One of Global Development’s fundamental principles is helping students gain an in-the-field experience through an engaged learning practicum. Engaged learning is experiential, community-centered and anchored in reflection. Undergraduates are placed in an 8+ week internship where they think, interact, and learn from a real-world environment.
Partnering with the School for International Training, Claire de Cordova ‘23 spent the semester in Spain, Ecuador, and South Africa to learn about food systems and the role agriculture, sustainability, and social justice play in their success. After critically reflecting on her time engaging with local communities in “GDEV 3105: Reflections from the Field,” Claire shares with us lessons she learned in ethical engagement while studying abroad.
1. Choose your program and research groups wisely.
Make sure you understand what your role will be in an organization’s work when you choose an engaged learning or internship opportunity. Make sure you find a research team or academic program that is a good match for you because, as a member of a visiting group, your “research practices” will not be determined by what you consider “best practices” but by what your team has decided to implement. Make sure your values align with the group you are associated with.
2. Get comfortable with uncertainty.
As cheesy as it is, try and view every day like a ship that could be steered in any direction, and yourself as a crew member available to assist anyone! One of the best learning experiences I had was in Spain after an interview I had scheduled with a farmer fell apart. I did not know what to expect when going to interview in the countryside outside Barcelona, and when I got there, it was clear that I would not be able to ask the questions I had initially planned. Instead, I ended up volunteering on the farm and getting to leave a tangible, helpful impact behind, which had a much more significant impact than a survey could have. Being flexible and open to new or unexpected experiences can form the most exciting and meaningful takeaways from your time in a different country. Patience and resilience aren’t learned in safety.
3. Relationships are knowledge.
In engaged learning, you learn much more than you could in the classroom. So, don’t sweat the small stuff and engage with your community! Smile! Get involved in an activity you’ve never tried before! Make friends outside your program! Go dancing! You can’t expect to make solid connections and develop relationships without taking yourself out of your comfort zone and making an effort to make individual relationships with folks outside of your study abroad group. In South Africa, I ended up seeing a lot of live music that had nothing to do with the program, and through those concerts, I got to meet many new people from the country.
4. Be grateful to everyone.
While simple, gratitude and appreciation are human facets known by all people and in all languages. Showing your appreciation for the experiences you are having, whether it be to your host family, research partners, favorite restaurant owners, or neighbors, is not only the right thing to do but also progresses your relationships. Reciprocity is essential, too— share a recipe from your family with your host family, offer to provide childcare, etc., when you can. Always send a thank you and follow up when you can.
5. Find humor in the messy, and never be ashamed to admit a mistake.
Humility is the most important trait when experiencing a new culture, place, or group of people. There will be so many challenges when you get to a new country, and you need to know that not knowing the answer is okay too! Own what you need to work on, and people will be happy to help. The folks you are working with don’t expect perfection, but being able to laugh off a crazy day and ask for help is crucial to interpersonal dynamics and your success in a new community! Check your ego, with your suitcase, at the gate.
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