A study abroad experience related to sustainability has developed into an ongoing community relationship between Appalachian State University and the African nation of Malawi.
That's the power of transformative experiences.
Through the Walker College of Business, students have made two trips to Malawi near the capital of Lilongwe. They learn how non-governmental organizations, government and communities are addressing economic, social and environmental challenges. They also participate in service projects and stay in the homes of local families.
"I think one of the special things about this university is the fact that we were able to go abroad, but also how much followed us as we came back to campus," said Jesse Pipes, an MBA candidate at Appalachian. He helped initiate Appalachian's academic connection to Malawi through a non-profit organization he and friends started a decade ago, called World Camp.
"Africa has so much to teach us and we have so many resources that we can share... The community solutions the students saw practiced in Malawi can be applied here in the U.S. or any community for that matter."
The first group of Appalachian students in 2012 worked with villagers to research the feasibility of establishing a maize mill, including start-up costs, monthly operating costs and projected revenue. They determined start-up costs could be recovered in the first year of operation.
After returning home, the students remained engaged with the African nation by forming the Sustainable Services Initiative Club on campus to explore solutions to community challenges—including collecting funds for the proposed maize mill and for children's school fees.
On the second study abroad, students met William Kamkwamba, co-author of the international best-selling book "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." The book relates his story of how he achieved his dream of bringing electricity, light and the promise of a better life to his family and his Malawi village of Wimbe.
As a result of the study abroad programs, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" author visited campus as the keynote speaker at Appalachian's 5th Annual Global Opportunities Conference in April 2013, which had a record 550 attendees. These included visiting classes from Watauga and Avery high schools and Two Rivers Charter School, as well as the campus and larger communities.
Having Kamkwamba on campus to share his message of hope, encouragement, dreams and creativity "served as a segue to start conversation," explained marketing major Deja Borders.
"I share the bit of awareness that I have every chance that I get," said Borders, who participated in the 2013 study abroad program.
"Now that I have experienced Malawi, a country I knew nothing about prior to researching the trip, I have been able to discuss with people everything that I learned. Those opportunities have led to conversations about the intellect, congeniality, national language, education, currency and so many other things that the average American does not know about Malawi."
Yes, a third study abroad program is planned for May 2014. It will be part of a sustainable development and business course. To learn more, contact Meredith Church at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-262-7727.
"The students gain unique life skills," said Pipes, "and an understanding of how best to use them: critical thinking, listening to others, asking better questions, generating ideas, active collaboration. They learn that by pooling what you know and who you know, you can better support each other."
Source: World Bank
Jesse Pipes; MBA candidate: What always strikes me is why students continue to go abroad and get involved in different types of projects. Anja, you were saying that after coming to Malawi with us it really sort of opened a whole new scope of what you might want to study and what you might want to pursue.
Anja Wicker '13; Global Studies: Originally coming into it, I was very critical of non-profits and NGOs and what-not and their ultimate mission. But going to Malawi and really being able to hands-on experience different organizations that are doing work that is actually benefiting the people ... it's changed my entire perspective.
Deja Borders; Class of 2014, Marketing: Going to Malawi and being part of the ... seeing the different organizations that were there ... definitely showed me that having a sustainable outlook and actually helping the people learn a trade or learn how they can help themselves or come up with a process.
JP: We have preconceived notions when we go abroad. Traveling to somewhere like Malawi that is so different ... we talked about this during the trip, but Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. How does that change you after you come back ... back to campus, back to Boone.
Dr. Heather Dixon-Fowler; Walker College of Business: I just didn't realize the seeds that were sort of planted and what that would mean, not only for our college but also for Appalachian as a university and then even the greater community that we're a part of as a university here in Boone and in Watauga County. We really did bring the world to us and I think it benefited the entire community in so many ways.
JP: I think that one of the special things about this university is the fact that we, as students, were able to go abroad, but how much sort of followed us on our way back to campus. The Global Opportunities Conference ... having William Kamkwamba, having Blessings here ... and Deja, one of my favorites here was having you, Blessings and William read from his children's book at the public library during children's hour the very next day. We never realize when we set off on a short-term study abroad trip, the gravity of what that entails when we come back to campus.
AW: The fact that the Global Conference was around an issue that we, as Appalachian students, had visited and been there and had experiences and first-hand accounts. I think that not only brought Malawi back over here, but it expanded the opportunity for people in the audience to realize that they can achieve the same thing.
DB: It served as a segue to start conversations over and over again and bring that awareness that is not there.
JP: One of the core values that I've applied in my work in Malawi is just increasing the dialogue across the table. We have just as much to learn by going there as we think that we can teach in the process. So I think that is really what it is for me is making that connection and being part of that engagement point for students here as well.
DB: One of the big things that you said to me when we were there that stuck with me was empathy not sympathy.
JP: Well, that's something that I learned. They're capable ... we're all capable ... of solving issues. At that point in time I sort of took it upon myself to stick to that manifesto that it's empathy not sympathy.
HDF: I don't think until I was on the ground, seeing what was working and also seeing what wasn't working, and allowing people, where they're at and in the context that they are, to solve their own problems, but often maybe we just need to provide the resources for them to do that. It's them telling us what they need and what they need to get to what they need. And then we can help with that.
AW: Every decision I make, some piece of that decision is going to be based on what I experienced in Malawi. It impacted me in a way that can't be put into any type of concrete form.
DB: It was different than any other experience that I have had abroad. I've been to Korea and I've been to Japan. Those places didn't stick with me like Malawi will. I kind of understand where you're coming from because I think of things differently. It was a totally different experience for me.