ASU undergraduate works to improve education and reading comprehension in South Africa

By

Robert Ewing

In addition to coursework, Thato Seerane, a senior in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology and a student in Barrett, The Honors College, has worked on improving literacy in South Africa. She is from Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, but when she applied to college, ASU was an easy choice.

Seerane wanted to get out of her comfort zone and study at a university with a diverse pool of international students. ASU was recently named the top choice for public university among international students for the fourth consecutive year according to the 2018 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

“I came to ASU knowing I wanted to be a counseling psychologist because of my experience in South Africa,” she said. “I wanted to help victims of traumatic experiences like sexual assault.”

Seerane volunteers her time as a Sun Devil Support Network (SDSN) advisor, helping undergraduate men and women who have experienced sexual assault or violence while in college. The SDSN is a peer-advocate network of the community that is trained to work with survivors of sexual assault. They provide information about the legal, medical and psychological resources that are available on campus.

Helping survivors of sexual assault is not Seerane’s only passion.

“I realized I am also passionate about improving the education system in South Africa,” added Seerane.

According to the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) report, students in South Africa are ranked last out of the 50 countries that were surveyed for reading and comprehension. Over 78 percent of fourth grade students did not achieve the lowest rating on the PIRLS scale, indicating they could not understand what they were reading.

To work toward her goal of impacting the education system in her home country, Seerane works as an undergraduate research assistant in the Science of Learning and Educational Technology Lab (SoLET). The SoLET lab is led by Danielle McNamara, professor of psychology. The lab applies research from computer science, education and psychology to educational environments. Research in the SoLET lab seeks to further the understanding of the cognitive processes involved in learning and to use this theoretical foundation to improve educational methods.

“Thato is intelligent, driven, resourceful and a pleasure to work with. She is a remarkably independent and self-sufficient researcher who shows strong promise to do well in graduate school and go on to have a substantial impact on the field of education,” said McNamara.

Seerane designed an honor’s thesis that focused on understanding reading comprehension and using a game-based curriculum called iSTART to improve the learning experience for students in South Africa. The intervention was designed to provide both instruction and adaptive reading comprehension strategies to middle school students.

Performing research in South Africa is extremely important to Seerane, and she conducted the research for her thesis in her hometown of Soweto.

“I think it is important to conduct research in South Africa because it opens doors to researchers in the United States to see a diverse population that they do not typically study,” said Seerane.

Her dedication to making a difference has not been lost on her professors either.

“Thato is a super-dedicated student who is serious about her learning and making a difference,” said Julie Patock-Peckham, assistant research professor of psychology.

Question: What is your hometown?

A: Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa

Q:  Did you have an “aha” moment, when you realized what you wanted to study at ASU?

A: Cases of sexual violence toward women and children are increasing in South Africa. However, the survivors rarely receive adequate support and counseling services after the trauma. This lack of support happens for several reasons: The survivors cannot afford to go to counseling, they do not consider mental health as important as physical health or because talking to a stranger about personal issues is not culturally accepted. I found myself gravitating toward the idea of combatting the negative assumptions toward mental well-being and creating awareness around its importance. Choosing a psychology major was a way to equip myself with knowledge before trying to help others.  

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or that changed your perspective?

A: Psychology is a field with diverse opportunities. It can basically be factored into many other fields, like education, engineering and business. Learning about psychology also helped challenge the mindset I had as a freshman: that all I could be if I choose a psychology major was a counselor.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My reason for applying here was due to the large pool of international students represented in the school. I did not want to be in an environment where I felt like a minority because of where I am from. Earning full funding from the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program made the choice even easier.

Q: Which ASU professor taught you the most important lesson?

A: Assistant Research Professor Julie Patock-Peckham taught me that statistics are not only for mathematicians. As a psychologist, I stand a great chance in succeeding in my field if I know how to analyze my own data or interpret other data.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: “Start With Why.” Always know why you are doing what you doing and use that as your motivation to push through when things get tough.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Vista Del Sol gym. I found my motivation to push through and a lot of my positive thinking took place there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am applying for graduate school in the United Kingdom to do a master's (degree) in the psychology of education.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would build an arts therapy and counseling center in a township like my hometown of Soweto. I would hire therapists and counseling psychologists to run sessions and would equip the center with state-of-the-art facilities for women, youth and children who are dealing with trauma from abuse and need a safe haven.