Thursday, July 20, 2017

Post-trip reflection

Megan Voorhees, Acara Associate Director and Course Instructor, reflects on the trip to Nicaragua.

In the month since our class returned to the United States, I have been reminded that a lot of the learning in study abroad courses happens weeks and months (and years?) after the course.

Here are some of our recent reflections:

  • The value of interdisciplinary teams: Many students have commented that their greatest intercultural learning was not in their three host families, but on their research design teams. We had three teams that had a problem to work on to help either improve water quality, access to solar energy, or how to use biochar to improve agriculture. Each team had at least 3 different UMN academic colleges represented on it. Students learned that it is both very hard to work across disciplines ("I don't understand what you are talking about!" was a common outburst) but also learned that solutions to complex problems need interdisciplinary answers.
  • The danger of thinking you know the right answers: As Krista Alvord wrote, "I witnessed first-hand, an organization cannot just waltz into a community and implement some idea without speaking directly with the members that it is going to effect and without getting perspectives of multiple parties." One poignant learning moment was when our solar team went to visit a community that had a large solar panel installed by a U.S. based organization and discovered that the community was not using it because they can't afford the batteries they need to use it. This experience inspired our team to start looking at creating a battery leasing program instead of focusing on installing more community solar panels but also taught all of us how important it is to know that good solutions always involve community input. Carlise Sorenson captured how hard it is to be willing to be wrong, "One of the most profound things that I learned on through this course is that it is OK and generally encouraged to not feel entirely competent. It is in the times when you accept uncertainty and when things are turned on their heads that you are most open to truly learning and understanding from other cultures. This is when novel solutions are developed and teamwork takes place. I greatly prefer feeling competent in my area of work and it was difficult to intentionally let that go."

  • The importance of human-centered design: Mariah Dooley wrote "I’ve also learned more about how important it is to involve the client in the design phase of a project. In my future jobs, I will be able to transfer that skill and make sure that the design I propose meets their needs and that it’s sustainable." And Trevor Steiner reflected " I learned that the most important part about the implementation of a solution is that the solution comes from where it is going to be implemented. The people have to want the solution if it is going to work effectively." 
  • Having Impact: I think we are all realizing that our greatest contribution to sustainable development can be done from home in partnership with our contacts in Nicaragua. One of our course instructors is involved in a research grant proposal in the hopes of researching biochar as a way to clean waste water in Nicaragua; the water team is looking at how they might improve the educational materials that EOS International is giving rural communities using water chlorinators in the community wells; and I have met with seven of our 12 students as they think about how they might lead sustainable development efforts here in Minnesota and globally.
I look forward to seeing all that happens because of our incredible three week experience in Nicaragua.

—Megan Voorhees, Acara Associate Director and Course Instructor

View the group's photos from Nicaragua.