Transforming Students into Global Change Agents

Theme: Global Citizenship

Sally Susnowitz
Director, MIT Public Service Center & Assistant Dean, Student Life Programs
Constituent Group:
Natural disasters shake us out of our complacency, creating a burst of energy that overrides our comfortable inertia; faced with forces totally outside of our control, we are, ironically, inspired to act. The South Asian tsunami, the Pakistan landslides, the Gulf Coast hurricanes — the very magnitude of hundreds of thousands of lives disrupted, of towns destroyed, of regions reconfigured — have recently energized thousands of students from our campuses to try to help. The bigger, more immediate, and less tractable the problem, the more urgent is our impulse to rise to the occasion and to find some means to demonstrate our common humanity, to mediate the forces of nature, and to act with immediacy and spirit. In a world where a billion people lack clean drinking water, where smoke from indoor cooking kills thousands of children each year, and where poverty, persecution and illiteracy are a fact of life for millions, there is no lack of problems of great magnitude. We have no need to wait for natural disasters to create conditions that require our participation. If students are inspired to act by their realization of acute human suffering, blatant inequities, and desperate situations, the world presents a constant array of such inspirations. As experiential educators, we help students learn from the opportunities that the world presents. Typically, we work concentrically, starting with our immediate neighborhood, our city, our region, our country. Typically, we lack the resources to extend our reach to opportunities to serve overseas. As humanitarians, we deplore the shocking conditions that affect most of the world's poor; as administrators, we carefully steward our scant resources. Typically, those resources do not stretch far enough to provide programs that enable students to address global issues. However, failing to engage students with global issues, global partnerships, and global literacy in our increasingly interconnected world is as risky and limiting as ignoring computer literacy. As anyone who has tried to learn computer usage from a textbook knows, computer literacy requires hands-on experience; so too does global awareness. The world is a potent teacher, and students are exceptionally sensitive to its lessons, which last a lifetime. The responsibility of higher education in the next twenty years will be to educate ourselves and our students in resourcefulness and ingenuity to enable access to the opportunities that distant, international communities represent, where the unexpected is a given and the typical experience is transformative. "Why" is a much easier question to answer than "how." Clearly, helping American college students to gain international service experiences will be educational for those students, whose perspectives will be broadened, whose observations and memories will enrich their thoughts and conversations for years, and whose attitudes and expectations will be reshaped by their exposure to cultures and people both similar and very different from themselves. The same is often true of community service work done in disparate communities within the United States, but the degree of impact tends to be significantly higher for international experiences, if only because the students are keenly aware of being in a foreign environment. Besides the education in external factors — the cultural, geographic, political, social, economic, and technical influences that shape communities and countries — students also gain internal, personal insights. They learn about their own principles, preferences, tolerances, assumptions, capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as the hallmarks of their own culture and country. Thus, an interesting benefit of educating students as global citizens is that they consider seriously, sometimes for the first time, their role as US citizens as well. Also good for US students and communities are the understanding of social responsibility and the activation of problem-solving capacities that international public service experiences engender. Professionals who understand their capacity to create positive change are a powerful force for good; such professionals were often students who actively experienced their own powers and limitations within a challenging context. Working on diverse teams, learning to respect and collaborate with indigenous people, negotiating foreign terrain both literally and figuratively, dealing with cultural and ethical dilemmas, understanding contextual perspectives of global issues, struggling with language barriers and inadequate resources, being truly self-dependent or dependent on strangers: experiences like these create self-knowledge, stimulate mature understanding of broad social contexts and the roles of individuals within them, and provide the foundation for self-confidence, reflection, and critical thinking. While it is easy to accept that American students and communities will gain from international service experiences, it is more challenging to ensure that international communities will benefit. Many international opportunities may be accurately termed "service tourism," as students provide token services in programs that exist to give American students a taste of international experience. As with other forms of tourism, the major benefit of such programs may simply be tourist dollars that stimulate local economies, while American students in fact become the service recipients, benefiting from the time and efforts of the NGOs and communities that host them while having little impact on real community needs. In my view, neither service tourism nor exhaustive preparatory cultural emersion courses are optimal to facilitate effective international service experiences. The latter may be too costly, both in terms of time and funding. Two key premises of experiential education and public service within a college context are that students learn by doing and that education outside the classroom can be as potent and valuable as education within the classroom. It is ironic from that perspective to delay on-site education in international service for lengthy preparatory coursework. Certainly, students should receive appropriate guidance and encouragement to seek out opportunities to prepare themselves for overseas work; courses in language, culture, politics, social systems, economics or other aspects are undoubtedly valuable. However, value should not be confused with necessity, and teaching should not be confused with learning. Providing opportunities for on-site supervision of longer-term projects may optimize the learning situation more fully as they effectively prepare students for the needs of that specific community. Funding is, of course, a challenge that is never far from the minds of concerned administrators. While the financial constraints are real and significant, we should not consider them prohibitive or absolute. In truth, if our aim is to empower students to act as change agents, our focus should be to "teach them how to fish" for the resources they require — after providing them with the equipment to get started effectively. If institutions can motivate students with passionate intent, empower them with strategies and confidence, instill a commitment to social responsibility, model the willingness to take appropriate risks, and offer them some portion of seed funding to get started, the students may themselves raise the rest of the funds they need to do effective international service. Our aim is not, after all, to support passive learners but rather to cultivate change agents — people who have the vision, daring, drive, entrepreneurship, and collaborative strategies to create positive change in communities around the world. If we trust them to change the world, it seems that we should also trust them to build on our useful but modest financial support. Whether a particular project succeeds or fails to acquire needed resources, the students will become educated in the challenges of international development work, of which fundraising is an inevitable part. As educators, our focus cannot be on programmatic development and resource acquisition alone; our main task is to find ways to convince students that they can effectively work as collaborative change agents abroad, to figure out streamlined ways to prepare them to do so, and to enable effective integration of lessons learned when they return. Given financial constraints, we must ourselves envision new models and work to motivate, facilitate, and celebrate student initiative, ingenuity, and resourcefulness as well. In many ways, international public service is not a test of financial standing but a challenge to our imagination and creativity. While many creative institutional models exist, at MIT we have developed opportunities that attract students to an array of choices yet require shared responsibility. This model arose through equal parts of philosophy and necessity, though not necessarily in that order. As many of you know from your own experience, a lack of funding often stimulates creativity; we generously share that condition with our students as part of the invaluable training we offer. The array of opportunities for international service experiences at MIT includes grants, Public Service Fellowships that offer modest stipends or that pay for basic expenses, service learning classes, and the IDEAS Competition, which challenges teams of students to invent programs, processes, and technologies that meet community needs. The service learning courses include D-Lab, which combines classes on engineering and cultural issues with fieldwork opportunities. Other service learning courses are available in a variety of disciplines, including Urban Studies and Mechanical Engineering. The motto of one of the most effective engineering courses echoes our working premise of preparing students by enabling them to share in the challenges, boasting "a problem too big, a time too short, a team too large, and a budget too small." Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, 2.009: Product Engineering Processes has produced highly inventive and effective technologies for communities as well as excellent and confident engineers. A recent survey indicated that the course's service learning focus effectively renewed students' interest in engineering as a career because it demonstrated the social relevance of mechanical engineering. Like 2.009, the IDEAS Competition invites students to rise to a daunting challenge: to learn about the needs of a community anywhere in the world and to form a team that creates an innovative, feasible, and effective solution that addresses those needs. The Competition supports student efforts with a series of events, feedback sessions, mentoring opportunities, and small grants that enable students to get effective help in developing their community connections, proposals, and projects before the final events. At that point, the projects are judged by an independent panel of experts from the faculty and community, and winning teams receive modest awards to continue to develop their projects. They are also required to attend a retreat that assists them in planning and team building. IDEAS (an acronym for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, and Service) is in itself a challenge: it is run by a half-time staff person and a group of volunteers that includes students, alumni, and staff. It receives no Institute funding unless a particular department or office chooses to sponsor one of the awards, as the Graduate Students Office has done for the past few years. Like all of our international public service programs, we raise all other funds each year (including the salary of the staff member who runs the programs) from grants, corporate sponsorships, and private donations. Now in its fifth year, the IDEAS Competition seems to be a popular and successful means of inspiring student participation in community innovation. Interestingly, most of the projects are internationally focused, so students have to overcome challenges of distance, communication, and intercultural partnerships. IDEAS has produced both social programs and technologies. Though none of the IDEAS awards even comes close to fully financing the winning innovations, many teams have succeeded in gaining significant external funding to enable them to develop and disseminate their innovations to the communities for whom they were intended. To date, IDEAS winners have accrued well over a million dollars in external funding, and their innovations have helped thousands of people worldwide. The IDEAS Competition model has also been adapted and adopted at other universities in the US and abroad. I believe that the success of IDEAS and the other MIT programs stems from the way these programs support students while they challenge them to become partners in their own development and in that of communities worldwide. A high bar and a small purse signal to students that we trust their abilities, and the support and mentoring systems we have put in place demonstrate our willingness to work with them as they face their own challenges. Essentially, we provide expectations of success and some scaffolding on which to build it. Motivated as we ourselves are to take risks and to act despite the lack of resources, we can be empathetic advisors to our students. I would like to point out that although we are making a virtue of necessity, we would nevertheless prefer full funding; I would like to assure MIT and wealthy people everywhere that we would endeavor to do just as good a job with the handicap of a $10 million dollar endowment. Until that is forthcoming, however, we will continue to try to find ways to inspire students to become active global citizens who are aware of devastation regardless of the news and who dare to respond to human needs regardless of the challenge.