they are not treated in a clinical sense, yet a very positive change can be seen in their self-esteem due to their increased ability to express themselves freely without being judged. Their general attitudes became more positive.”

Returning to NYU’s global sites offers faculty the opportunity to observe the long-term impacts of programs. In Ghana, when the van entered the driveway to the rehabilitation center one year later, Acosta and her students were greeted by shouts of “art therapy!” “And,” she added, “the young men went right back into making art as if they had done so yesterday.” When returning to the geriatric facility in Florence two years later, the demeanor of the residents immediately became “uplifted,” and they “even remembered the names of some interns from prior years,” providing “evidence,” that the “experiences were etched in their memories.” Acosta says that “while what we do may be little, at a basic human level, the experience leaves a bright and memorable spot in their minds.”

“There is an amazing resilience that each location reveals. The internship leads to a questioning of one’s values in a way that can’t be gained inside a classroom.”

Professor Ikuko Acosta

Indeed, Acosta notes that “the program is not geared toward addressing mental illness directly” and that “it would be unrealistic to treat a patient in three weeks.” Furthermore, she explained that “applying a western concept of art therapy to non-western societies can create tension with local attitudes around mental illness. And therapeutic techniques that are not adapted to the culture situate the therapist as a colonialist.” But while mental illness is viewed in various ways around the world, she emphasized that “the symptoms and behavioral manifestations of mental and psychological disturbances are very similar.  What differs are cultural attitudes and treatment.” Yet she has observed that art therapy brings together commonalities in international settings. “Art is universal and so too is human suffering.”

Regardless of location, Acosta says, art therapy students work to build a “human connection.” In every country in which the course has been held, Acosta has seen “students establish relationships despite not speaking the local language. They learn to become highly receptive and attuned to the subtleties of body language and other non-verbal cues.” She added that her students “thoroughly enjoy getting to know each client’s personality beyond his/her disability through creative communication.” Inevitably, explained Acosta, “basic human bonds are formed during experiences that are not bound by a singular form of expression. Connecting in this way is a universal phenomenon.”

Other skills that students quickly acquire, said Acosta, are “flexibility and adaptability, because their clinical training does not translate directly in foreign locations.” She went on to say that “outside of the US, concepts of boundaries between patient and client are much different, particularly those that are physical – it is common and natural for patients to openly and physically express affection to their therapists in many cultural contexts. Another example is corporal punishment, which seems to be an acceptable form of discipline in some countries.” Therapists in the US, Acosta explained, are trained to report signs of “abuse,” so it can be “difficult to set aside feelings of confusion about roles and responsibilities during the internship.”

Reflecting on her experiences in Buenos Aires, Atwood explained that she “felt humbled by the grace and dignity with which Dr. Acosta acknowledged our interpersonal struggles while maintaining hope for all of the involved parties and, ultimately, guiding the student interns toward providing life-changing art therapy services to the clients.” The level of care delivered by the interns is possible, says Acosta, because they “very quickly, learn to take a humanistic perspective and adapt to local mores.” “Interns observe, learn, and respect the host country and are not there to negate or impose their cultural norms,” she explained, and added that “after we leave, they resume their own lives, yet are instilled with memories of the brief but undeniable human connections that we all shared.”

A boy paints a cardboard puppet in Florence.

Creating stick puppets in Florence.

“Students also learn to adapt their planning process for clinical sessions,” said Acosta, as “they develop activities appropriate to the population […] and seek out locally available art materials.” During an early iteration of the program in India, coordinated by Cross-Cultural Solutions, a New York-based non-profit that provides volunteer service to communities around the world, Acosta said her students “found beautiful textiles with which they made dolls with women at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. They also collected many found objects from the streets, which they incorporated into a piece of artwork.” In Florence, a capital of the art world, “students find low cost materials at art stores and unusual items from junk shops.” Acosta elaborated that “these experiences too contribute to students’ creative growth and help them to become more flexible and less confined in their practice of art therapy.”

“Through exposure to how others survive amidst adversity,” Acosta noted, “with very limited resources and significant hardship, students gain a sense of humbleness.” For Atwood, her work with refugees and asylum seekers in Buenos Aires provided a glimpse into individuals’ experiences – many had fled war and violence, and struggled to live with uncertainty in the confines of refugee centers. During the internship, explained Krystal, she saw increases in “self-efficacy and a reduction of isolation as they connected with other refugees and asylum seekers in art therapy groups.”

“There is an amazing resilience that each location reveals,” said Acosta. “The internship leads to a questioning of one’s values in a way that can’t be gained inside a classroom. And that is essential as a therapist because personal value systems can’t be brought into clinical sessions.”

A Lab for Pedagogical Innovation: Doctoral Masterclasses at NYU Paris

Galichon teaching the masterclass

Galichon delivering a coding session.

Paris hosted its first-ever master class, math+econ+code Masterclass on Optimal Transport, Choice and Matching Models, delivered by Alfred Galichon, NYU Paris site director, and professor, Department of Economics and Mathematics, Courant Institute, in late June.

Interdisciplinary in nature, the five-day course focused on “models of demand, matching models, and optimal transport methods, with various applications pertaining to labor markets, the economics of marriage, industrial organization, matching platforms, networks, and international trade from the crossed perspectives of theory, empirics and computation.”

Interestingly, it is Paris’ world renowned cooking schools, such as Le Cordon Bleu and L’Atelier des Chefs, that inspired Galichon to take a new approach to the delivery of coding lessons. Galichon says his approach was informed by “scientific-context-based learning principles, where theoretical tools are introduced just in time, as needed, at the point in time when they are called for by the specific application.” Under this model, much as culinary students would in a kitchen, Galichon’s students essentially take on the role of apprentices, and over time, move from their position at the periphery of a learning community to the center as they build their expertise.

Galichon explained that the course starts with a presentation of “the raw ingredients to the student, which in this case, means the data, such as the characteristics of consumers and of products.” Following this, he describes to the class “what we will cook, which in this case means the type of matching or pricing problems we will solve.” To make this delivery format possible, Galichon emphasized that “[t]he time-consuming data preparations” – the tasks of the sous chef – “have been done off-line. I show the ideas on the whiteboard, and then I cook/code them myself in front of the students,” explains Galichon. “The students then code themselves, inspired by what they saw.”

Galichon grounds his pedagogy in “a ‘learning-by-coding’ philosophy,” which involves creating code “in front of the students rather than showing them lines of pre-written code.” In this way, students actively learn in-situ, rather than via a scripted method that relies heavily on the passive visualization of code and other course content. Delivering immersive courses, he says, has allowed him to be “quite creative and test new pedagogical ideas that may apply to other courses of this type.”

The curriculum, said Galichon, was constructed to serve the needs of two core groups of doctoral candidates. “There is a big demand from students in economics who look to acquire coding skills, and who want to develop a deeper understanding of the mathematical structure behind the economic models,” he said, “and at the same time from students in math/computer students who seek to understand better the economic applications of their tools.” Crafted around these requirements, the “course provides students with the conceptual tools and coding skills in an apprenticeship philosophy.”

The masterclass quickly attracted “a wonderful mix of students,” said Galichon, from quantitative disciplines, including economics, math, computer science, and engineering. In addition to students from NYU, the inaugural cohort comprised international enrollees from Faculté des sciences de Tunis, and Harvard as well as others from “very strong [local] institutions” such as Sciences Po, and Ecole Polytechnique/Ensae.

The international nature of the masterclass is also part of the linguistic aspects of learning to code. The course presents several different types of coding languages simultaneously, lending to a sense of multiliteracy within the learning environment. This is accomplished, Galichon explained, with “the presence of ‘veteran students’ who, after the lectures, present the course material coded in other programming languages than the one I am presenting.” He added that “These are among the novel ideas that I will test in Paris, which will thus serve as a lab for pedagogical innovation.”

NYU Sydney Hosts MLK Scholars

This March, NYU Sydney proudly hosted the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars Program Travel Colloquium.

A group of 30 students from across all undergraduate divisions of NYU were accompanied by staff and faculty as they embarked on an intensive five days of education, discovery and service. This all-University scholars program was initially proposed by NYU’s Association of Black Faculty in 1986 with the first group of Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars beginning their studies in 1987. The program brings together students with a demonstrated commitment to further the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through excellence in academic achievement and distinguished leadership and community service.

The week officially began on Monday March 18 with a Welcome to Country performed by esteemed Aboriginal Elder and representative of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Uncle Charles “Chikka” Madden. Madden welcomed the group to Gadigal land and discussed his own life and Aboriginal life and culture more broadly. The Welcome to Country was followed by a brief introduction and orientation from the NYU Sydney team before the scholars participated in their first academic lecture of the week.

Facilitated by Dr. Laura McLauchlan, this class served to provide the platform of information by which learning throughout the week would be built upon. During this session the scholars explored the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture; the relationship between Australian settler culture and Aboriginal Australians; Australia’s experience of migration and multiculturalism; Australians’ relationship with their environment; and Australians’ sense of national identity. After lunch at Science House the group made their way to Customs House at Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour. At Customs House the scholars met with their walking tour guide and spent the next two hours walking around the city and learning about the economic and social forces that shaped modern Sydney. This tour included commentary from above a scale model of Sydney’s Central Business District and surrounding area.

The second day began with a tour of the First Australians Gallery at the Australian Museum. This tour was facilitated by a Wiradjuri woman and it gave students a brief but comprehensive exposure to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, culture, customs and tradition. At Science House, Australian Historian and NYU Sydney instructor Justine Greenwood’s class examined immigration and multiculturalism in Australia. The day concluded with a visit to the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. At NCIE the group learned about the history of the organization, some of their current challenges and the services they provide to the local Indigenous community. A highlight of this visit was the opportunity to meet with Wiradjuri woman and NCIE Aunty-in-Residence Glendra Stubbs.

Stubbs serves as a mentor for Indigenous young people from across Australia that are invited to stay at NCIE. Stubbs has worked with a number of state and national bodies including: as an Aboriginal Engagement Advisor for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the National Stolen Generations Alliance, and Metro Migrant Resource Centre. She is also a member of the advisory group of the NSW Government child protection and wellbeing program. Stubbs led the group to the NCIE child care center where she discussed her own lived experiences as an Indigenous person growing up in Australia as well as the experiences of members of Australia’s Stolen Generation.

A special treat was arranged for the scholars on their third day in Sydney. On the way to the Blue Mountains a quick stop was made at the Featherdale Wildlife Park. At Featherdale, the students fed kangaroos breakfast and watched with amazement as koalas, dingos and wombats woke for the day. Following their trip to the wildlife park the group made their way to the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains to hike and learn about the region. The area is the traditional home of the Darug and Gundungarra peoples and for decades this location has been a “must see” for visitors to Sydney.

The Blue Mountains are home to 400 species of animals and some of Australia’s most breathtaking landscape. Charles Darwin crossed the Blue Mountains in 1836 and the students walked along the track that carries his name. At the conclusion of the hike the group met National Parks and Wildlife Service Aboriginal Discovery Ranger, Yamindirra Newton and learned about his experiences as sn Indigenous elder living in the region.

On day 4, Drs. McLauchlan and Greenwood co-facilitated a class that served as an opportunity for the group to reflect on their experiences thus far. The fifth and final day of the program was the day of service. The group travelled to Bradley’s Head on Sydney’s lower north shore to participate in a weeding project to protect the habitat of the red-crowned toadlet. The red- crowned toadlet is only found in the Sydney region and the group was charged with protecting its habitat by identifying and disposing of invasiveexotic weed species.

The MLK Jr Scholars Colloquium was a fantastic week in Sydney and the NYU Sydney team cannot wait to host future special programs.

Article by Marcus Neeld.
Images: MLK Scholar Kori Selwyn Vernon