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!
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 email@example.com 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?
In six short months Dan Nyaronga and I will return to the Mara Region of Tanzania with a group of students for a UB study abroad course. As we immerse ourselves in planning for the trip we cannot help but reflect on its specialness and the remarkable milestones that we will be celebrating.
We just received word that the Kitenga school campus will open this January with plans to begin enrolling soon (see GEC website for updates http://girlsedcollaborative.org/). When I first met Sisters Janepha and Agnes on Christmas Day 2007 they shared their vision for a school that in its full realization would serve over a thousand girls from surrounding villages, providing them with opportunities to develop their talents and empower their lives. While compelling, their plan was purely conceptual, a mere white paper articulating their vision within a sea of need. But thanks to the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa and their partners, including the Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), their vision will soon be realized for the benefit of thousands of girls, families, and communities to come.
In visiting Kitenga and other locations throughout the Mara Region, students will gain much more than photos and memories. Clearly, this part of the world is worth visiting in its own right- the famed Serengeti Game Preserve, the beauty of the Lake Region, and above all the kindness and hospitality of the Tanzanian people. But most importantly students will be immersed in the promise and complexity of community development, exploring the importance of education and reflecting on their own future impacts associated with their studies and goals.
This notion of impacts is becoming increasingly important to me as I consider the challenges facing our communities both locally and around the world. Every day, I am reminded that we have so much to offer through our collective talents and resources. For this reason I am especially excited to announce that our book, “Finding Your Impact through International Travel: Stories from the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project” will be released in early fall with sales to support scholarships for girls to attend Kitenga and other schools within the Mara Region. The book tells the story of how we first met the Sisters and started our collaboration known as the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP), while also sharing context, student reflections, and stories of the many people who have touched and been touched by this exciting project.
We can’t wait to share the book with all of you in hopes that you will in turn share it with your networks, colleagues, and students. At the core of the book and the project is the notion that by coming together we can amplify and leverage our individual talents and resources to do great things for the world. This idea continues to inspire me as I work with talented students and individuals from diverse backgrounds and communities.
To register for the study abroad course please visit http://www.buffalo.edu/studyabroad.html. More information about the trip will be available in the coming weeks.
Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.
I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.
The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.
In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.
As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way. I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.
Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities. This integration is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.
Educational trends rarely excite me. By the time they’re broadly embraced, they’re often mere shells, stripped of any real meaning or theoretical power. And yet, despite my cynicism, I can’t help but celebrate the growing buzz around Experiential Learning.
Experiential Learning encompasses all flavors of applied education including academic internships, mentored research, service-learning, and cultural exploration. And while many schools and programs have long embraced their benefits, the notion of Experiential Learning is rapidly permeating more traditional bastions of education resulting in exciting new opportunities and programs of study.
From a cognitive standpoint, which is my own academic background, the benefits of applying learning within diverse contexts and settings are both obvious and compelling. And when facilitated properly, they can result in deeper and more sustained learning and opportunities for access and transfer of knowledge.
When viewed through the lenses of relevance and real-world application, Experiential Learning can be a catalyst for innovation, workforce readiness, and the types of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving that we seek across disciplines and modalities.
But beyond its virtues as a high-impact pedagogical tool, Experiential Learning is a wonderful vehicle for supporting character development and identity formation, helping individuals to frame their own goals and interests within broader contexts and needs. Not only is this necessary for our long-term societal health, but also for the fulfillment of individuals seeking to utilize their own education and skills toward the greatest impact.
Interestingly, by embracing the value of Experiential Learning, we begin to view our roles as educators and parents quite differently. Schools and programs seek to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for students to explore and integrate, applying and deepening their learning through facilitated reflection and inquiry. And in this new paradigm, parents ideally help prepare their children to be open and ready to embrace opportunities and the learning they afford- even (or especially) when the lessons are inherently difficult or dissonant with their own experiences and ideas.
This is a role that I thankfully learned from my own mother, who seemed to understand the value of fully immersing oneself in new experiences and adventures, especially in the formative years. As I prepared to depart for my junior year of high school in Germany, I remember her dismissing my flowing tears, instructing me to not waste a single moment feeling sad or missing my family or life in Buffalo. Instead I should fully embrace every single moment of the experience that lay before me.
As I reflect on my current role as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at the University at Buffalo, I could offer the same motherly advice to our current and future students. Before them lies literally a world of opportunities. And our job is to help them embrace and integrate these experiences into their undergraduate preparation, positioning them for success, fulfillment, and an impactful career.
These are the wonders of Experiential Learning. It is indeed an exciting time!