By Sherry DiBari

Just before the coronavirus shut everything down, Narketta Sparkman-Key led a team of 11 Old Dominion University students on a service-learning trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica.

While there, the team, primarily human services majors, spent time with pregnant teenagers at the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation, an outreach program for adolescent mothers.

Their goal was to help improve the teenagers' self-esteem and offer hope for the future.

This is the sixth year that Sparkman-Key, associate professor for counseling and human services and director of faculty diversity and retention in Academic Affairs, led students on the learning and working experience.

The study-abroad course is aligned with a class focused on theories and techniques used by human services workers. Sparkman-Key describes this as a helping skills course for students who will become practitioners.

While most of the students are human services majors, others in helping professions, such as nursing and public health, also participate.

"The students have one thing in common," Sparkman-Key said. "They're passionate about helping people. They knew right up front that we are really going to have an impact with these pregnant teens."

Sparkman-Key touted the benefit of affordable study-abroad programs like this one.

"It's really important because very often minority students cannot afford to participate, and so they do not have that as a part of their educational journey," she said.

The students, many whom have never been on an airplane, learn quickly about the challenges of travel and cultural differences.

"We're putting them in a culture that they don't know anything about. And we're teaching them to actually work with other cultures. Learn that culture, understand that culture and how that culture may be different from yours. But still be able to service that culture," Sparkman-Key said. "Those are skills that we teach them in a classroom, but they don't really get a chance to use those skills until they go abroad."

Sparkman-Key explained that ODU students are sometimes shocked by the ages of the pregnant girls.

"We say teens, but in some cases they can be as young as 12," she said. "They can be very childish and girl-like because they're very young, and that is a struggle for our students."

In addition to the helping component, students also attend lectures at The University of West Indies (UWI), participate in team-building activities and learn about the history and culture of Jamaica.

The primary focus, however, is hands-on helping and relationship building.

Bianca Augustine, an ODU doctoral student, joined Sparkman-Key on the trip in 2019.

"Some of the girls, when they would talk about their babies, they would hang their head down low, as if they were almost embarrassed," Augustine said. "But by the end of the program, they didn't want us to leave. They were speaking to us with their heads held high. And it was just amazing to see that transformation of their self-esteem, their self-image and their confidence."

One of the highlights of the week is International Women's Day, an event hosted by Sparkman-Key and held at UWI. The event offers the young girls a chance to see college life.

"Hosting this event at The University of West Indies is a big deal, because I'm taking these pregnant teens who may not have ever thought of going to college, to a college campus," Sparkman-Key said. "They get to be a part of this college community and celebrate International Women's Day and hear from some dynamic women in their own community."

Sparkman-Key believes this experience also helps the ODU students as they progress toward their human services careers.

"They are going to be working with all kinds of people in different stages of their lives," she said. "They will be able to easily connect with these populations if they have empathy and compassion, if they have an understanding of different cultures."

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