What is High-Impact Experiential Learning?

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Photo by Doug Levere, University at Buffalo

This past July I led a UB study abroad trip to the Mara region of Tanzania. By all measures the course was a success. All expectations and outcomes were met and the students arrived home safely with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime. Officially, the class is done, but the impacts are just getting started.

As I struggle to communicate the meaning of high-impact experiential learning, I can only offer a glimpse into my world- a world of infinite possibilities and points of connectivity that often leaves me exhausted and exhilarated as I try frantically to keep up.

In the seven short weeks since we’ve returned, so much has happened- is happening. Every day I brace myself for new developments. Here are just a few highlights from this week alone- and it’s only Wednesday:

  • Natasha (who was featured on the cover of UB’s recent issue of its Alumni Magazine https://issuu.com/ubaa/docs/at_buffalo_fall17_-_issuu ) is ready to plan a fundraiser for the preschool in Tarime. She has been thinking about the teacher who currently works as a volunteer, and wants to start a fund to ensure that early childhood education is a priority. In preparation, she is thinking about her networks of influence and how to connect her efforts with her Sociology graduate program.
  • Danielle- a senior Anthropology student- finds herself completely immersed in an initiative that began as her final course project. With a deep interest in women’s health and specifically the impact of menstruation on girls education, she identified a Tanzania-based organization, Dare Women’s Foundation http://www.darewomensfoundation.org/ interested in bringing a reusable pad project to the Mara region. In less than a week, Danielle has raised almost $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/girl039s-empowerment-in-tanzania and is now coordinating the details of an upcoming training trip towards the goal of utilizing existing sewing projects to begin this new venture. Danielle is also connecting with a faculty member within her Anthropology department to frame her efforts within a research project which will in turn support her involvement in the UB Honors Program.
  • My own children will be hosting a book and baked goods sale this weekend to raise money for a poultry project in Tarime. Once mature, the hens will be given to women throughout the region as a means of generating income through the sale of eggs. But the cost of feed and vaccination has exceeded the appropriated grant funding, so the project is in jeopardy and immediate help is needed.
  • We’re gearing up for an informal event tomorrow evening that will help build capacity for future trips and engagement efforts. In partnership with the New York chapter of American Women for International Understanding http://www.awiu.org/, we will be featuring photos from UB’s own Doug Levere http://www.douglaslevere.com/gallery/ along with student reflections and videos. Having Doug participate in the trip, along with the contributions of the talented UB Communications team, is yielding impacts beyond anything we could have imagined. Not just for our own immediate benefit, but for our partners like Children’s Dignity Forum http://www.cdftz.org/ who are beginning to share the photos of our visits and utilize them to build further capacity for their own community development work.

Just listing these examples makes my head spin, and yet these are the type of outcomes or outputs that represent the magic of high-impact experiential learning. While the experience itself- in this case our trip to Tanzania- is hugely important, it is not the end product, but instead a vehicle for impacts that can continue to generate, build and transform well beyond the life and limits of the experience.

As we contemplate the potential of higher education to be an engine for innovation, we must insist on delivering offerings that are high-impact by design. No longer settling for localized or siloed outcomes, we have to challenge ourselves to think and design bigger and bolder. Although we cannot know what is possible, we must design with a vision in mind, building models that are generative and foster collaboration and synergies for the benefit of all involved. This represents a new frontier for curricular innovation and I’m so excited to be testing the limits.

 

Community Development in Motion: Reflections on Our Recent Trip to Mara Tanzania

cheetah3I am no photographer and my equipment was sub-standard to say the least. But as I crouched in my seat, watching the cheetah begin to move across the road, I kept clicking away, anticipating some sort of crescendo. The build-up was palpable- some exquisite moment was inevitable, and I knew if I stayed with the process I was destined to behold something truly amazing.

I have long held on to this expectation- the notion that once in motion, once a path forward is activated, something inherently great will come. And by visiting the Mara Region of Tanzania every year, bringing students and colleagues, contributing when and where I can, I have readied myself to behold a crescendo- a tipping point through which community impacts are realized and quality of life becomes somehow better, more expansive and real for those who need it most.

This year was different, or perhaps my sensitivity to the nuances and challenges was somehow heightened. Although our partners continued to do great work, to innovate and adapt to changing needs and challenges, to persevere and flex their commitments and leadership- I did not necessarily see or feel the build-up that I had come to expect.

Certainly, if I looked through the right lens, I could identify benefits. Students served through a sewing project, liters of fresh milk processed and distributed, children being taught who would otherwise be at home. These are all important advancements and shouldn’t be minimized. But how to leverage and amplify these toward broader impacts, how to transform these specific investments into mechanisms and levers of change?

It was these questions that I had the chance to discuss with our students as they reflect on their study abroad trip and prepare their final projects to be presented later this week. The topic for this course is Social Innovation, and after spending two weeks in rural Tanzania, getting close to community development and the courageous leaders who commit their lives to making a difference- the complexities were too heavy to ignore.

The Bishop of Tarime had told us to focus our efforts on something tangible, not to get overwhelmed by the scale of need. He shared his vision for a school for girls in Tarime- a representation of all that is possible, a place where girls can realize their potential and expand their opportunities beyond the realities of poverty that currently constrain their lives.

But even if the Bishop is wildly successful, if every school and orphanage and textbook project being implemented and envisioned throughout the Mara Region and other parts of Tanzania and the developing world were to be realized at the highest level of actualization- would it be enough? Would they collectively change the vast disparities between the haves and have nots, the gaps in opportunity and resources necessary to live a productive and meaningful life?

I suggested to the students that the power of social innovation lies not necessarily in the specific localized solutions to contextualized problems, but instead to the development of new models that are scalable, robust and powerful. Models that can leverage specific contributions, talents and investments and amplify their impacts- like a prism transforming light.

As someone who has studied and experimented with social innovation, I know it can happen in multiple directions. With a clear and compelling vision, we can build out specific components into comprehensive systems and programs that are effective by design. But we can also do it in reverse. We can take existing projects and initiatives and weave them together under a common frame, a frame that is maximally relevant and compelling. By doing so we can harness their specific impacts while transforming their collective energy into something more powerful and transformative, and sustainable.

When I reflect on the individual partner sites we visited while in Mara- John Bosco School, the dairy farm in Baraki, the sewing project, preschool and agricultural projects in Mogabiri, Nyamete Women’s Group and Hope Revival in Musoma along with Buhare Community Development Institute- and their amazing leaders who bring them to life- I am convinced that they can be connected in some meaningful way, a way that optimizes their motion and reach.

When I look at this picture of the cheetah, I am inspired by what nature affords. The beauty, elegance, and power that can be achieved when systems are perfectly aligned and in motion. As I travel the world and meet leaders who are poised to soar- and students who yearn to make a difference, I am inspired by the possibilities. And as I continue to search for powerful frames that will allow us to leverage collaboration and engagement, I can’t help thinking that Social Innovation might be just what we need.

An Unexpected Treat in Tanzania

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Visiting Sister Janepha at her farm in Baraki is always a treat. Since first meeting Jan in 2007 when she was studying at D’Youville College in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, she has become a dear friend. And seeing her in her element- running a fabulous agriculture project, overseeing development to support a dairy farm, rice cultivation, clinic, school and related community development initiatives, is a joy to behold. But somehow in my general state of bliss, I was completely unprepared for my surprise visit with Christina and her siblings.

We had been introduced to Christina during our last visit in January, 2016. It was the first day of classes at Baraki, and the beautiful young children were enjoying interacting with our UB students- blowing bubbles, playing ball, and exchanging hugs and smiles (see January post for pics and story https://marabhuber.com/2016/01/23/more-gifts-from-tanzania-2/) Sister Janepha had first pointed out Christina- a sullen looking child, wearing only a uniform sweater paired with a native skirt and flip-flops. We learned that Christina and her siblings had been orphaned just a few days before. And although the Sisters planned to enroll Christina in school, they would need to raise funds with the hope of bringing her younger siblings sometime in the future. But upon hearing the story, our two UB students- Amanda and Julia- committed to sponsoring Christina’s schooling for the year. I was so proud and grateful that we were able to help. And upon returning to Buffalo, we decided to allocate additional fundraising resources to support Christina’s siblings, Stella and Jackson. Together, we were able to cover the cost of a year’s schooling and fees for all three children.

The decision to sponsor the siblings had been a joyous one, but for some reason, I didn’t expect to see them during my recent trip to Baraki. The children were shy but they looked happy and healthy. And the hug that Christina gave me was so warm and strong that it nearly took my breath away. Perhaps this is what continues to draw me back to Tanzania- the closeness, the intimacy of connection, the ability to make a difference that you can feel, touch, and know in your heart.

Often, here in my own world, things can feel so impersonal, artificial and sterile. Even when we support charities or good causes, there’s so much distance, so many layers of process and structure. It’s often difficult to feel our impact, our shared sense of humanity. But in Baraki, on a beautiful sunny July afternoon, I got to hug a beautiful child named Christina. And I got to know that at least for now, she and her siblings are safe and loved by the Sisters. I truly am blessed.

 

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More Gifts from Tanzania

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

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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

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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

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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

 Sisters

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

EJ

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

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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!