This process is intended for college students but can be adapted for students of all levels. Please share any questions or feedback. I would love to hear from students applying this process to their own search for summer opportunities. Parents, please share as it is more difficult than ever for students to find opportunities. They need our collective support.
Our partners in Mara Tanzania now have a brick making machine and it is more exciting than I could have ever imagined. Stephen Marwa, Executive Director of Hope Revival Children’s Organization, is training local young men and women to make bricks from local soil. They will sell the bricks to raise funds, eventually supporting local water and sanitation projects throughout the region. In time, they will become a center for design and construction expertise, focusing on latrines and water systems in villages throughout rural Tanzania.
Our students have contributed to efforts in Tanzania and other partnering countries through our Global NGO projects. They connect with partners via Zoom, contextualizing their understanding of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and making meaningful contributions through their projects.
But their efforts are largely conceptual. Our students can only imagine what it is like to operate a brick making press or create a water catchment system in a Tanzanian village. If we want to truly leverage our global relationships and achieve more equitable collaborations, we should give our students access to the same technologies and resources as our partners.
Imagine a Makerspace that includes an interlocking brick making machine, materials for creating renewable energy and water purification system, and collaborating virtually with partners working within communities to make sustainable change. Through innovating and experimenting together, collaboratively, we can maximize our impacts- for our students, partners, and the broader world.
Please participate in our Giving Tuesday Crowdfunding Campaign and help us make a world of difference.
Thank you!- Mara
To be nimble, you must have three things: sensitivity- an awareness of changes, threats and opportunities; responsiveness- the ability to flex and adapt; and forward focus- moving toward some aspirant state.
It is hard to deny the level of threat and change surrounding us. But how to respond and flex when our organizations and systems are so rigid, when layers of structure constrain us, and resources continue to disappear.
The secret to nimbleness lies in committing to what is most important and true and then resonating with that vision, finding creative ways to honor our commitments and strengthen our relevance.
Let me show you how it works. My field is Higher Education, specifically experiential learning with a focus on global engagement.
I ask myself, what is most important for our students right now, within the evolving global landscape. It is clear that we need graduates with empathy and curiosity, willing to challenge their assumptions, get close to complexities and ideas, develop cultural humility and strive to add value in the world.
Once I recognize the importance of these needs, I can clarify my own commitments and responsibilities within this space. What resources and opportunities can I leverage through my work at the University? Faculty expertise, facilitation, support, a digital space for students to connect, and dream, and engage, relationships and global partners, and technology. With this recognition, possibilities begin to swirl around me. I see that resources are literally everywhere.
If we were to work through this exercise, collectively, we would recognize that we can absolutely support students in striving for what they need- what we need to heal and nurture the world. What is most exciting about nimbleness is that movement starts the moment we clarify our commitment and accept the responsibility. And when we decide to be nimble we realize that technology is our most powerful tool. It allows us to revel in the how. It expands possibilities and transforms the learning landscape. Imagine a dynamic world where students’ interests activate opportunities, propelling them on journeys of exploration, learning and engagement. Whether connecting them with a faculty expert via Zoom, or allowing them to share their ideas with collaborators or peers, we find creative ways to nurture their interests and curiosities, to help them build capacity and find their place in a changing world.
In many ways, the Pandemic is forcing us to be nimble. As resources fall way, we will be increasingly unable to sustain our programs and offerings in their familiar forms. But once we recognize that our commitments are not to our programs or offerings, but instead to our students and the broader world, we can begin to access the exciting benefits of nimbleness. Relevance, resonance, and continued viability are all within our reach; but only if we commit to the promise.
This morning I awoke to this video sent to me by Stephen Marwa from the orientation that is happening today in Musoma, Tanzania- testing out the new brick making machine and SSB technology that we were able to support through my GoFundMe and Coaching for a Cause. According to Stephen “The youth are so excited and enjoying the process. We will surely achieve our goal.”
When I reflect on the promise of global collaboration and the potential of our Global NGO Projects for both our students and the Musoma community, I can’t help thinking that the brick making machine is the perfect symbol. With this technology, the community will focus on its own priorities and goals, literally building a foundation for growth. And with this machine, our students at UB can work to deepen their understanding and develop their own resources, proposing new projects to support design, innovation, and evolving initiatives and priorities.
It’s somewhat jarring to find such hope and inspiration during such troubling times. But as we look for new models and opportunities to leverage resources and engagement, I find myself watching and re-watching this video. I am indeed hopeful and inspired, and I know there are so many young people around the world who are ready to make the world better, brick by brick.
Young adults are witnessing a lot of hypocrisy right now. And their moral purity is leaving them in a state of dissonance, disgusted with what they see and driven to take a stand.
While I certainly understand their frustration, I wish they had tools to navigate these treacherous waters, allowing them to preserve their sense of integrity but also the relationships that will continue to mean so much.
What can you do when adults are behaving in ways that seem so obviously wrong? Ways that go against your core beliefs and contradict what you know to be absolutely and unequivocally true?
For many (young) adults, these situations can feel untenable, like there is no hope for a solution or a reprieve. How can you co-exist or have a real relationship with someone whose values directly conflict with your own? Especially when that person demands respect and will not tolerate what they see as insubordination, and you see as defending your principles.
This dilemma can threaten to end the very relationships that serve as the fabric of our families and communities.
When I was just starting my career, I sought training as a divorce mediator. I was actually interested in conflict resolution, not divorce, but that was the only training program available at the time.
The model for divorce mediation struck me as powerful- so powerful that I continue to practice many of its core strategies. In divorce mediation, the couple is committed to ending the marriage, and their sense of acrimony and mutual contempt are often so strong that they need help completing the process.
The primary task of the mediator is to clarify some shared goal or understanding, and then use that point of connection to move through the process and related goals. The only thing strong enough to cut through the anger and hurt and bring the couple together in making decisions is their shared love for their children. The mediator holds this up, continually reminding them of their shared purpose in order to create space for moving forward.
The combination of affirming love/or something positive and then creating space works beautifully in many situations.
As disagreements about politics seem to spiral out of control, we can acknowledge, “I know we both love our country and are scared for its future. Although we see the problems and solutions differently, we both want what we think is best.”
Or if you are being treated unfairly by your parents and feel like the conditions are becoming unbearable, you can affirm, “I know things have gotten pretty bad around here. We all love each other and I appreciate what you do for me and our family.”
These statements or acknowledgements are by no means magical- they do not in and of themselves transform a situation or make things inherently better.
But they do create space – if only temporarily- and they can release the stress and negative emotions that come with direct and dangerous conflict. They can break the spiral of anger and hurt and allow something positive and healing to take root. What you do with that space has the ability to make a profound and lasting difference.
I think of this process as resetting, and I use it all the time. Even the best and strongest relationships can take a sudden turn, becoming dangerously contentious, sending us reeling and feeling like we are up against a wall.
For this technique to work, however, you need to offer the affirmation in the spirit of vulnerability and hope. And the greater and more dangerous the conflict, the more compelling the truth must be. Simply acknowledging that you see the world differently or that you will have to agree to disagree is not strong enough to create sufficient space for forward movement.
Instead, you have to allow yourself the vulnerability of envisioning what the relationship could be, not just for you, but for the collective we, accommodating all the different needs and perspectives and experiences. If we can find a way to articulate this desire so it is resonant and true, not just for us, but for everyone, we can create some space for healing, and begin to enjoy the sense of security in knowing that despite the challenges, we will all be ok.
When it comes to (higher) education, structure is inherently necessary. It defines resources and commitments, ensures stability, and sets expectations for all who participate. But too much structure is detrimental. For students, it shuts down growth and creativity, and prevents them from benefiting from, and contributing to, the very resources designed to support them. And for educational systems, it prevents them from adapting and being nimble, which ultimately threatens their relevance and viability.
Unfortunately, this is true for experiential learning- the area of education that transports students out of the classroom and into the world through internships, mentored research, global experiences and project-based learning. In an effort to provide students with meaningful opportunities, colleges and universities bury their resources in layers of structure and complexity. To access offerings, students must navigate organizational offices and programs, applications, deadlines, fees and curricular requirements. And if they are fortunate to obtain an opportunity, they must comply with requirements, securing signatures, count hours, and meet stringent expectations.
How ironic that we have managed to suck the life out of the most exciting and expansive type of learning.
So let us begin to remove the excessive layers of structure, starting with opportunities themselves. Keep only what is necessary to ensure value and set students on their way. In our model, we require that experiences are mentored and collaborative, and that they result in something that is meaningful for an identified audience. Mentoring gives students a connection with a faculty or staff member, seeding a relationship that can offer support and encouragement. Collaboration provides students with feedback and challenges them to adapt and integrate as they pursue their goals. And a meaningful contribution stretches students to think beyond themselves, to consider an audience and work to add value through their actions. With these key design components in place, we release all other constraints and open up the universe of possibilities.
When you begin to view the world through the lens of meaningful projects, amazing things start to happen. The most exciting opportunities begin to emerge from relationships, challenges, and ideas, and all a student needs to get started is a tingle of curiosity, a desire to understand, or a dream of making a difference.
But, without enough structure, how can we support and assess (experiential) learning? What about students who lack the necessary skills or foundation? Don’t we need some level of consistency across experiences to anchor learning and facilitate success? Yes.
As we remove layers of structure that constrain opportunities and experiences, we must add facilitative structure to the process of engagement, supporting students as they work through their projects, and navigate the challenges that they will encounter as they pursue their goals.
We support student engagement through our PEARL process, helping them Prepare, Engage and Add Value, Reflect and Leverage their experiences toward broader impacts. We guide students through these stages with prompts and exercises, encouraging them to move forward, integrating their experiences with academic and professional goals. And when they reach the end of the process, we award them a Digital Badge, serving as an enduring symbol of their achievement, linking to their final project and communicating their contributions to external audiences. That’s it. No academic credit, no additional costs, and no external deadlines or threats of termination. The experience is theirs to activate and they have unconditional support to help them through.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stuckness, the state that prevents us from flexing and growing as we engage with the world around us. Although this state can be perilous and demoralizing, especially at the system level, at every moment, we have the power to release ourselves by redesigning the very structures that keep us stuck.
The opposite of stuckness is magnificent. It is creative, innovative and inspiring. It is expansive and generative. It is students finding a sense of purpose and direction, seeking out opportunities to grow and challenge themselves, stretching and thriving, adding value and finding their place in a world that needs every drop of their talent. And for our colleges and universities, unstuckness is a renewed sense of commitment to our students and relevance to the world.
I am excited to kick off a month of Zoom coaching focused on Building Growth and Fulfillment during the Pandemic while also raising funds for an exciting global project. Together we will gift a brick making machine to the community of Raranya, Tanzania to empower their growth through construction of new school latrines, a safe house to protect girls from FGM, and other priority projects determined by their needs.
In lieu of coaching fees, I will ask participants to make donations to a GoFundMe campaign https://gf.me/u/ywvsvi for the brick making machine
Group sessions will be capped at 20 and a limited number of private group and individual sessions will also be available. Visit my Coaching for Cause page and share your interest .
Can student projects really make a difference?
With the sudden move to online instruction and disruption to internships and other high-impact experiences, we have been testing the potential of virtual projects; both for the students and the organizations with whom they collaborate. Many of these projects have involved global partners, small and medium-sized NGOs working with vulnerable communities to build capacity and support basic needs. For students, the opportunity to work closely with global organizations represents an educational high point in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty. And for the NGOs, the opportunity to connect and innovate in the face of dwindling resources offers new opportunities. The following are examples of projects completed by undergraduate students at the University at Buffalo during summer 2020. It should be noted that projects are co-curricular with no additional cost or credit requirements, and culminate in the earning of a Global Collaboration digital badge.
Reusable Sanitary Pad Project
When a UB student participating in a study abroad trip to Tanzania in 2017 first introduced the idea of a reusable sanitary pad sewing project to our partner in Tanzania, she never imagined that today, 3 years later, a second pad project would be gaining momentum, and that she would once again be the project’s lead catalyst and supporter. This time, on break from medical school, and waiting out the pandemic that had disrupted her summer plans, Danielle Nerber worked with a group of UB undergrads to lead another GoFundMe campaign and support the start-up of a new project in a nearby village under the continued leadership of Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO). Starting with community surveys, clarifying the challenges women and girls face when managing menstruation, and galvanizing community interest in the sewing initiative, we had no doubt that the campaign would be successful. Within a few short weeks, the necessary funds were raised, materials gathered, and an initial training recently completed (see featured video). The momentum for this project continues to build with new opportunities and ideas for engagement evolving weekly. With its implications for health and wellness, education, and economic empowerment, this project resonates with diverse student interests, and provides opportunities to build on a strong foundation of collaboration and trust.
We have all grown accustomed to accessing turn-by-turn directions on our mobile devices, gaining instant access to wayfinding and details about virtually any place or region. Yet in many rural communities in countries throughout Africa, including Tanzania, a lack of mapping makes the most simple navigation nearly impossible for those outside the community and region. This reality poses additional challenges for organizations focusing on community development. This summer, a group of UB undergraduates completed initial mapping work, focusing on the village of Raranya, which will host a pilot initiative focusing on water and sanitation, being led by Friendly Water for the World and Hope Revival Children’s Organization. With initial trainings planned for fall 2020, the students worked from satellite images, marking structures and enhancing current available maps. As a next step, HRCO (our Tanzanian partner) will take the maps into the field and begin adding water points, community resources, tarmac roads, and other important infrastructure to support upcoming activities. Once these structures are added by hand, our students will capture and code the additions within the official maps, benefitting the ongoing project and building capacity for future opportunities and needs.
Storytelling through Video Creation
PriHEMAC, an NGO based in Oyo State, Nigeria cultivates elderly friendliness by building capacity with local organizations and churches. Although our students were immediately drawn to PriHEMAC’s mission, they found little in the way of imagery,, stories, or media on their website. Through Zoom-based meetings with the organization’s leadership, a UB undergraduate, James Lockamyeir, proposed a narrative video to share the story of PriHEMAC and build support with various community sectors and stakeholders. The fact that James had never attempted to make a video did not intimidate him. He rose to the challenge, working closely with our PriHEMAC liaison, Gideon Adeniyi, utilizing existing footage and pictures while directing new interviews and testimonials. The video is both compelling and powerful and in a few short months has inspired new projects and ideas for building external support and engagement. The student is now sharing his experiences with other students who are eager to contribute to global NGOs through the creation of digital media and storytelling.
These are only three examples of the many global projects that continue to evolve and develop. As I look to the fall and more uncertainty related to COVID’s continued impact on education and experiential learning, it is clear that virtual projects are worthy of continued exploration and investment. In addition to resonating with student interest and sense of purpose, they also offer exciting benefits for NGO partners. Perhaps most exciting is the idea of generativity which featured so prominently in the initial design work for our Project Portal. The notion that students could continue to build on one another’s efforts, expanding and deepening impact and empowering NGOs to build on their own assets and growth. We have certainly seen the promise of this type of student engagement, and we look forward to deepening our investment in the coming year.
A realization that whatever the schools will provide this fall will not be enough…panic. What to do. Enroll our children in private schools. But they will be full, too expensive, and also not enough.
Deep sigh. Addressing the schools directly is no longer an option, at least not at this moment. Too much chaos, complexity, too many variables that cannot be controlled. We either send our children, or we do not. And not is clearly not an option for most.
A return to problem solving. We often frame the problem wrong from the very beginning. Maybe schools are not a problem. Maybe they are not a solution and should not be viewed as such. Maybe they were never supposed to be everything, or even most things, maybe just some things, maybe a base. A base is a starter, a foundation on which you build. If you want an impressive gravy or soup, you use a base, and then add ingredients, a little of this and that until you get depth, flavor, and the layers begin to build.
What if we view formal education as a base- maybe a rich and savory one or fair to middling- but a base nevertheless. Maybe for this year, at least, we accept the foundation that is offered- either in-person or remote, whatever is most comfortable. And then we build.
To build on a base is to enhance. What could that even look like? Dynamic, interactive, alive. Building on curiosity, talents, interests. Stemming from within but connecting with emerging ideas and needs. I know this kind of building. It is high-impact experiential learning. It is my work. It is what I do and create.
How to frame it out? Not too much structure, it will weigh things down. Just enough to allow for clarity and focus, choices and interests to emerge. But it needs integrity, meaning and importance. Something noble that will resonate internally and with the opportunities that swirl around us.
Let’s see. ENHANCE. Explore challenges, ideas and innovations. Yes, this is always the way to begin, getting close, grounding ourselves in clarity. Natural world. This can be so many things- ecology, conservation, renewable energies, stewarding the resources that are so precious and dear. Hands and heart- using our hands- knitting, crafting, climbing, discovering something we love that brings us joy. Add value. Go ahead, make a difference- give, do or help, and feel your impact, a new kind of power that yearns to be nourished. Numbers and languages. Analyze, break codes, figure it out, cook, measure, translate, speak, sign, understand. Connect and collaborate. Do a project, find a mentor, get input and feedback, translate an idea into action, make something happen and discuss. Envision the possibilities. Feel yourself expand and gaze into the future. Explore career paths, educational programs, new models and paradigms. Where is the world going and what contributions will you make?
You are an ENHANCER, through Reflecting on your growth, you will start to move and see the world differently, the resources and opportunities that surround you, including your school and education. You will see adults ready to share their stories and lessons, communities ready to teach and embrace your gifts, and technology and innovation ready to connect you with possibilities still unknown.
How to support this type of learning? First we must pause to recognize its significance and inherent value. And then we must begin to build.
This summer is testing many things, including the potential of virtual projects.
It is clear that we need curricular versatility more than ever. The idea of leveraging resources and investments in ways that accommodate learners’ individual interests and expectations, as well as institutional goals, is becoming an urgent priority. And although technology provides exciting tools and capacities, we are still constrained by the rigidity of traditional academic courses. Finding models that are nimble, impactful and scalable represents an opportunity for innovation and continued viability.
Prior to the onset of the Pandemic, we, the UB Experiential Learning Network (ELN), created a system to support and catalyze mentored student projects. Through our Project Portal, we design, promote and share projects of all types and focus, while also facilitating student engagement via our digital badge series that follows our PEARL process (prepare, engage and add value, reflect and leverage).
Although we continue to build our portfolio to include mentored research, creative activities, innovation and community engagement, we are finding global initiatives especially popular and versatile. Over the past 10+ years, I have cultivated engagement with partners in the Mara Region of Tanzania, developing collaborative projects that serve as the foundation for our expanding offerings. With the move to online instruction beginning in March, we predicted that once students finished the spring semester and confronted the uncertainties of summer, we would see increased interest in virtual projects, especially those with a global focus.
We are now approximately half way through the summer, and our approach is yielding exciting results. Of particular interest is the range of distinct applications that feature the same Tanzanian partners and engagement model. Namely, in all iterations, students work through our PEARL process, with identical assignments and reflection activities. Through the modularity of our projects, we are able to customize the delivery to meet specific goals and parameters, offering a uniquely versatile and scalable curricular approach. The three applications and their respective benefits are described below:
Self-Paced Co-curricular Projects
Students can enroll in projects, working individually or in groups. After completing indicated preparatory research and skill development, students work with their mentor to create a project plan, and implement activities in collaboration with global partners. Because the projects are co-curricular, students work at their own pace, and earn a Global Collaboration bade upon successful completion. Students can select from a portfolio of projects or craft a customized project based on their individual interests and skillsets. We also offer opportunities for students to explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on a particular SDG and contextualizing their research through engagement with our Tanzanian partners. See sample projects
Projects Embedded in a Virtual Study Abroad Course
In response to the cancellation of our yearly Tanzania study abroad trip, I will be offering a remote version of the course, visiting the same and connecting with our Tanzanian partners via remote collaborative projects. The course schedule integrates the ELN PEARL process and digital badges, engaging students with partners via teleconferencing and social media. While this virtual version is not intended to replace student travel, it serves as a more accessible and scalable option while complementing and leveraging in-person trips. By engaging students in high-impact projects throughout the semester, they will have the opportunity to apply conceptual learning while connecting their experiences with academic and professional goals. This model for virtual study abroad has generated significant interest as colleges and universities struggle to continue with traditional models and programs cnbc article diverse education article
Framing Projects within SDG’s across SUNY system
With the sudden move to on-line instruction in spring 2020, and the resulting disruption to travel-based study abroad experiences, SUNY (State University of New York) leaders were seeking remote learning options for impacted students. Together with a group of SUNY colleagues, convened by SUNY COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), we designed an innovative course sequence piloted this summer. The program engages students in:
- Exploration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Focus on a specific SDG through a selected faculty lens (topical, geographic and/or cultural)
- Participation in a storytelling module
- Engagement in a mentored project with a featured global NGO
In this 6-week program, students work through curricular OER (open educational resource) content developed by SUNY faculty focused on specific SDG lenses and storytelling methodologies. They apply their learning through the PEARL process and group projects with global NGOs, including our Tanzanian partners. This model represents a systems-level approach to leveraging individual faculty expertise and global relationships through the creation of OER (open education resources), allowing the material to be repurposed beyond the life of the course, encouraging further innovation around the SDGs and global engagement.
These three variations demonstrate the curricular versatility of mentored projects, and the ability to maximize return on investment through ongoing engagement. It should be noted that in addition to our own investments in our Tanzania projects, our global partners are also leveraging their engagement to build further capacity for their work and communities. Engagement with our students has resulted in significant impacts and new opportunities for external collaboration. This adds an additional facet of versatility, positioning mentored projects as a vehicle for community development and empowerment.
Although we look forward to the return of face-to-face experiential learning activities in the near future, we strongly believe in the potential of virtual projects to catalyze meaningful impacts that are both versatile and scalable in design. It is through challenging ourselves to develop and test these models and their impacts with regard to our students, institutions, and global partners that we fully activate our collective potential.
Because failure can be so painful and emotionally triggering, we distance ourselves at all cost, finding ways to deflect, blame, or avoid. But in doing so, we miss out on one of the most powerful catalysts for professional and personal growth.
To be clear, not all failures are best failures. Most are uninteresting, simply not getting what we want, or thought we wanted. But some failures are more complex and meaningful. They involve acting on some core intention, the essence of what we believe or are trying to offer, and then hitting a proverbial wall- running into someone or something we didn’t expect or see coming. Best failures are painful in a special way. Their impact stays with us, altering our behavior and how we see the world. Best failures matter. They are inherently powerful and beckon us to examine them more closely.
In a 2013 post, I mused that just once, I would like to go to a conference that focused on best failures rather than best practices. I was tired of pretending that we had it all figured out, holding up programs as examples of excellence and superiority, with participants taking notes and hoping to replicate results. I knew then, and still know, that focusing on successes can only get us so far. Instead, if we are able to explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, identifying structural errors and false assumptions that can release us from stagnation and stuckness, and lead us to growth and expansion.
So why are there no best failures conferences or symposia? Because failure is closely associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and getting too close can result in negative emotions and discomfort. But what if we could get some emotional distance and create space for holding up our best failures as opportunities for growth, learning, and innovation. Not just any failures, mind you, but the really powerful ones, the ones that will lead to new opportunities and expansion, the type of growth that we all need and crave.
Here is a process for tapping into the power of best failures. I suggest that you do this together with a friend or mentor, someone who can challenge and guide you, and perhaps share in the process along the way.
- Identify best failures.
Remember that best failures are not about simple rejection or not getting what you want. They are symbolic stories, representing grand attempts to engage your mission or core contributions, going for it, throwing your heart and soul into something of importance, only to hit a wall. Best failures leave you reeling, profoundly disappointed, and in some way changed by the experience. Because so few failures are best failures, you will need some time to sort through your collection and identify those worthy of further exploration. Imagine yourself sorting through your closet, briefly examining each garment, deciding which to keep and which to give away. As you bring potential candidates into consideration, ask yourself whether it is a symbolic and important failure with lessons to reveal. If not, acknowledge its lack of significance, and decide to simply let it go.
- Imagine if.
Once you have identified a best failure to work with, allow yourself to indulge in the exercise of rewriting histroy. How do you wish others had behaved differently, what ending would you have preferred? Acknowledge that this is the fantasy portion of your work; the place where most of us like to go, and stay. Take a moment to appreciate how it feels to go there, wishing and rewriting, yearning for someone to have done something differently. Now reflect on what you have learned or gained from this activity, and whether it is worthwhile to continue to focus on what could have been. Once you conclude that it is neither a good investment nor a path forward, note that it is clearly time to move on.
- Alternate paths.
Now, hold up that same best failure and allow yourself to revisit your own behaviors leading up to the unwanted outcome. If you were to go back in time, knowing what you know now, how might you have done things differently and why? Without getting emotional, revisit the chain of events going back as far as you can, noting the various details and nuances to be modified, edited, or slightly tweaked, with each change leading to a different result or response. Acknowledge these variations as choices, and note your power in determining possible outcomes, even without altering another’s actions. Reflect on this idea of power. Synthesize what you have learned or discovered, and practice giving it voice- actually talking about it or describing it to someone you respect or care about. Feel your space expand.
- Apply your insights.
Now apply these lessons to where you are now and consider how you might use them within your current or evolving context. Think of these insights as gifts that you are giving yourself, not from a place of blame or humiliation, but instead from a higher state of empowerment and growth- the version of you that lies ahead. What opportunities can you identify for putting these lessons and ideas into practice? How will you recognize their effectiveness? Take some time to imagine what it will feel like when you are honoring, or have honored these gifts. How might you expect others to respond? What do you need to nurture or protect this best version of yourself? Feel this commitment take root.
Congratulations for your courage and commitment. In honor and recognition of the work you have done, and will continue to do, imagine receiving an invitation to serve as the keynote speaker for our very own Best Failures Symposium. Don’t get nervous, you have plenty of time to prepare your remarks, and the audience will be filled with only those who are committed to growth and learning. As you reflect on what you will share with fellow participants, allow yourself to put your insights into practice, making the most of the decisions you have as you live your life and do your work. Note how your choices affect you and others around you, and your ability to see and actualize opportunities for movement and growth. How has your story changed and how will it continue to evolve? Know that as you live boldly, you will have even more best failures to share. These are the evidence of our courage and the keys to continued growth.
As we immerse ourselves in virtual end-of-year celebrations, finding creative ways to honor our students’ accomplishments and achievements, summer looms large with its uncertainty. With plans for internships, travel, or other structured experiences canceled, and employment unlikely, many are hoping to find meaningful options without the benefit of formal structure or support.
As I promote the value of mentored projects, the appeal is undeniable. The idea of students exploring topics or fields of interest, leveraging online resources, and exploring their own communities and networks leaves many asking where to sign up. But with colleges and universities consumed with COVID-19 related planning, few are offering facilitated support, especially for independent projects or internships. At the UB Experiential Learning Network, we focus entirely on connecting students with meaningful mentored projects, cultivating an ever-expanding portfolio of offerings, while also supporting independent projects developed entirely by students. Regardless of the specific nature of the project, we move students through the various stages of engagement, helping them earn digital badges along the way and encouraging them to take their experiences even further toward deeper impacts.
While our Project Portal is available only to UB students, I am happy to share our model and strategies for transforming summer (or fall) into meaningful projects for all students, regardless of age or background. The most exciting part of this approach is the fact that compelling projects do not require money or privileged access to networks or contacts, but instead depend entirely on students’ willingness to fully commit to Preparation, Engagement and Adding value, Reflection and Leveraging their experiences toward broader impacts. We call this process PEARL and we encourage all students to enjoy its benefits.
But before getting started with a project, and the PEARL framework, students must negotiate two critical tasks that will set them up for success.
- Design your project
Your project should be inherently meaningful, to you and some external audience that you deem important. In deciding what to work on, focus on the outcome, making sure it is important and worthy of your time and effort, while also aligning with your interests and goals. A good project should stretch you, driving you to seek out new experiences and opportunities that you would not normally pursue, and engage with people, ideas, places and/or organizations in ways that will challenge your understanding and perspective. Your project should fit the parameters of your specific circumstances- namely, do you have a month or an entire semester or year to work on your project? Many students are opting for a Gap Year during the duration of online instruction. Your project can be as ambitious and multi-faceted as you choose to make it, but the initial design should reflect your constraints and expectations from the very beginning. I invite you to browse our available projects to get a sense of scope and framing. Note that most projects are designed to take about a semester, although some can be extended further. I offer some additional suggestions for summer projects at the end of this post, in hopes of getting you started thinking about possible ways to frame your ideas and interests. Remember that in order to sustain your efforts and attention, especially without the threat of grades or assignments, your project needs to be bold and interesting- so allow yourself to get personal and dream big.
- Find a mentor
Mentors can dramatically affect the impact of a project. Often, colleges and universities pair students with faculty mentors who invite them into their laboratories and research programs, offering support in navigating choices and opportunities. You can enjoy the benefits of a mentor even without a formal placement or affiliation. Simply invite someone whose opinion you respect, someone who has something to offer in relation to your project. Let them know what you are asking- essentially for them to provide guidance, feedback and recommendations along the way, and ultimately vet your final product, providing an endorsement if they are so inclined. Note that you can have multiple mentors, and should seek out individuals who can help you deepen your understanding and leverage your time and efforts. Having mentors can help you follow through with your commitments, not wanting to disappoint them or waste their time. You might identify mentors in your own networks or extended families, but do not be afraid to approach someone in the community or broader field, especially if you have a compelling project and story to draw them in.
Once you have designed your project and secured a mentor, it is time to begin working through the PEARL framework. Take each step seriously and seek feedback and guidance along the way.
This first step represents an important opportunity for growth and achievement, although few students take it seriously, instead choosing to jump right in. The truth is that we need to ready ourselves for high-impact experiences, establishing a base of context, skills and core understanding. Through my work at the University at Buffalo, I take students to a remote region of northern Tanzania, a place that is jarringly different from Buffalo, New York. Invariably, the students who get most from the trip have a base of knowledge and understanding on which to build. They are able to interpret specific experiences through historical and cultural lenses, building on their understanding to achieve deeper perspective. Similarly, students with basic laboratory skills are better able to immerse themselves in specialized research opportunities, approaching the work with some level of confidence and core competencies on which they can further build. In these ways, preparation sets students up for success and ensures that they will be ready for the opportunities they encounter. In the ELN, we approach preparation through three important steps. Each is necessary and inherently important- so allow yourself to dig in and fully commit to the process.
- Set your intentions
Imagine yourself at the end of your project, discussing what you accomplished with someone whose opinion you value. When asked what you got from the experience, what will you say? Rather than leaving your learning to chance, it is helpful to set intentions from the very beginning, committing to certain outcomes that are especially important to employers and academic programs and institutions. Take a look at the Career Readiness Skills, which include learning outcomes that employers report lacking in most college graduates. If you are able to demonstrate strengths related to these outcomes, including skills such as collaboration, problem solving, communication, and cultural competence, you will be more compelling as a candidate. You might also review the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics that include outcomes that are of particular interest to academic institutions and liberal arts education. If you embark on your project ready to develop these competencies, you are more likely to find the experience meaningful in supporting your goals. In other words, you will get what you expect.
- Establish general context
You may choose to do a project related to an area of expertise or instead something entirely new and unexplored. Regardless of your level of experience, it is important to frame your project in a general understanding of its relationship to a broader context. Students often skip this step as well, as they jump into internships, research or other types of experiential learning. In doing so, they fail to establish basic knowledge and skills, ultimately limiting their ability to explore or discuss their experience in compelling and powerful ways. If you are focusing your project on a particular industry or technology, you might begin by exploring the history of innovation, or related or competing discoveries in the field. Before beginning a project with a particular faculty mentor, you might research their body of work, gaining an understanding of their interests and priorities along with their educational and professional background. Spending time developing an understanding of context will help you in many ways, especially when you encounter challenges or disappointments. Rather than quitting a project when things fail to go as planned, you can gain the necessary perspective and identify ways to adapt or better understand the challenges. Before starting a project, allow yourself to get curious and explore the universe surrounding whatever topic you have chosen, noting any areas of interest or surprise that may lead to new insights or areas for further exploration. Here is a tip: If you are not interested in your topic enough to want to explore surrounding context, then you might need to find a different project. Let your curiosity be your guide.
- Develop specialized skills and knowledge
In addition to general context, many projects call for specialized skills, knowledge or experiences necessary to fully engage and complete the related activities. Rather than be intimidated by learning more, accept the challenge and explore creative ways to obtain access to important opportunities and information. Remember that the internet provides an expansive universe of trainings, professional development, and competence building resources- many completely free and open-access. While official credentials and degrees are valuable, they are not always necessary, especially when projects speak for themselves once executed. You just might find it freeing and enjoyable to explore new skills and areas of development without the need to obtain certification or official endorsement.
After reading through these steps, it is probably not surprising that preparation can take a long time. But depending on your specific time allowance, you can adapt accordingly. Regardless of the scope of your project, however, preparation is a critical step that should be valued and taken seriously. Share your preparation with your mentor, perhaps synthesizing your work through a report or reflection paper. Take pride in what have already accomplished and get excited for the experiences and learning that lie ahead.
- Engage and Add Value
This step represents the heart of your project- namely, the execution of a plan toward some outcome that is inherently meaningful. In the ELN, we group Engagement and Adding Value together because doing so makes your efforts more powerful. What will your final product look like and why will it matter? Here are some general tips to consider as you engage.
- Start with a project plan and share with you mentor before getting started. The plan should focus on the final product and work backwards, clarifying individual components and steps and setting goals and targets to keep you on track.
- Identify the beneficiary of your project- even if it is theoretical. Namely, what populations or communities might, or should, be interested in the outcomes? If possible, think about ways to engage them through the process, inviting input while also establishing an audience with whom to share your final product
- Identify any necessary costs or access critical to the success of the project. If obtaining these resources presents risk or uncertainty, you might need to adapt your plan to ensure viability for success. Many students begin projects that they are unable to complete due to funding issues or lack of access. Set your project up for success by thinking through these details in advance and modifying plans accordingly.
- Seek frequent input from mentors and peers. Sometimes we get lost in our own work and fail to see alternate paths or possible solutions. It is also helpful to get reassurance and validation along the way.
- Stay focused on the intended outcomes, resisting the urge to switch projects mid-course or take on something different that might seem more exciting or doable. The ability to persevere is an important skill to develop. But also allow yourself some flexibility to explore alternate paths or solutions as necessary.
When it comes to your final product, make it as impressive as possible and think about the various audiences with whom you will want to share your work. In the ELN, students earn digital badges upon completing their projects, and their work is embedded in the badge itself, serving as an ePortfolio of sorts. Regardless of how you display or share your work, the finished product should be polished and fully executed. Make sure you get the final approval from your mentor along with any endorsements or recommendations they can offer. Also ask if you can stay in touch, securing the benefits of continued communication and support.
Reflection is just as important as the project itself. The idea of stepping away and thinking about what you have done and learned through various lenses will allow you to access new opportunities for growth and insight. In the ELN, we have a Reflection Badge that walks students through the stages of reflection. First, students revisit their learning intentions that were set during Preparation, noting any surprises, growth, or areas for further development. Next, they watch a video titled, “Telling Compelling Stories about your Experiences and Achievements” that shares a process for connecting projects with an audience of interest, perhaps a potential employer or graduate school. I encourage you to watch the video and reflect on your own experiences as they relate to your professional and academic goals. After watching the video, students practice talking about their own experiences, recording videos of their own. Students report that this process is quite useful, especially the opportunity to see themselves talking, and making modifications to achieve some level of comfort and proficiency. As explained in the video, narratives can be quite powerful, including those we tell others, but even more importantly, the internal narratives that guide our efforts, especially in the face of adversity or challenge. I hope you will continue to reflect on your project long after it is completed, discovering new insights and opportunities to connect with audiences and experiences that will continue to help you grow and find success.
We almost always fall short when it comes to leveraging our experiences toward deeper and broader impacts. While we invest heavily in activities that can differentiate us and support our goals, we are quick to move on to the next endeavor as soon as we complete the task at hand. But once you have invested in something important, why not continue to harvest the fruits of your labor? There are so many ways you can continue to build on your project to benefit your own professional growth, or further support your community partner. Where will your project lead you? Will you continue to explore a topic, clarify your career or academic pathways, or perhaps seek out additional opportunities to serve, learn, or contribute? So much of our success and fulfilment stems from the stories we tell about ourselves, and others. Allow your project to impact your story, providing insights, humility, and a sense of curiosity that will lead you in exciting and meaningful directions. Find inspiration in other students’ stories by visiting our stories page and think about adding your own.
I hope this process has been helpful with the design and navigation your own projects. I know the first step of “dreaming up” projects is difficult for most people. It happens to be my favorite part. Here is a short list of project ideas for you to consider and build upon. Remember, virtually anything can be a project- as long as it culminates in something meaningful. So be personal, creative and bold. Make your project count.
- Raise seed money for an identified cause through some fundraising activity and then invest in start-ups or organizations with related missions, or perhaps develop and pilot an initiative of your own
- Find an organization that you believe in and help promote their efforts or build capacity in some meaningful way
- Explore your community through a specific lens and create an app or interactive website to invite engagement from others
- Do a deep dive into your family history, interviewing different family members and chronicling important events, developing an interactive archive that future family members can enjoy and learn from
- Find an internet-based initiative that is seeking engagement such as open-source mapping, Wikipedia, or a global idea challenge and set some goal for participation or recognition
- Learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and embark on a challenge to change your own behavior or those of others in your community or spheres of influence in support of goals or targets.
- Choose a part of the country or world that you want to visit and plan your adventure. Allow yourself to explore the region and build your itinerary including travel details and budget- dream big or be realistic and frugal, use technology to transport yourself and make a travelogue to share your journey with others
- Explore the COVID-19 pandemic through a particular lens- education, health, economics, etc…- and identify organizations or models that will help us move forward, or alternately, models that are no longer relevant/effective. Focus your project on ways to innovate, better addressing the needs of communities or the allocation or management of resources.
- Dig into access and equity issues. Explore your community through a particular lens of challenge and access. Conduct research, interview those around you to understand specific challenges and inequities. Based on your research, identify solutions and engage others in your ideas and plans.
- Find a sense of purpose or passion. age in a structured journey to explore different career paths and areas of study and exploration. Allow yourself to get curious, to read, to talk to people, to immerse yourself in new ideas and sources of information. Learn about yourself and your history, and commit to setting some life intentions and goals that will set you on a path toward fulfillment and success.
Let these ideas inspire you to create your own projects, to leverage your unique resources and stories to achieve something important and resonant. Now, more than ever, the world needs doers, professionals who can add value, setting meaningful goals, and navigating challenges and uncertainties toward some meaningful outcome. Regardless of your circumstances or the evolving COVID landscape, know that you have what you need to keep moving forward. I implore you to be bold with your projects, to find mentors to support and encourage your work, and to leverage your investments toward bigger and far-reaching impacts. And most of all, have fun- there’s nothing more exciting than pursuing your dreams.
One of the most important things I do is help students with their resumes. While I am not a career counselor, nor is resume development an explicit part of my job, I am in the business of experiential learning. And high impact experiences such as internships, research, and global engagement should -by definition- support students’ academic and professional goals and feature prominently in their resumes. However, I find that while students often do a good job conveying academic achievement, their resumes say little about who they are and what they have to offer in terms of skills, passion or sense of purpose, or why they are uniquely qualified for the opportunity.
How to strengthen a resume to make it more compelling? Begin with a list of categories of experiences that an ideal candidate would offer. Try the following to get you started: specialized coursework; career preparation; skill development; service or clinical work; mentored research; awards and recognition. Under each heading, list specific accomplishments and experiences, writing each in the most succinct and compelling way. Feel free to add additional categories as necessary, but make sure that they are important and aligned with both the position and your preparation. For example, you might add “publications and press” if your work has been featured or celebrated, but should not include “high school courses” even if it would add extensive entries. Each category should be individually necessary and collectively sufficient to fully convey your preparation and suitability for the position or opportunity.
At this point, step away from your list and reflect on the foundation you have built and have to offer. Please note that no matter where we are in our education or life’s journey, our resumes are never complete, but instead represent a place from which to grow. Take a moment to identify areas that are more fully developed. Perhaps you have focused heavily on coursework with extensive evidence of acceleration or mastery. Or, perhaps you have included “life experience” with unique and compelling circumstances that point to tenacity and perseverance in the face of challenge. In addition to areas of strength, however, it is critical to note categories that are particularly sparse, empty, or less compelling. But before deleting these categories, or throwing yourself into new activities or experiences, think about your emerging story, seeking sufficient clarity to guide you through the next phase of work.
What is your academic story and where is it leading you? Were you a student who came to college with a clear plan and the drive to pursue a specific career or academic pathway? More likely, you began with certain interests, talents and experiences that have led you to specific decisions and opportunities. The truth is that most of us meander and experiment, trying things, learning from our success and failures, meeting influential people along the way, making adjustments as we move toward further clarity and decision making. As you think about your own experiences, consider what you are striving for in developing your resume, consider where you have been but also where you are heading. What is the opportunity that you are seeking and why is it important to you? How are you preparing, and what do you (or will you) have to offer?
These two questions represent the soul of your resume. How are you uniquely prepared for this opportunity, and what do you offer the organization, institution, or community?
As you begin to envision the answers to these questions, you will find yourself seeking activities and experiences that will help make your story- and resume- even more compelling. And as you internalize these stories, opportunities will begin to emerge- or more accurately, begin to reveal themselves- and this is the magical place where growth will find you.
My days are filled with poignant moments. Family meals, neighborhood walks, daily rituals cast in heightened relief, with contrasts and nuances amplified in detail and significance. My conversations with Stephen are no different. Yesterday morning he called while I was shopping, and I let the phone ring as he tried again and again to reach me, so sure that I would eventually pick up. I had been among the first in line at the grocery store, determined to stock my pantry with ample food and resources for the coming weeks. I had donned gloves and a mask hand-sewn by my daughter Natalie from Tanzanian fabrics brought back from my numerous trips. I had given her a stack of beautiful batik cloth of vibrant colors and patterns, in hopes of lightening this somber project.
I eventually connected with Stephen and we began with news of the Virus. He had completed the initial field research in an island community in Rorya, a nearby district. He mentioned that in visiting a health clinic, they were entirely unaware of Corona and had virtually no hand washing or preventative measures in place. He planned to return with his soap making project, beginning to train local community members to produce this precious resource.
Our conversation quickly turned to the success of his research. The community had embraced his work with great enthusiasm and gratitude and the leaders were eager to connect and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The initial work was complete, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief that we had found a way to make it happen. With the spread of the Virus and the move to online instruction, virtually every project has come to a halt, a state of suspended animation as we await the dreaded apex and begin the envision the other side. How fortunate that the fundraiser was successful and I was able to send over $450 to support the initial work. Although I had targeted the mapping project as the focus of the Happy Hour and GoFundMe campaign, it was all related and my friends and colleagues were happy to offer their support. Thankfully, Stephen understood the preciousness of the gift, and was determined to use the funds strategically in recognition of their significance.
It is this recognition that lingers in my mind as I type these reflections. Stephen understands the preciousness of our gifts. He also understands the spirit of collaboration that drives my continued efforts. He said that while grants and sponsors offer valuable resources, they bring frustration and complexity. Instead, it is better to build from within, laying the foundation through an understanding of needs and strengths, and building growth through trust and relationships, moving forward and expanding through collaboration and synergies. Although Stephen did not use these words, he did convey their essence, an exquisite recognition of a truth that has given me strength, and continues to drive all that I do and know.
Stephen ended the conversation with his hopes that HRCO will become an organization known globally for its work and partnerships, a model for what is possible for communities and people around the world.
Since 2009, we have been taking members of the UB and Buffalo communities to Tanzania to explore women’s empowerment and social innovation in the Mara Region, engaging with partners through collaborative projects.
This fall, we are excited to offer our first Virtual Study Abroad trip, transporting students to this remarkable part of the world and introducing them to the places and people with whom we have been working over the past ten years. The course will follow the same study abroad itinerary and will feature: Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, Musoma, Tarime, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Moshi/Arusha, Zanzibar.
In addition to active participation in class “trips” and “meetings,” students will work on mentored group projects through the ELN Project Portal, collaborating with featured Tanzanian partners to support community development initiatives, earning digital badges along the way.
Fall 2020 – PSY499
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 – 10:20 a.m.
Space is limited. Contact Dr. Huber to get added to the class.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. Like everyone around me, I have gone virtually nowhere in the last few weeks. An occasional walk or quick errand in the car. No need for coordinated outfits or dressing up. And yet, this morning, I organized my closet, initiating the great migration of my spring and summer wardrobe and putting my heavy winter things into storage. For me, this is yearly therapy. Despite the usual disappointments of spring in Buffalo, NY, and the looming frost that mocks my impatience, I boldly prepare with color and vibrancy. Of course, this spring I need it more than ever.
When I opened my summer totes, I was overcome with emotion. I realized that for the past 10+ years this ritual transcends seasonal anticipation. As I looked at the clothing before me- the dresses, skirts and colorful cloths- memories of Tanzania washed over me, the trips themselves but also their preparation, selecting items that would be good for travel- the long plane rides, the dusty roads, and bumpy safaris. I chose long skirts for the villages and special dresses for our dinners by the sea. These experiences- complete my with thoughts, conversations, and moments- had permeated the clothing and continue to emanate now, as I sit here typing on my bed, staring at my open wardrobe, feeling blessed beyond words.
It is true that my May trip has been postponed for how long, I cannot know. But rather than sadness, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, thankful for my relationships and my ability to live vicariously through the movement and growth that continue. Ironically, while I was sorting through my summer clothing, I received a call from Stephen Marwa, who was checking in from Tanzania. Although we had been maintaining weekly conversations, we had fallen off, due to the virus. I have to admit that I was hesitant to answer Stephen’s call, unsure I could hold my usual energy and attention. I am so thankful I answered.
We talked briefly about the Corona outbreak, exchanging updates and news. But the conversation quickly moved to the week ahead. On Monday, they will begin the community survey work, using the instrument that we helped create through collaboration. Although we intended to send funds associated with our students’ project, everything had come to a halt. Luckily, I was able to organize an informal fundraiser that went forward even in the face of social distancing. Through the generosity of colleagues and friends, and the power of GoFundMe, I was able to send $450, which in Tanzania still goes far. Stephen assured me that he would use these precious funds wisely, since there is no way of knowing when external funding will resume. We agreed that the work must continue, and the need for nimbleness, leadership and tenacity are greater than ever. Stephen shared that the heavy rains have washed out many roads, making his initial plans to focus on Musoma Rural untenable. Instead, he will conduct the survey on an island in Rorya, traveling by boat, joined by students from Buhare Community Development Training Institute who are eager to be involved. Any remaining funds will be used to start the mapping work.
I asked him about soap making, which is growing in popularity as communities worry about Corona and learn of the importance of hand washing. We spoke briefly of other projects, emphasizing the importance of a new website that will be designed by a UB student, showcasing ongoing initiatives and building capacity for collaboration and support. I mentioned that I would come as soon as I could, but that was a given and didn’t need to be said. Stephen mentioned his appreciation, but only quickly, since it was also understood. We are well beyond these formalities and both recognize that our journeys are forever interconnected.
How ironic that things are moving more quickly in Tanzania than here in New York. It’s as if we are in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps right now, I need Mara Tanzania more than they need me. But I am grateful that I can come along, sharing their growth and movement, brought to me through Stephen’s voice, social media posts, and my beautiful summer clothes.
I hope to share these updates with you, whoever and wherever you are. I have a feeling that I am not the only one in need of movement, connectivity and relevance. In reality, we are not so far away, and we are all in this together.
We could all use some practice talking about our strengths and achievements. Here is a video workshop that is part of our ELN digital badge series). It’s great for students and professionals- we have students submit video profiles sharing their own stories about internships, study abroad, service or other types of experiential learning. I would love to hear your stories about all the great things you’ve done and hope to do in the future…
Like most colleges, we have had to cancel our upcoming Study Abroad trips. This decision has left students terribly disappointed. And while we hope to reintroduce these offerings in the near future, the disruption should give us pause to recognize the inherent fragility of travel-based learning and the need for more durable approaches.
Ironically, just this fall, we launched a new digital platform to engage students in virtual collaboration, connecting them with mentored projects including those featuring global engagement. In addition to accommodating mentored research and other types of traditional experiential learning, I needed our system to support the collaborative projects developed through our study abroad trip to Tanzania. Namely, as students have contributed their ideas and resources during and following their trips, other students, either unable to travel or seeking deeper engagement, have expressed interest in getting involved, contributing their talents and resources through ongoing projects. Finding ways to support and nurture these efforts while also leveraging digital media (pictures, videos and stories) collected through our travels, has helped to inspire and catalyze the design of our new Project Portal and associated digital badge series .
This notion of “leveraging” features prominently in our work and offers important guidance for creating more scalable and durable models. In designing our system, we created PEARL as a framework to guide and assess student engagement. PEARL stands for Prepare; Engage and Add Value; Reflect; and Leverage. As detailed in this brief video, these steps lead students through the process of activating the potential of an opportunity and integrating the experience with their academic and professional goals, toward greater impact and innovation. For students, leveraging is all about capacity building, scaffolding experiences toward higher-level contributions and understanding. But for institutions, including schools, colleges and universities, leveraging is about ensuring that investments yield multiple and maximal results, continuing to build impact over time regardless of circumstances or possible disruptions.
With regard to global engagement, relationships represent the most important investments on which we can build. The best study abroad programs are built on deep partnerships, friendships and collaborations, along with deep cultural knowledge and experience. Although student travel represents a particularly impactful and transformative vehicle for student growth and learning, technology platforms offer flexible tools for connecting students with people, places and issues around the world. But rather than simply connecting students for the sake of communication or understanding, they can use virtual exchange to collaborate and contribute as they deepen their own cultural competencies, sharing resources and talents toward some meaningful outcome.
Building course structures around virtual collaboration is neither difficult nor inherently complicated. In addition to content-focused frames, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Grand Challenges, or various other aspirant frameworks can be utilized. And in addition to content-focused learning, students can engage in related research, innovation, or any other activities that are meaningful, compelling and resonant.
Personally, I cannot wait to return to Tanzania and bring another group of students to immerse themselves in the beauty and complexity of the Mara Region. But the next time I lead a study abroad trip, I will be especially focused on harvesting new projects, contacts and digital media towards engaging even more students and fostering deeper collaboration and impacts. Now, more than ever, I recognize the preciousness of these resources and opportunities.
Since 2009, I have been visiting Mara Tanzania, bringing groups of students, faculty and community members toward the goal of building collaboration around women’s empowerment and community development. Admittedly, my vision for collaboration has been ambitious from the start- far different from the types of sponsor or funder relationships that are so common in this part of the world. Instead, my version of collaboration has always focused on the idea of adding value to existing or emerging initiatives through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, or engagement, essentially doing what we do best as a University community, but doing it with our partners in Tanzania, both in person and remotely.
I have come to recognize that this notion of collaboration is ambitious even within our own community, let alone one so far away with regard to distance, culture, and history. Not surprisingly, this concept of collaboration has yet to be fully embraced or understood by most of our Tanzanian friends and partners. Although we made significant early contributions to the school project in Rorya, the initiative that first introduced me to Mara and brought me to Tanzania, the needed fundraising far exceeded the limits of our engagement model, causing us to step aside and continue our search for more collaborative projects. With persistence and the help of Dr. Dan Nyaronga, a Buffalo professor who happens to be from the Mara Region, we eventually made progress, establishing relationships with organizations and leaders through a yearly study-abroad course, laying the foundation for collaborative projects that continue to grow and evolve today.
Through an ongoing relationship with Buhare Community Development Training Institute (BCDTI), in Musoma, we were first introduced to an organization that has evolved into Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO), led by Executive Director Stephen Marwa, who has become our main partner and liaison for the region. Stephen has proven to be an outstanding collaborator in the most ambitious sense, and has embraced every resource, connection and opportunity that we have shared, transforming ideas into projects and initiatives, demonstrating amazing leadership and serving as a mentor and inspiration for us all. When our students and community members shared ideas for projects, including a reusable sanitary pad sewing initiative, and a bicycle lab for girls who lack access to school, Stephen quickly brought these projects to life, galvanizing community support and engaging local women and youth, cultivating new leaders and building capacity from within. And even beyond the Musoma community, Stephen has been nurturing connections with our collaborators in Tarime, through the Mogabiri Farm Extension Center (MFEC), expanding his network and building synergies for greater impacts and outcomes.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, we have been making significant progress as well, trying to actualize the promise of collaboration within our own university community. For me, my Tanzania efforts have served as a laboratory of sorts- allowing me to test what is possible and then reflect on implications and innovations. Like Mara Tanzania, there are so many communities and potential partners eager to collaborate, building on ideas and support to leverage internal assets and opportunities for growth. But how to connect students in ways that are meaningful and appropriate, how to add value without overextending our reach? Over the past year, we have built a new infrastructure to support the type of collaboration we have been seeking. In fall 2019, we launched the ELN Project Portal http://www.buffalo.edu/eln/students/project-portal.html– a web-based interface for connecting students with mentored projects of all types and focus, both local and global, including Tanzania projects featuring our partners. To guide students through their engagement, helping them get the most from their project experiences, we created a series of digital badges that follow our PEARL framework (prepare; engage and add value; reflect; leverage), guiding them through the process of engagement while helping them weave connections with academic and professional goals. And at the heart of this exciting model are the experiences afforded through engagement with partners like Stephen, MFEC, and our collaborators across the Mara Region.
As we prepare for our students to return for the spring semester, I am excited to engage them in what I see as the 2nd phase of my Tanzania collaboration journey. It is clear that there is movement and momentum in Tanzania. Many of the projects that we have discussed over the years and have tried to nurture and support are now evolving and developing under the leadership of our partners. Now it is time for us to help document the growth, to help give it form, whether written or digital. We will follow the lead of our collaborators, working to add value and offer meaningful engagement. This was the vision for our collaboration, and it is truly an honor to be engaged in this important work.
For Spring 2020, our students will focus on the following projects in collaboration with Stephen Marwa (HRCO)
Water and sanitation: cultivating sustainability ecosystems in Mara Tanzania.
-partnership with Friendly Water for the World and Stephen Marwa
-piloting a new model for community engagement around sustainable technologies
Students will support initial feasibility study for pilot communities, working with Stephen and Friendly Water to document community assets and gain understanding of needs towards establishing a foundation for growth and the formation of a new model with deepened community engagement. Students will also document the stories and strategies associated with successful sustainability activities in the region toward sharing best practices and tools for success, while supporting GIS mapping and community geography work.
Tailoring, batik and reusable sanitary pads: community empowerment through social entrepreneurship
– Individual projects underway in Musoma and Tarime (MFEC)
– Exploring new markets, training programs and synergies
Students will document evolving projects in Musoma and Tarime, interviewing participating women and program leadership, and showcasing the products toward building capacity and sharing model with other interested communities.
Bicycle lab project
-Pilot project underway with bikes donated by Spoke Folk (Dunkirk, NY)
-Plans to expand program and start a community bike lab
Students will work to document the stories of the girls who have benefitted from the community bicycle project and how the bicycles have impacted their education and future opportunities. These efforts will help build resources and support for future iterations of the program.
We look forward to sharing our progress through student projects and posts. Please follow along and check out our portal for more exciting initiatives.
I am getting an increasing number of calls about digital badges. Colleges and universities, K-12, adult education, and community programs all wanting to explore the promise of this new pedagogical tool.
The interest is exciting and I am always happy to discuss the potential of digital badges. I see them as a powerful design tool- allowing us to clarify our missions and visions, supporting our students in leveraging our resources in working toward their highest potential. I must be compelling in my enthusiasm, or maybe the promise of badges speaks for itself, because by the end of the conversation or presentation, the leaders are usually ready to sign-up for a system of their own, wanting to discuss next steps and a quick path to implementation. This is the point that gets a little awkward as I explain that there is no one to sign up with- certainly not me, and no template or program to follow or purchase.
How to begin? I try to explain that the badge or micro-credential part of the system is actually the easiest. There are online platforms that walk you through the creation of badge icons, which are simply interactive digital files. You brand badges with your organization’s name and information, the respective title of the skill or competence, and the specific expectations and evidence associated with the skill. On the administrative side, the platform allows you to issue or award the badge, sending the file to the student once you approve their evidence.
But the rest is up to you/us- what do we hope the students will do with the opportunities provided, how will they translate these into success or readiness, and how will they communicate their skills and competencies to the world and to the audiences that matter most? These clarifications and the associated mapping work will frame the next stage of our collective evolution, and digital badges already provide the necessary design tools.
With a little time the “how” to build and support badging systems will become less mysterious. As organizations begin to play with these platforms, we will begin to see the possibilities. And as employers begin to endorse certain badges, or emphasize specific skills or competencies or types of evidence, the market will begin to shift in response. Soon, apps and start-ups (or perhaps Amazon?) will market badges directly to students, allowing them to sample from both formal and informal educational programs and experiences, weaving preparation with projects, accomplishments and endorsements into compelling digital narratives and portfolios of evidence.
In this way, education will eventually flip. But in reality, students are already the designers, with a bounty of resources and opportunities at their disposal. As the keepers or deliverers of these resources, we should embrace opportunities to help our students translate our affordances into success and further opportunity. Yes, in activating the potential of digital badges we will, ourselves, have to stretch and grow, building capacity to connect our own resources with changing opportunities and expectations. How ironic that in figuring out how to create digital badge systems for our students, we would benefit from working toward digital badges of our own.
New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.
College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences
With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.
Curiosity and excitement rather than fear
Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college. When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).
The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)
From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.
Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns
Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.
You as a mentor
Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.
Start from what you love
I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way….. these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers, academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.
Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you
You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.
Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens
Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.
What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?
Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.
Now look at the systems you have access to
Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.
Developing powerful narratives
Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.
Can you feel disruption happening? I can. Higher Education is changing from within, and it is only the beginning.
In the new version of the game, degrees and credentials are still essential, but no longer sufficient. Experiences and contributions are the new differentiators, with employers expecting to know and see what candidates have done- what they can and will do, if hired.
Some are already playing the new version of the game, leveraging projects to open doors and access opportunities. They know that projects are undeniably powerful. At their best, they can activate ideas, theories and competencies, allowing students to reflect and demonstrate impact through compelling media and testimonials. Imagine students not just saying they are interested in a profession, but instead demonstrating their commitment, their journey to develop their knowledge and skills, their promise viewed through tangible contributions and products.
This is already happening with our top students- those competing for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. The narratives they weave for applications and interviews demonstrate they are already on their way to becoming change agents- they are safe and worthy investments, having leveraged the opportunities and resources afforded them- not just through their colleges and universities, but their unique lives, challenges, and personal stories.
Individualized experiences are clearly part of the answer. The good news (for us) is that we are still necessary. Universities and colleges offer treasures of expertise and knowledge but also the relationships and connections that undergird the best experiences and opportunities, those that support innovation and growth. The same faculty and staff who lead courses and programs can frame-out experiences that prepare students for emerging fields and systems in need of innovation and change. In addition to instruction, they can be facilitators, mentors and guides, opening up their own academic, professional, and even personal journeys for students to explore and leverage.
But how to actualize these latent resources in ways that elevate students’ access while supporting the continued viability of our educational institutions and systems? This question is quietly (in some cases silently) percolating within Higher Education, with implications that are profound and deeply threatening to the status quo.
Clearly, the new version of the education game excites me. For it is no longer one of traditional prestige or privilege, but instead access and authenticity. It also deeply challenges our notions of leadership- calling on new skills and competencies that are largely yet to be developed or accepted. For in this new version of the game, leaders must re-imagine and re-engineer our systems, moving us from structural constraints and limitations to catalytic possibilities and growth.
As someone who has long worked to disrupt from within, I can feel the energy of this seismic shift. Students and employers are wanting more, and young faculty are neither afraid nor reluctant to meet the call. As we dip our feet into project-based collaboration, virtual exchange, and other pedagogical innovations that open up our university while connecting students with the world in personal and profound ways, we cannot help wanting and pursuing more.
Yes, the game is definitely changing, and many of us are beyond ready to play.
With less than three months into our new Project Portal, I am excited on so many levels. Student interest is high and new projects are coming in from all directions. Our digital badges are yielding important data and the resulting stories are already compelling. While there is much to dig into and explore as we build out our new model over the coming months and years, there is one facet that begs immediate attention; global collaboration.
To say that there has been strong interest would be a gross understatement. Inquiries have been coming in almost daily. The students are from diverse backgrounds and areas of study- engineering, communication, public health, psychology, statistics, and computer science; students from the local community and others from countries and regions around the world. But perhaps even more remarkable than their diversity, is the consistent manner in which they are asking to join the projects; articulating a genuine and moving interest in making a difference through their engagement; a desire to give something back or make lives somehow better.
What projects are attracting such strong interest? For now, they are all associated with my Tanzania collaborations. They involve clean water and sanitation, women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and an emerging community bicycle laboratory. They feature long-term partners who are on the ground in Tanzania, extraordinary people who are committed to the work and eager to collaborate with our students, to engage their ideas, talents, and opportunities, and the resources that may follow.
If you visit these project profiles, you will find articulated learning outcomes that are both familiar and highly regarded. You will see cultural competence, global learning, communication, problem solving and other ideas that represent important skills and competencies valued by 21st century employers and deemed important for a well-rounded liberal arts education. While undeniably important, let’s be clear that these learning outcomes are not what is speaking to our students. Instead, it is the chance to connect with real communities and people, to touch the world, to make a difference, to fulfill a sense of purpose and hope, and to experience the challenges and rewards of collaboration.
I have been experimenting with the complexities of collaboration for over 16 years, and acknowledge its ambitious and perhaps aspirant nature. Even within our own communities, it is difficult to navigate the implicit power imbalances and differences in culture and perceptions that undermine our attempts to collaborate. But as we search for goals that will challenge and stretch us toward innovation and relevance, I believe that global collaboration is worthy of our pursuit. Put simply, it is inherently meaningful and resonant with the best that we have to offer.
As I look ahead to the future of experiential learning, I am both inspired by the adventures in collaboration that lie ahead and reassured by the knowledge that our students are profoundly ready.
Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.
While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.
I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.
But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.
When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?
I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.
Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?
Through my work at the University at Buffalo, we are embracing digital badges in an exciting and innovative way. We are using them to guide students through mentored projects- helping them prepare, engage, reflect and leverage their experiences in support of their academic and professional goals. (visit site)
As I present on our new Project Portal, both inside and outside the University, audiences seem to get the importance of what we are doing. But as soon as I begin talking about digital badges, the “back end” of our model, I find their attention waning or their cynicism kicking in. Those who have heard of digital badges and micro-credentials immediately dismiss them as the newest trend, or a shallow repackaging of traditional curricula, or even a desperate attempt at sustained relevance. Yet despite these responses, I find my own enthusiasm heightening, and an eagerness to defend their promise, to map out potential designs and demonstrate their latent potential.
What are digital badges? Badging involves isolating specific competencies, dispositions, or skills that are valuable/valued and providing opportunities for students to “earn” them, working toward a threshold of mastery/attainment. The digital part of the name denotes their online format, and the issuance of a branded digital icon- or badge- once expectations are met. Students can display their badges on social media or their digital resume. And when a viewer clicks on a badge, they can review the evidence indicative of the achievement, usually a project or a tangible representation of that skill.
You can badge just about anything, including many important skills and competencies that remain elusive yet important. Professional development, capacity building, workforce readiness, character development, professionalism, integrity, mindfulness…. I could literally go on forever. Virtually anything that can be named, unpacked, and assessed, can be badged.
Even the process of growth can be badged, if we take the time to define and support it. This is exactly what we are doing with our new Project Portal. In an effort to help students get the most of their mentored projects, we are isolating various steps in the process of project-based collaboration, using our own PEARL framework to serve as a foundation (link to PEARL). In addition to helping the students get and give more to their projects, our digital badge sequence also allows us to assess their progress and share their products along the way. You see, from an assessment standpoint, being able to clarify what you mean and what you expect is critical to effectively assessing it. Without that clarity and definition, assessment is meaningless.
If you can use badges for almost anything, then why are they so exciting? Here are a few of my favorite features that make badging such a valuable design tool:
- By badging skills or dispositions, we can bring qualities that have been largely invisible or at least fuzzy into the light. Soft skills, social capital, workforce development, capacity building- these are all critical to growth and equity, but have remained difficult to formalize and access.
- Individual badges can be “stacked” or traded up for larger or higher level skills and competencies. Learners can begin with more basic understandings anwork toward more sophisticated applications. By stacking up badges toward “uber badges”, we can create ecosystems that are inherently generative and catalytic.
- Because badges are not tethered to credits and are presented through digital formats, we are not limited to traditional curricula or pedagogical design. We can leverage the flexibility and creativity of digital media, and allow students to demonstrate their learning and competencies through personalized platforms and projects.
From a design standpoint, digital badges provide a dynamic canvas for supporting growth, empowerment and innovation. They also allow us to release the restrictive constraints that have defined and limited formalized education. Whether within or outside traditional systems, we can empower learners to steward their own growth and development, earning badges that are inherently meaningful and valuable, while owning and demonstrating the associated evidence and impact. In a way, badges can flip the system, providing students with opportunities and structures to leverage the offerings and affordances that are all around them (us), building their own capacity toward more powerful constructs and competencies.
I am back in Buffalo- having just returned from our 10-year anniversary trip to Mara Tanzania. And just like that, 10 years of my life and professional energies have been wrapped up in a bow; celebrated, honored and commemorated by my dear friends and partners who made me feel special and cherished beyond description.
And now I strain, eager to get my head around the many lessons and insights, allowing me to shift into the next phase of my work, whatever it may be. Why the urgency- you might ask. Although our partnerships are in many ways impressive, I know that they are inherently precious, and perhaps still fragile. You see, our Tanzania project was never an institutional priority. I was never asked to develop or sustain it. In fact, over the years I have had to be tenacious, finding ways to keep it going, often under the radar, buying time until the landscape shifts and new opportunities emerge.
And even now, as the benefits are both obvious and resonant, I am still working to think ahead, identifying the next manifestation that will allow our investments to keep growing and multiplying. This work of continuously nurturing engagement is both taxing and frustrating, moving at its own pace and rhythm, always precarious, never secure. Perhaps in an effort to coax it along, or instead to simply grasp for those who understand the significance and struggle, I will share some resonant truths in whatever form they offer themselves.
Capacity building is real– both as a challenge and an opportunity, especially in developing regions like Mara. Literally everywhere we look there are assets and resources but if they cannot be harnessed and leveraged, their communities and people (especially women and children) will remain vulnerable. There are organizations and leaders ready and poised to have an impact. But without sufficient infrastructure, incentives, levers of change, they will remain alone and unable to activate their potential. Investments will not trickle down and lives will remain cruel. But if we can weave structures and networks around these assets and leaders, connecting them upward, inward and outward, we can leverage their individual resources toward greater impacts, eventually catalyzing growth and collaboration from within.
Grants and donors are not the answer– no one funding opportunity or single initiative will save our most vulnerable communities or populations. When I see new non-profits or small community organizations waiting and searching for the golden funder, or praying that it’s me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I see the precious resources they expend trying to court the funder or win the grant- ready to pivot to whatever initiative or remediation is being endorsed. And when partial funding is offered, they eagerly accept, getting started right away, even when funding is insufficient to cover required costs. And then they are back in the weeds and the cycle continues.
Collaboration is key, but it requires strategic support. It’s amazing to see so many organizations and communities dealing with the same challenges and offering such similar programs. And yet they often fail to connect and certainly to collaborate. Instead they compete. Collaboration can be fostered and nurtured, but it needs to be facilitated by skilled mediators and designers. The best place to start (in my experience) is with new opportunities and themes that can add value to individual efforts while not competing, interfering or adding complexity. This can be achieved through identifying broader themes and commonalities that resonate with external trends and resources, and expanding and creating new opportunities rather than relying only on known resources.
Technology can be a game changer, but the “how” must be translated- everywhere we go there are computers and cell phones, and requests for more technology. But most of the computers are not working, and there is little understanding of how technology can be leveraged for individual and collective growth. We have had multiple requests for our students to design and manage websites and provide other critical support. But when we ask to work with individuals who have related job responsibilities and or skill sets we have had no success. Since technology and connectivity are featured in virtually every strategic plan for developing countries and regions, building capacity and expertise among key professionals and youth is absolutely critical.
Higher Education has a pivotal role to play– this is where it gets tough. Because I am part of this system, I cannot go too far. But I can say unequivocally that we can do much more. Our students want to get close. They want high-touch experiences. And our faculty have so much expertise and resources to offer. Our leaders must recognize that this work is not “extra” or outside our core mission. Instead it is the pathway to continued (or perhaps renewed) relevance- it is worthy of scholarship, research and innovation. It is inherently noble and important.
I hope that these insights are not construed as negativity or defeatism. On the contrary, I find myself more excited than ever to continue our relationships and our collective efforts to build capacity through collaboration and engagement. In fact, as I write this post, our students are formulating projects based on their own experiences with our partners in Mara. Their projects will be open to students from all backgrounds and majors who are eager to work on real-world issues and challenges, and to contribute their talents and resources in meaningful ways. What will come of these efforts and the foundation we have built over the past 10 years? I have no idea- but am hopeful beyond words.