Connecting cultures, one art project at a time

In the midst of a bustling city in India, with streets full of cars, rickshaws and even cows, 15 GW graduate students washed away cultural and linguistic barriers this summer with little more than paint, brushes, chalk and a passion for the visual arts and psychology.

For the past two summers, GW’s art therapy graduate program has distinguished itself as the only one of its kind in the country to send students abroad as part of a three-week summer course called “International Social and Cultural Art Therapy.” This year, the program traveled to India.

“The focus of the program is psychology and fine arts,” said Program Director Heidi Bardot. “The idea is that you use art to express yourself as opposed to just verbalization.”

When Bardot sat down to plan this year’s trip, she decided it was time to take the group even farther from the comforts of GW than they had ever gone before – to the far reaches of India.

After the students arrived in Chennai, a southeastern coastal city, they immersed themselves in everyday Indian life – interning at three schools, a psychiatric hospital, a shelter for the homeless and other locations across the city – all in an effort, Bardot said, to examine social and cultural diversity.

“The idea was to look at your own biases, stereotypes and feel what it is like to be a minority,” Bardot said. “So often most of the clients we work with are minority populations, so I wanted the students to feel like they were in a situation where they didn’t understand the language and were a minority in the country.”

Some students shared their photographs and experiences on a blog created for the trip.

“This morning, after riding down the bumpy roads full of trees banging the roof of the van and enduring traffic jams greater than the 495, I realized that even worlds apart I can complete a mission so dear to my heart,” wrote graduate student Lindsey Vance.

Bardot added that moments like that were what made the trip worthwhile.

“That was one of the most interesting experiences for the students, because [the people we worked with] couldn’t speak much English and we didn’t know their language, but we were able to interact through creating art together,”

While Bardot said students enjoyed their time at many of the job sites in India, others showed the harsh reality that many of the country’s poor experience on a daily basis.

At one of the sites, Bardot said the students were shocked when they witnessed children being abused by facility staff members.

“It was very difficult for them to observe because the kids were being hit with sticks,” Bardot said. “The people who were in charge of these kids had just not been trained yet; there are many things that were difficult for the students to observe with corporal punishment.”

With the encouragement of her students, Bardot contacted a human rights lawyer in India and laid the foundation for affecting change at that particular job site.

“I think it was a really good learning process for the students, because they could actually witness what the situation was like and how we can go about changing that,” Bardot said.

Lisa Garlock, assistant professor of art therapy and clinical placement coordinator for the program, reflected on what the students had accomplished in one of the last blog entries for the group.

“Art was able to reach deeper than words – art enabled the words to flow,” she wrote.

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