A collaborative project through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Higher Education Challenge Grant Program aims to increase the effectiveness of future international agricultural development workers through on-the-ground training and high impact experiences.
Researchers from the Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications (ALEC); Sam Houston State University; and Auburn University have partnered with Christianville Foundation, Inc. in Haiti to provide graduate students the opportunity to immerse themselves into the daily struggles of Haitians. During their week overseas, students work alongside Haitians in Christianville to identify key problems of their country, such as food insecurity, human suffering or depletion of natural resources.
Back in the states, students use their experiences to develop Experiential Learning Modules (ELMs), which are then used to train other students interested in international development work.
“We post these ELMs online and use them in multiple classes to provide a vicarious experience to learn about a problem in a developing nation and to gain insight into the intricacies and challenges of international agricultural development work,” said Manuel Piña, Jr., associate professor of international agriculture. “Our goal is more than just identifying and understanding a problem; we want our students to be an integral part of solving that problem and to be conscious of obstacles and potential consequences of our proposed solutions to the problem.”
But the project aims to do more. By exposing students to these high impact experiences in developing countries like Haiti and giving them an intense training opportunity, project faculty hope to graduate more students interested in pursuing international development work, especially those from underrepresented U.S. populations.
“No matter how long you stay in a country, you will never be of that country,” said Gary Briers, professor of agricultural education, “We have to find a patriot committed to helping their country and people.”
According to Piña, the project is based on the basic principles of how adults learn, meaning that topics must be of interest to learners and that they are discussed at the most appropriate time in learners’ lives. To Haitians, critical conversations surrounding food production, conservation of natural resources, and education of youth and young adults is a top priority.
Danette Philpot, director of operations for the Christianville campus and a doctoral student in ALEC, wants to build on this approach to establish an “agricultural learning hub” that will enable future leaders to extend knowledge to surrounding communities and distant non-governmental organizations, primarily through time-tried Extension methods.
“We are hoping that down the road, graduate students can come teach their specialties for 10 weeks at a time. The students will gain international development experience while Haitians and leaders from non-governmental organizations will learn,” Philpot said. “We find that students have a wealth of education but not enough experience while the Haitians have plenty of experience but not enough education. It’s a win-win situation.”
Piña is planning a networking capstone event in Haiti to make “Christianville the place where people from across the globe meet to do development work.”
“This entire experience gives our students the depth they need to be more marketable to international aid organizations like the United States Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, and the many non-governmental organizations that are addressing hunger and human suffering around the world,” he said. “By growing the number of qualified international development workers, we are looking to have a profound impact in addressing global issues of developing societies.”