Global Perspectives Program’16 Ecuador (GPP’16): Reflections beyond

The Global Perspectives Program in Ecuador (GPP’16) occurred during the week of Thanksgiving break in November, 2016. This was the second year for graduate students to visit Ecuador in partnership between the VT Graduate School and the University of San Francisco de Quito.  Most of us (7) were able to travel spend the week starting with a day long visit to the Mindo Cloud Forest, comprehensive visits to two universities in Quito (USFQ and the National Polytechnica School or EPN)  and to the Galapagos (USFQ-G); one was able to extend her visit to Tiputini in the rainforest of Ecuadorian Amazon.  The trip is documented through tweets via storify and will be shared in VT news story in January 2017.

As with other GPP programs, the Ecuador trip was indeed a very informative and enriching visit.  As intended, we learned about higher education in Ecuador from a public and private university perspective.  We gained knowledge and understanding about the environmental diversity of Ecuador including the cloud forest, Galapagos, Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and life near the equator at 10,000 feet elevation.  We were introduced to the vast array of cultural diversity and rich history of Ecuador. GPP was once again a wonderful educational opportunity for professional development.  And as usual, opportunities for personal growth and development presented themselves throughout the trip.

Although this blog post was initially conceived as a posting about the Ecuador experience, the contemplation and writing are triggering reflections that extend beyond GPP16 Ecuador to the VT Graduate School global perspectives program (GPP) in general.  Yes, these trips are about learning about higher education, visiting universities and cultural sites,interacting with university personnel (administrators, faculty, staff and students), sharing local food and beverages, and more.  It is about gaining knowledge and understanding and it is also about building relations and sharing time and space.  It is about professional and personal growth and development.

Based upon my experiences in leading the Global Perspectives Programs within the umbrella of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative,  I am convinced that it is possible to transcend and transform the typical graduate education experience in meaningful and significantly beneficial ways.  Graduate Deans can make a difference and should be engaged with the academic preparation and professional development of our graduate students as well as the personal growth and development important for life and work in the 21st century.

The experiences provided through the Global Perspectives programs for the past 12 years have allowed me to witness the development of strong connections between and among participants during each trip. (Note: the participants come from a variety of disciplines and usually do not know each other prior to the trip). Each GPP group tends to develop a special connection and bond which continues to evolve (visibly) across the days of the trip and exists well beyond.  And I am thankful for the opportunities to enhance my knowledge and learn something new every time.

This was the case for GPP’16 Ecuador.  We enjoyed our unique experience and shared some very special moments. As we came together from our different academic worlds and lived experiences, we spent time together, really listening and hearing each other, sharing stories and views and feeling “safe” enough to be brave in asking questions and engaging with difficult dialogues and challenging topics. Although not particularly articulated as outcomes, honesty and authenticity were anticipated and were realized.  The conversations were real.  There’s something to be said about getting away from our daily (and typical) environments to sitting on a large balcony with a view of the ocean to stimulate conversation and communication. It is important to note that communication and connection occur not just as a result of conversation but occur in other ways. We were comfortable with silence as important in sharing time and space and connection. This become evident during our Ecuador experience. The connections were and are real.

Given the strength of our connection, we were able to engage in authentic discussions of serious topics which continued throughout the trip.  At one point, I was asked to describe the “whys” of the decision-making process for the GPP experiences. The question led me to reflect upon the intentionality of the process and the principles by which the experience evolves. There is reasoned and reasonable intentionality behind the logistics, sequence, the visits, expectations and anticipated outcomes. As a result of the question and conversation that followed, I have continued to examine the underlying philosophical underpinnings and the principles for the program. This is the easy part for these can be described. The more challenging part of the answer rests in the process of decision-making which unfolds organically, and mostly goes unnoticed, throughout the trip and lies at the essence of the GPP experience. It is this essence and genuineness that creates the long-lasting connections among the GPP participants.

Shortly after our return from GPP16 Ecuador, the Fall semester came to a close with graduate commencement ceremonies. This year like previous years, there were several graduates who have participated in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and are now not only VT alumni but also GPP alumni.  As each one crossed the stage to receive their degree, we shared a moment in which the special connection of the GPP experience was present and very real.

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