James Madison University

Journey Around the World

Graduate Psychology Students Develop Multicultural After-School Program

By: Hannah Austin
Posted: May 1, 2013

Journey Around the World is a new cognitive-socio-emotional program for children that combines the idea of cultural diversity with socio-emotional learning. Led by Dr. Elena Savina, the program development team included Vesna Hart, a pre-doctoral intern, Lauren Mays, and Mariana Ashe and Krystal Studivant, doctoral students from the Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology. The planning team itself displayed the positive effects of diversity by combining collaborative forces in various areas of expertise. Dr. Savina, originally from Russia, has been teaching at JMU for four years and her international perspective left her with impassioned motives behind the development of the project. Vesna Hart emigrated to the U.S. from Croatia, where she had her first teaching job in a war-torn village. The other team members also brought unique experiences to the collaborative project:  Lauren Mays has travelled internationally and spent a year in Paris, while Mariana Ashe and Krystal Studivant have expertise on school age psychology.

“The world is changing,” Dr. Savina said. “We are engaging in more and more international affairs, but at the same time, we see many problems from people not knowing or understanding each other’s culture. Children are at a sensitive age, ready to learn about the world and working together."

Vesna Hart added, “The world is becoming smaller with use of technology, as well as by the fact that we are more than ever surrounded daily by cultural and worldview diversity.  The goal of Journey Around the World, however, is to develop interpersonal, socioemotional skills, as well as openness to difference, because that facilitates healthy relationships and the ability to work collaboratively with others.”

After spending a year developing the project, it was implemented as an after-school program for third through fifth graders at elementary schools in Harrisonburg, giving the group a chance to test activities, and gain feedback from children. Children began their “Journey Around the World” on a community level, exploring diversity within their schools and neighborhoods before branching out on a mini-tour of the United States, focusing specifically on Alaska, Montana, Texas, and New York. Over the following weeks, the children “traveled” around the globe, spending time in Kenya, Australia, China, and Brazil, as well as the European countries of Spain, England, Italy, and France. Children learned about the culture of each place, combining world knowledge with the program’s main goal of facilitating interpersonal communication, problem-solving, and collaborative compromise through peer-learning activities. 

Dr. Savina shared several examples of program activities, each building from communal to global concerns. For one of the first activities, children designed a school collage, collaborating with each other to make decisions regarding the content of their project and sequence of its implementation.

Similarly, when the children “packed” for their “trip” around the United States, they had to negotiate which items to bring or leave behind.  Upon leaving their home country, however, children met new challenges, such as how to communicate with non-English speakers. While “in Africa,” they learned that stories can be shared even between those who do not share the same language. The program also has activities in which children were asked to think through the perspectives of others, learning, for example, how to consider other’s culture-specific beliefs and values when bringing them gifts.

The immediate benefits of the “Journey Around the World” program are perhaps best exemplified by a poster the children created together, entitled “Friendship of the World.” Surrounding a brightly colored globe are pictures of children from different ethnicities, connected by a shared friendship. In thick crayon lettering the children included the quote, “The world connects through kindness, joy, fairness, helpfulness, and happiness.” As increased technology continues to move the world towards globalization, the poster represents the goals that originally inspired the project. By learning about other modes of belief and the value of cooperation, the children built a positive multicultural attitude based on understanding and appreciation of differences in culture and people in their “Journey Around the World.”

Vesna Hart shared, “Children love the program. At the end of our first session, one child said, ‘Now I see it! I thought we were going to travel around the world somehow, but Journey Around the World is about learning how to talk to people and solve problems. I like this!’ That was a very special moment.”

The program consists of few materials, a mobility that makes it a potential learning tool for a variety of settings, such as group counseling, summer camps, or educational study abroad trips.

Vesna Hart commented, “Although social and emotional development and learning had been part of my professional work before starting the Journey Around the World, I was attracted to this project because it included collaborative program development, is informed by research, and utilizes social-cultural developmental theory and cultural learning.  Working on Journey Around the World provides an opportunity to integrate and apply knowledge and skills from educational, cognitive, developmental, social, and cultural psychology.” 

“Program development is an ongoing process”, Dr. Savina says, “This process stimulates creativity and enriches our knowledge of socio-emotional learning as well as our understanding of different cultures.” 

The program development team will continue to revise the materials and redefine intervention methods that target specific skills. While current program curriculum is designed for small groups, the next step will be the development of a classroom-wide curriculum, allowing for broader implementation and more opportunity for children to “Journey Around the World.”