Monday, January 18, 2021

O’Donnell educates children abroad

PSUC junior Caitlin O’Donnell has always had a passion for working with and helping children, but recently had the opportunity to showcase her skills in a classroom abroad.

As an early childhood education major, O’Donnell cares deeply about the education, well-being and mental health of all children she comes in contact with.

“I always loved working with children, helping children and trying to make a positive impact on their lives and learning,” O’Donnell said. “My mom works at a school and so does my godmother, so I grew up with it.”

After learning many skills such as how to create lesson plans, tending to individual students’ needs and creating a positive learning environment, O’Donnell decided to extend her knowledge further and apply to be a literacy tutor for children in Jamaica for 10 days over this past winter break.

O’Donnell found out about the Jamaica Field Service Abroad program through a professor who had connections with SUNY Potsdam, the college sponsoring the program. The trip was created as a service learning course on the diverse people, culture and musics of the Caribbean and West Indies. Those accepted completed daily training sessions and service work at local schools and care centers. Students take part in tutoring, music education, healthcare and music therapy, depending on their area of study.

The application process was daunting, but O’Donnell never gave up. Program leader and undergraduate childhood education lecturer Jean Mockry is O’Donnell’s adviser, and she admired her perseverance and determination throughout the entire process.

“What I really appreciate about Caitlin is when it looked like there were setbacks, like things weren’t moving smoothly, she keeps a positive disposition and she just goes, “OK, I got to do that now,” Mockry said. “She’s a problem solver with a good disposition, which is a wonderful trait to have.”

After submitting the application, O’Donnell was still required to hand in two letters of recommendation, as well as have a telephone conversation with someone from the program explaining why she wanted to go on the trip and how she would benefit from it. The trip was highly sought out by students around the country, but, ultimately, about 10 to 13 students are accepted to attend each session.

Mockry, who wrote a letter of recommendation for O’Donnell, believes her positive attitude and empathy toward others is what helped make her a great literacy tutor in Jamaica.

“I can see her giving all of her energy, attention and skills for the children with a great energy,” Mockry said. “I believe the children who worked with her probably got very close to her or was glad she was in their life because she brings that kind of positive energy in her relationships.”

During the 10 days abroad, O’Donnell became immersed in the Jamaican culture and became very close with students, many of whom frequently asked if she would take a picture of them with her cell phone for fun.

As a literacy tutor, O’Donnell worked Monday through Friday in the schools to help students improve reading and writing skills. In Jamaica, students who are “slipping through the cracks” are often left behind to fail and the “good” students are focused on more heavily.

According to O’Donnell, the trip was partly designed to help and to encourage the students who are frequently ignored. The students were extremely appreciative of the tutors, as well as the attention and positive reinforcement they were receiving.

“You could really tell it was very beneficial to them,” O’Donnell said. “You could tell a lot of them were afraid to read because they were afraid to get made fun of, but we helped them and got them excited about reading and writing.”

O’Donnell loves to encourage and inspire no matter what. One of O’Donnell’s roommates, PSUC junior and geology education BA/MST major Haley Mooney, loves how O’Donnell always sees the positives in life and “emits sunshine everywhere she goes.”

The roommates met early freshman year when they were on the cross country team together. They still enjoy hiking and exploring any chance they can. The duo has even planned a trip to backpack in Arizona for spring break.

O’Donnell wants to be able to travel and teach children from around the world. She likes the idea of different ways of teaching.

“I love observing different educational systems in our country and around the world, so it would be nice for me to teach in different areas so I can learn about the different systems and cultures,” O’Donnell said. “I just hope to help.”

Email Laura Schmidt at

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