Harvesting Talent and connecting it with the World: An Emerging Role for Higher Education

photo by Doug Levere

In a 2013 TEDx talk, “Emerging from the Middle”, I suggested that our education pipeline is insensitive to the diverse talents of our students, and the needs of communities and ecosystems they stand to touch. Rather than cultivating and harvesting potential in its most diverse and abundant forms, we constrain its development, making students compete for limited opportunities for growth and success. While this is tragic for individuals, the collective loss is staggering. The sea of untapped potential represents missed innovation and impact in the face of growing challenge, inequity and need. Fortunately, the solution is both clear and compelling. By recognizing and cultivating diversity of talent and interests through meaningful engagement with the world, we can support student growth and achievement, while leveraging the benefits.

Since giving my TEDx talk, I have been putting this idea into motion, creating a model that connects students with opportunities for customized engagement through project-based learning. Our web-based system, the ELN Project Portal, detailed in a recent book chapter, includes mechanisms to generate and share relevant project opportunities, support and integrate engagement through a flexible framework (PEARL), and showcase and assess impact via digital badges. Together, these components create a dynamic model that can accommodate traditional experiences including mentored research, internships, and civic engagement, while also supporting novel responses to emerging needs and opportunities.

When we launched the Portal in 2019, we included profiles of our Tanzanian partners, small NGOs (community-based organizations) we visited during our annual study abroad course. We had maintained engagement between trips, and our partners were eager to build further collaboration. By enabling virtual projects, we could generate interest in the course while making the opportunity more accessible to those who could not travel. But when the Pandemic hit in 2020, we recognized a broader opportunity. With the move to remote instruction, in-person experiences had shut down and students were searching for virtual options. We quickly expanded the portfolio of global NGO projects, inviting students to explore organizations within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through Zoom meetings and ongoing communication with partners, we were able to customize projects to help students make meaningful contributions while also supporting their goals and interests.

The idea of connecting students with the world was compelling from the start. But the results have been quite extraordinary. Beyond exciting assessment data, it is clear that we are tapping into something important and powerful. Students are ready to connect with the world. They want to be part of solutions, to get close to challenges and ideas. And we need to cultivate every drop of their talent, helping them frame their learning and preparation within emerging contexts and opportunities. Within this space of global engagement, our colleges and universities have important roles to play. Through our respective resources and relationships, we can connect students with opportunities for collaboration and engagement and help them integrate their experiences with academic programs and professional goals. By doing so, we can become more relevant and nimble, activating our own potential for greater impact and sustainability.  

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