Mara Huber, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, University at Buffalo
This Friday, at the EOC Women’s Conference, I will be talking about the notion of actualizing our potential.
I see potential everywhere. It’s like a radiant energy that hovers around us, waiting to be activated and utilized. Although potential is inherently powerful, it comes in a latent form, requiring a vehicle for its release. Think of natural gas, sunlight, or wind. Identifying their presence is critical, but it’s only through harnessing and channeling their energy that they become useful.
We are in a state of latent potential. Although potential is literally everywhere, building and bubbling around and through us, it remains largely untapped. It is true that we try to develop our potential, through education and workforce training programs. But our attempts are largely limited. Rather than cultivating its abundant forms- the gifts, talents, and resources that individuals and groups and places offer- and creating tailored vehicles for delivery and dissemination, we continue to work backwards. We build our pipelines and factories with specific opportunities in mind, letting jobs and workforce sectors guide and limit our preparation.
And in doing so, we continue to propagate the belief that preparation will lead to opportunity, and that opportunity is in fact enough to get us where we need to go. And yet clearly, opportunity is not a sufficient pathway for actualizing our collective potential now or in the future. Opportunities- in the present sense- are often limited and highly specific, forcing us to compete with one another by squeezing into constraints and limitations. And let’s face it, even if we strive to win these opportunities, they are simply not enough. They will neither accommodate everyone seeking them, nor will they utilize or actualize the talents and resources of those who win them.
Of course we should continue to pursue opportunities, preparing ourselves and one another to compete for positions that offer security and meaningful work. But we cannot stop there. We need more vehicles, more models that will allow individuals, systems, and communities to plug in their respective resources, to add value, to connect with others. We need models that are generative, systems that create new spaces and opportunities, that leverage- by design- latent potential toward the greater good.
It is true that the frontiers of entrepreneurship and social enterprise are creating new spaces and opportunities for growth. But if we allow ourselves to see potential as a natural resource, THE natural resource, we will recognize that we haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to what is possible. This is the world that I revel in- the land of possibilities and potential. And although it may seem fantastical, especially for those who focus on “matters of consequence”, I assure you that it is real and well within our reach, and more fulfilling than you could ever imagine.
I look forward to sharing more this Friday. Please join me for the EOC Women’s Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 18 in the EOC, 555 Ellicott St., on the UB Downtown Campus.
This wonderful video of our January study abroad trip was produced by Yasin Perez, a freshman Aerospace Engineering student, and member of the UB Academies.
Dissonance is like the Holy Grail of learning. It is the place where we hit a conceptual wall, where our core assumptions about people, life, knowledge, and ourselves are rocked to the very foundation, forcing us to do something drastic- to alter our ways of understanding and interacting with the world.
To say that dissonance is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. As humans, we go to great intellectual and emotional lengths to remain “ok” with ourselves and our views of the world. We surround ourselves with people who confirm our viewpoints and spend endless hours explaining away any thing or person who might disagree. For these reasons, we avoid dissonance like the plague, continuing – whenever possible- to believe that everything makes sense and that we essentially have it right. It is only when we find ourselves in places and situations that are so unexpected and surprising that dissonance has a chance to take root. But even then, if given the option, we will find an escape hatch- retreating to a place of comfort, reframing what we have experienced, and preserving our core frameworks and beliefs.
Clearly, we are tenacious with our assumptions. That is why our study abroad trip to the Mara Region of Tanzania is so powerful and exciting. Not only do we take students into a sorely underestimated part of the world, but we expose them to countless examples of people and projects that challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. We visit schools and clinics, agricultural projects, and community development colleges, and see the amazing work being led by Tanzanians, within their own communities, regions, and neighborhoods.
And with these experiences, through the process of guided critical reflection, cracks in our core understandings begin to emerge. If Tanzania is so underdeveloped, then why are the people so happy and industrious? If they are so primitive with regard to infrastructure and innovation, why does everyone have cell phones and access to the internet? And if they are so vulnerable and in need of external support, why are they so committed to education and to strengthening their own workforce through training and professional development?
Eventually, when the differences between the realities of what we are experiencing and our initial understandings become too great to sustain themselves, something powerful and life-changing begins to happen. We admit that we were wrong. Not just a little wrong- but stupidly wrong. And if we were wrong about Tanzania, about Africa, about communities and people around the world and in our own backyards, then we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other important things.
And this, my friends, is when life finally gets interesting. Yes, dissonance is a powerful pedagogical tool. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is strictly reserved for those who are open to a life-changing adventure, to seeing the world and themselves in fundamentally different ways. And to coming back changed.
For me, this is the promise of experiential learning, and the new frontier that lies ahead.
As I snuggle under a blanket on a cold, grey, January morning, still reeling from jetlag and the discombobulation of our recent return, the tastes and memories of Tanzania linger tantalizingly within reach. Yet I know that if I try to capture them directly, they will scurry away like little geckos, disappearing through the spidery cracks in walls. So instead, I will attempt to offer their manifestations, like seashells shaped by the rhythms of the ocean- experiences, moments, and interactions- individually powerful, yet collectively profound.
THOSE WHO NEED YOU MOST WILL FIND YOU
Her name was Christina, and over the course of 2 days, she had lost both of her parents to horrific circumstances. Suddenly an orphan, she found herself alone in the world, without hope or comfort. Yet when the Sisters learned of her situation, they brought her to Baraki on the same day as our visit. A teacher agreed to take her in, and schooling would be provided assuming they could raise funds for her tuition and fees. A partial uniform had already been issued in hopes of helping Christina feel more at home. Upon meeting her and hearing her story, the students were called to action. Amanda and Julia, who had raised money in advance of the trip, pledged to sponsor Christina’s education for one year. They had come to Tanzania hoping that worthy projects would reveal themselves. Little did they know that Christina would be waiting for them, and they would know instantly, without hesitation, that she was theirs to help.
WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE ARE CAPABLE OF UNTIL WE ARE TESTED
When we asked Sister Janepha to put our students to work, we meant it figuratively. But to our surprise, we found Allison, Tory, and Ali immersed in the work of the clinic, assessing incoming patients and offering recommendations for care. While the students admitted to feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified, their sense of purpose and exhilaration were undeniable. In that moment, in that faraway place, their talents and resources were called upon, and they rose to the challenge with a sense of humility and courage that made us all proud.
LEAD WITH WHAT YOU VALUE MOST
In the end there was playing and laughter, the simple joys of spending time together and discovering connections. This came as a welcome relief after the initial discomfort of raised expectations. Past study abroad groups had visited the school, bringing lavish gifts and offerings. The disappointment on both sides had been palpable, hanging heavy in the air, making it difficult to breathe. If only we had started with the laughter, the intimacy, the joy- these were the gifts that we had come to deliver and eventually received.
LOVE IS THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
We had never seen anyone enjoy chocolate cake as much as Yasin. And as he helped himself to a 4th or 5th piece (we quickly lost count), it was clear that he had fallen under the spell of the Sisters (the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa). He was not alone, and as I glanced around the dining room, I saw students laughing, exchanging stories, and glowing in the haze of warmth and joy that seems to cloak the Sisters and all they touch. And as I sat enjoying the home-cooked meal and hospitality, I felt so blessed, honored, and happy we had come.
REVEL IN THE UNEXPECTED
Flat tires, overcrowded safari vehicles, and impromptu theatrical numbers were just a few of the countless unplanned moments that made our trip so amazing. There is something powerful about embracing the unexpected, giving up illusions of control and preparation, opening oneself to the richness of moments and opportunities they bring. Our students seemed to understand this secret from the very beginning. They dove into the moments, the imperfections, and snags- they reveled in the unexpected, embracing each gift with such authentic joy and respect that it often took my breath away. We had planned for the trip to be fascinating, but it was the students who made it so special. How did they become so wise at such a young age?
FRIENDSHIP IS EVERYTHING
There is something magical about hugging an old friend across so many miles and years. Visiting them in their element, seeing their work, meeting their friends, and discovering new ways to connect and build. As I reflect on the 2016 trip and my broader relationship with Tanzania, it is clear that friendships serve as the foundation, the bedrock of everything important. Reconnecting with dear friends like Sister Janepha, Fortidas Bakuza, and Godfrey Telli, and forging new friendships and collaborations- these are the riches that continue to beckon me back to Tanzania, and I always leave wanting more. Asante Sana Tanzania!
Today begins a new year. A clean slate. A pristine page of promise and possibility. I once found such newness intoxicating, always eager to plunge in- to create, dream, begin new chapters, new projects, new stages of life.
But in this moment, I do not feel the whispers of new. The house is exquisitely quiet but not at all empty- buzzing with warmth and life- husband, children, furry creatures. I am moved by its fullness.
Like many, I have been tempted to reset the plot, trading frustration and complexity for shiny and new. Unfinished journals, job applications- efforts to fast forward, to transform, to finally get it right.
Perhaps it takes a while to settle in. To listen quietly as the richness of life buzzes around us. To realize that the air is thick with nuance and color.
I am thankful for the reprieve- the chance to pause, to settle in to the moments, the relationships, the people and places with whom I have touched souls. The richness and beauty are remarkable when framed against stillness- so many textures and colors, patterns pulsating with life and history.
My family is just moments from waking, from setting into motion the dramas and stories, the possibilities that swirl around and through us, always changing yet staying intimately the same.
There is no need to create anew. I accept this gift of understanding. And with it, the sun rises.
In just one week I will return to Tanzania, to the Mara Region, to my special place. In the silence I listen for my soul’s response. I am reminded that this time it is not the promise of new projects, possibilities, or promises to be kept. Instead, it is simply a continuation, another touchstone in a life being lived.
I will accept this insight as a resolution, a promise to listen more attentively to the richness of the moment, to resist the false temptations of starting new. To settle in to the experiences and relationships I have been given, the plots and players to whom I am promised and committed. To let the stories play out in their full splendor. To resist the urge to overproduce.
Perhaps these are not traditional resolutions. But as I embrace their wisdom, I feel a sense of lightness and excitement. My mind wanders to the gifts that I will give and receive in the coming years. To friendships. To experiences. To the richness and mystery of life. To the infinite possibilities that exist within every moment.
The house finally stirs and it begins to snow.
Happy New Year everyone!
We invite you to explore the beauty and hospitality of Tanzania and and the magic that happens when we touch the world through international travel and experiential learning. Sales will support scholarships for girls in the Mara Region.
Starting with a chance encounter between a mother of four named Mara and two African nuns from the Mara Region of Tanzania, the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) quickly emerged, providing engagement for students, faculty, and members of the University at Buffalo community in support of a developing school campus in rural Tanzania. Through a uniquely readable mix of voices and perspectives, students of all ages will be drawn into the stories of BTEP, finding inspiration to touch the world through travel and engagement. Book sales will support scholarships for girls in the Mara Region to attend Kitenga and other schools associated with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (IHSA). “Finding Your Impact is a strong testament to the profound impact of applied learning in students’ lives and the broad and beautiful range of opportunities that can connect them with communities both at home and around the world. ” ~Nancy L. Zimpher, Chancellor, State University of New York
Today students are officially notified of their acceptance into our Tanzania winter session study abroad course. While this year’s applicant pool is impressive on many levels, it is the diversity of academic majors and programs of study that is particularly noteworthy. Among this year’s class are aspiring social workers, engineers, historians, doctors, nurses, psychologists, and biomedical researchers- all committed to traveling to rural Northeastern Tanzania to explore community development in context.
This multidisciplinary response to our offering is literally music to my soul. It speaks to the compassion of students but also to the promise of engaging their collective talents around the complexities of community development. The importance of their engagement should be both obvious and compelling. For it is only through the design and leadership of innovative and bold new models and paradigms that we can address the inequities and empower our communities to thrive.
What I love so much about working at a research university is the endless opportunities to learn and discover, connecting ideas and theories toward deeper understanding and insight. By extending this multidisciplinary exploration to students from diverse disciplines and fields of study within a remote and fascinatingly complex part of the world, we have the opportunity to set them on a path of discovery and impact.
Clearly, there are many compelling stories yet to be told as we anticipate our January trip and get to know the students who will be participating. When I reflect on the insights and accomplishments of past participants, I can’t help but be inspired and hopeful about the future, the promise of global learning, and the fascinating connections that await.
We look forward to sharing student stories in the months ahead and invite you to visit and follow our new blog site, buffalotanzania.wordpress.com for information and updates from our study abroad trip, upcoming book, and BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Program) model.
Seeking adventurous students to participate in our winter session study abroad trip, January 5th – 22nd. Through this unique 12-day experiential learning course, students will travel to the Mara Region of Northern Tanzania to explore community development through four interrelated lenses: education, health, economics, and infrastructure. Trip highlights will include visits to community development projects, clinics and schools; engagement with local villagers, community leaders, and educators; and a guided safari through the famed Serengeti Game Reserve. The study abroad trip is part of our larger Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP), a multi-faceted engagement initiative that has focused on a developing school for girls in Kitenga Village under the leadership of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa. You can learn more about BTEP by exploring the “Tanzania” section of my blog site.
The trip will be co-facilitated by Dan Nyaronga from Empire State College who hails from the Mara Region. Students from all disciplines, backgrounds, and colleges are welcomed to apply. Deadline is October 1st.
Visit the UB Study Abroad website http://www.buffalo.edu/studyabroad.html to register and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about the trip.
Please excuse my absence. Perhaps it felt abrupt, like a sudden departure or loss, or maybe you didn’t notice at all.
I wasn’t really gone. I have been here the whole time, working in the early hours of the morning, stealing moments and stretching time.
I have been consumed, determined to finish the book, to share the stories of our Tanzania project, to invite you on our upcoming journey, or accompany you on your own.
And now that it is nearly complete, the final tweaks and edits being made, I am eager to reconnect, to explain the significance of my absence in hopes that you are still there.
So often in my life I have rushed from one project to the next, failing to take a breath, to appreciate or share.
But this one is big, certainly bigger than me alone, and to realize its potential I need your support.
The book is about “Finding Your Impact through International Travel,” and is dedicated “to the bold and compassionate students of the world who yearn to make a difference.”
It shares the stories of BTEP, our engagement project that began with a chance encounter with nuns from the Mara Region of Tanzania, studying in Buffalo while searching for partners to help them build a school for girls.
Written in collaboration with my colleague Dan Nyaronga, who hails from the very same region of Tanzania, it speaks to the power of friendship and the amazing connections that happen when we open ourselves to a bigger purpose, to the influences of serendipity, chance, and fate.
The book is about how fascinating the world truly is, and the adventures that await us in faraway places or in our own communities where we least expect them.
It is about the promise of people who at any moment can surprise us, contributing their talents, strengths, and passions, revealing new paths forward, crossing bridges and weaving their histories both forward and back.
And as the title suggests, the book is about impact and the magic that happens when we work together, focusing our resources on shared visions and goals.
I hope you can understand my eagerness to get this right, to share these truths that have revealed themselves through BTEP and our evolving relationship with the Mara Region.
But please know that my impatience goes much deeper. You see, 100% of sales from the book will support scholarships for girls in this region, allowing them to change the course of their lives and those of their families and communities through education and empowerment. When I think about these young women and what lies ahead, where their education will lead them, what they will accomplish, what we will accomplish together, I grow giddy with anticipation.
And so, my dear friends, please excuse my absence and refrain from holding a grudge. I have not left you, nor have I moved on to another project or audience. I am still here and am officially ready to move our relationship to the next level. Will you join me?