Help us Build More Equitable Partnerships

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

How to be nimble

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 is what Building Capacity Looks Like

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.

Structural Thinning: Removing the layers of structure that constrain our students’ potential

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.     

Coaching for a Cause

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 .

Projects Alive: Three Global Virtual Projects Making a Difference during the Pandemic

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.

Mapping

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.

Maybe schools are not a problem, but an opportunity to enhance

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.

Curricular Versatility: Virtual Projects Served 3 Ways

1589829406071

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.

Exploring Best Failures

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.

Self-directed Summer Projects, a Step-by-Step Process

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.

  • Prepare

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.

  • Reflect

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.

  • Leverage

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.

  1. 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
  2. Find an organization that you believe in and help promote their efforts or build capacity in some meaningful way
  3. Explore your community through a specific lens and create an app or interactive website to invite engagement from others
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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.
  7. 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
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

– Mara