Welcome to the Fall semester, and to GRAD 5014!
Today marks the first week since I arrived in Europe for the first time. I can’t believe how fast time flew by. It seems only yesterday I was typing my application to GPP, and here we are about to wrap this amazing experience up.
I can say that I have learned a lot in the past few days, but that will not quite capture the entire GPP experience. There were facts and figures and statistics; nuances about how higher education is structured and delivered in the Universities that we visited; histories, traditions and practices that both surprised, amazed, and challenged what we considered as acceptable. It was certainly an eye-opener.
All that knowledge-building usually happened in the confines of a board room or conference room. Beyond that, however, there was a lot to take in… new sights, new tastes, new ways of doing things. It was all grandiose and powerful beyond belief. I have gone on educational tours (the term usually used in the Philippines) before, both as a student and as faculty chaperone. None of them involved leaving the country. Back then, I defined an “educational tour” to mean that we will only visit entities related to our course, which meant power plants and manufacturing plants and power distribution companies, among other places. I never included cultural destinations – maybe even frowned upon them when students suggest that they be included – because, I thought, what will that teach my students in the context of engineering? I love visiting cultural and historical places, don’t get me wrong – I just didn’t feel that they are an appropriate part of a travel-and-study program.
My views, needless to say, have changed drastically – and not only because it’s Europe. I have come to realize that art, culture, history and literature are an important part of a holistic education, especially if one’s life purpose is to make a difference in young people’s lives and preparing them to be a productive member of the society of tomorrow. There is much to be learned by being inspired to reflect by beautiful scenery, or having to run because the train is about to leave in three minutes.
There are a lot of things that are now forever part of my picture book of memories because of GPP that seem to have nothing to do with engineering or engineering education. These experiences, however, have opened my eyes and broadened my perspective; I feel that I am a richer version of who I was a week ago in terms of life experience. I have been challenged to be more open and understanding of ways different from mine, and consider the world at large through others’ eyes. It is an interesting combination of still being me, and yet at the same time, I will never be the same. And this person I will become post-GPP will accompany me to my classroom, where I will be able to share my experiences with my students. I can only hope that more aspiring educators get to share in this experience.
When my mom first visited the United States in 1989, I remember her saying that she finally understood why Tony Bennett sang that he “left his heart in San Francisco.” When she left to come home, she said she left part of her heart there. And now, I think there’s a little part of my heart that I left behind somewhere on the train ride from Basel to Lugano.
Switzerland has been nothing but amazing, but nothing prepared me for what I would see as our train emerged from one of the tunnels going to Lugano. Having lived in the tropics all my life, snow-capped mountains simply wasn’t a reality I could speak of or relate to. Don’t get me wrong, I love how I can go from the mountains to the sea within a single day and I miss swimming in Samal Island’s majestic coral reefs – but boy, the Alps certainly took my breath away. And I think a part of my heart.
While exploring the area around Hotel St. Josef, I became really curious about two things. There was a trolley at the end of the block to the left of the hotel that was going up and down the hill, and a flight of stairs to the right. I probably sounded like a broken record because I was constantly wondering aloud: What is up there? I made a mental note to make sure that I go up those stairs at some point before we leave Zurich.
And I got my wish! I did get to climb up those stairs – because it turned out to be the way to Universitat Zurich, our first stop for GPP! The climb took my breath away – literally and figuratively – because a) I am so bad at climbing up flights of stairs, and b) the architecture of the University of Zurich, and the view at the top, was amazing.
The past three days were filled with inspiring and thought-provoking conversations. It was also interesting to see the similarities and differences across educational landscapes… from education as I know it as student, instructor, and administrator in the Philippines; as a student at Virginia Tech in the United States; and a visitor at the Universität Zurich (UZH) and Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, Universität Basel (UniBasel) and Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst (HFGK) in Basel; and Université de Strasbourg (UniStras) in Strasbourg, France. It will sound ironic, but I was surprised to not be surprised about the method of instruction used in Swiss universities – I did not quite expect to hear so many similarities between my own experience and the way education was conducted, especially in ETH. I could not help but wonder about what it was that they were doing right.
Our discourse revolved around communication among professors and instructors, and the positive impact that may bring to student learning; about the advantages of collaboration; what it meant to be a future professor in today’s world; and what role we can play in advocating for the public good. I cannot believe it has only been three days; I have seen so many new things, been disrupted by realizations that challenged my current reality and opened my eyes to a whole new world, and made new friends.
All these wonderful memories come at a price, though; it has been a hectic and physically demanding few days – if anything, my only regret about this trip is not being more physically fit and prepared for all the walking that we are doing. One thing is sure, though; my FitBit is working hard!
Tomorrow we visit Milan. I wonder: what surprises are waiting for me there? There is only one way to find out….
Rabih and I started Sunday with brunch in a quaint café tucked away in an alley near Hotel St. Josef. Hands down, best cappuccino I’ve had so far… I’m wondering whether I will get to have one when we reach Milan that will change my mind.
May 21 is a special day, because this day 21 years ago my life changed forever… a most precious gift was given to me – my daughter, Patricia. Before leaving for GPP, one thing I made sure of was to find a way to hear mass today, and I did find St. Anton’s Church on Minervastrasse, a nice 20-minute walk away from our hotel. They had English mass at 11:30, and I planned to go. It was a pleasant surprise that I was able to share this special day with Allyne and Rabih! St. Anton’s was beautiful, and truly what I expected a church in Europe to be. It was a bit crowded, though, because the parish was celebrating first communion; regardless, what mattered the most is that I was able to celebrate Patricia’s birthday the way I wanted to, even if she was several time zones away.
We then went down to Lake Zurich to find a place by the water where we could eat lunch. I then had an opportunity to take this photo with this building at the background. Michael found it for me the day before, and it was such a nice way to remind me of how far I have come and where I started.
I graduated from college 17 years ago, and two weeks after graduation I started working for Andersen Consulting as a junior software engineer. Less than a year later, Andersen Consulting assumed an identity that was totally separate from its origins as the IT arm of Arthur Andersen, and was renamed as Accenture. I spent 6 great years there, eventually becoming a senior team lead. It was by no means a perfect experience, but it was a place with unforgettable experiences, where I built long and lasting relationships and certainly developed and grew as a professional. I will not be the person and educator I am today without Accenture.
So it was very meaningful that when we looked across the water, the Zurich office of Accenture was right there. Immediately, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics started playing in my mind… “Look at where you are… look at where you started….” It has been a great journey, and I could only look forward to what’s next!
First day high!
Nasasabik sa unang araw ng eskuwela (Looking forward to the first day of school)
Taas kamay, with confidence… (Hands held high, with confidence)
The excitement of finally making it to Zurich reminded me of this pop-rock song by the Filipino band Kamikazee from around a decade ago. Switzerland welcomed Michael, Rabih, Allyne and me with great weather and wonderful sights… and taking it all in gave me a real high!
It was great to get to spend a day and a half before GPP started to just enjoy Zurich, and that was made very easy by the fact that we were traveling with The Great Michael, who has gone on this journey several times before. He knew exactly where we should go, and even the simplest things like catching the train and grabbing lunch made for wonderful memories.
After dropping off our luggage at the Hotel St. Josef, we took the train to Uetliberg. That was once again another high – physically, this time. I am afraid of heights and would not ordinarily be up for climbing up i-don’t-know-how-many flights of steel stairs with gaps in between to get to the top of a tower, but Michael convinced me to power through. And boy am I glad he did!
This wonderful view of both the city and the greenery was what we enjoyed as we ate our first post-air travel meal. I don’t know if I was just hungry and terribly glad to no longer eat airline food, but it felt like I had the best bratwurst ever. Even the fries – oops, the pommes frites – were something else!
We had dinner at a vegetarian buffet – a choice I would not ordinarily make, but once again, no regrets! I do not think I’ve ever had a meal I didn’t enjoy at this point. And I don’t think there will be any of those.
Some say that once you have reached a high, it will probably be followed by a crushing crash to the ground. Not this time, though… because this is only the beginning of even more wonderful things to come!
It’s one minute to midnight, and I am still not quite done with all the things that I said I would finish before May 19. But I’m powering through…
There is a box that I could definitely check off though; more like a collection of boxes, really, from this list that I’ve been keeping for about a month:
I can truthfully say that I’m packed and ready to go – although I have to admit that I have lost track of how many times I took stuff out of my suitcase (only to put other stuff in). At any rate, there will be no more changes to this version.
It has been a rather eventful week, and truly bittersweet. As I look forward to this new adventure, there were things that needed to be done that my daughter and I wish we didn’t have to do. She left for home the other day, and once again, we are separated by the Pacific Ocean and the states from the West Coast to the Mid-West of the United States. But life happens, and I have always believed that whatever happens, happens for a reason – and we must push forward and make the most of what we have.
In the meantime, I am truly grateful for this opportunity to learn, explore, and build relationships with people who I truly believe are as passionate as I am about preparing tomorrow’s leaders and prime movers for the roles that they are meant to fill in society. While I am no stranger to long-haul travel – it does take almost 24 hours of plane time and about 15 hours of layovers & driving time to get to my hometown of Davao City, Philippines to Blacksburg, VA – I have not traveled extensively; Europe is certainly one of the places on my bucket list. I cannot wait for what lies ahead… Zurich, here I come!
Since I started at VT during the fall 2015 semester, there is one statement that I repeated on the first meeting of practically every class I took: “I am here because I teach engineers, but I am trained only as an engineer and not as an educator.” I arrived at this realization before I left home, but I had no idea about how much there was to learn and how much needed to change from the way we taught and organized our curriculum until I got here. I realized that it was not enough for me to bridge the gap I recognized in my skills and identity as an engineering educator; there are institutional and systemic issues that need to be looked at and addressed as well.
This week’s readings served as another reminder of that realization. It was interesting to note that despite the fact that I came from an institution that placed value on integrating liberal arts education into the sciences, those of us who taught in engineering are still not able to give our students the holistic education that they need. When I reflect and think about it, it is an unfortunate paradox that I hope will change eventually.
Dan Edelstein’s quote from Mark Mills and Julio Ottino’s Forbes article is something that my institution subscribed to: “Innovation […] requires the attributes of the humanities found in right-brain thinking: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotions.” In the Philippines, degree programs in higher education institutions are regulated by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), which mandates minimum course credit requirements that students should satisfy before being conferred a degree. For my discipline, CHED regulations require students to earn at least 221 credit units over five years (engineering is a five-year program back home), 39 of which are Humanities courses, in order to get a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. At my institution, however, a student needs 256 credit units to earn an electrical engineering degree; they take 27 more units of Humanities courses on top of the CHED-mandated 39 credits. Examples of courses that our students are required to take but are not mandated by the government are Theology and Philosophy courses.
So from the perspective of recognizing the importance of the Humanities, it seems like we made an effort to provide our engineering students with this important aspect of their education. However, I question whether we did more than just place a tick mark on a check box; how helpful will being saddled with 69 Humanities credits on top of 16 service-based course credits and 171 engineering and sciences course credits be to a student? As a basis for comparison, a student needs 132 credit units, 20 units of which should be from the curriculum of liberal education, in order to earn an electrical engineering degree from Virginia Tech.
What I have observed both as an undergraduate student and as an instructor in this environment is that the significance and positive impact of integrating liberal arts education into the engineering curriculum is diminished because of the immense workload that students are saddled with. Students are, more often than not, faced with choosing between finishing that 200-item problem set over spending time reflecting upon a reading for their Moral Philosophy class. It also does not help that some of our engineering instructors perpetuate the notion that engineering courses are more important to their degree than their non-engineering courses.
Palmer defined the “new professional” as “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the profession’s highest standards.” In order for my home institution to “produce” graduates who will embody this definition, engineering instructors should go beyond the abstract concepts and equations, as suggested in Palmer’s article. We should also foster an environment where the Humanities is considered as an integral part of the curriculum, and not a check box to be ticked off in order to meet “minimum credit requirements.” And most importantly, our higher education system should rethink the workload that we give our students; students should be given a reasonable amount of time to have a positive and balanced learning experience, allowing them to devote just as much time to discipline-specific as well as professional/humanities/liberal arts courses.
All this, however, is easier said than done. There are a number of other things that need to be considered – such as the teaching loads and compensation of faculty members – that I did not discuss here. I can only hope that I can make even a dent of difference when I share all the things that I have learned – and continue to learn – here.
I have seen quite an evolution in the way I study, work, consume information and interact over the years. I belonged to that generation that used typewriters to write term papers, then slowly progressed to WordStar and WordPerfect. I had a blue pager stuck to my waist band in college, and all I could do on my first cell phone was make voice calls. As a kid, our library at home had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1970s (which never really got updated), and subscriptions to the National Geographic and Time magazines. It took a letter from my grandmother two months to arrive, and their barrio did not have access to phone lines, so I rarely got a chance to have a relationship with her growing up.
These memories came back as I went through the various readings this week. I could not help but appreciate how far we have come and how technology has changed the way we live. Despite the commentaries about how our current ways may lead to diminished meaningful interaction, I would have to say that my experience has been the opposite. The way I have used technology has made living on the other side of the world, away from family and loved ones, bearable, and allowed me to continue to engage in meaningful interactions with people I hold dear but could not physically be with. I cannot imagine not having FaceTime or Skype and not being able to talk to my family in the Philippines as often as I can for next to nothing through the internet; I would probably survive, but painfully so.
I have to admit, though, that despite the advantages and conveniences that are available through technology, I can still be pretty old school. I still like reading on paper and making handwritten notes (so I still print all my course readings); I resonated a lot with what Clive Thompson shared about physicist Richard Feynman – putting my thoughts and ideas on paper is my thinking process too. There is a lot to be gained with the vast amount of resources that innovation has made available to us, but how we process that information is still very much a human, cognitive exercise.
My personal preferences and experiences is probably why my favorite lines in all the readings are these lines from Clive Thompson’s piece: “Which is smarter at chess – humans or computers? Neither. It’s the two together, working side by side.” To me, this is very true, and is exactly how I prefer to use not just computers but all the conveniences and technologies that are available to us right now. In a very real way, I see and live Jason Farman’s point that there are “significant ways in which our mobile devices are actually fostering a deeper sense of connection to people and places.” There will always be pros and cons to anything and everything, and it is the way we choose to leverage what emerging technologies have to offer that ultimately makes a difference. If you will it so, technology will work for you and with you.
February 27, 2017 – it was not a usual Monday morning for me. Instead of sitting at my desk reading or hammering away at the keyboard, I was in a side street near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., waiting for my Uber ride to the Swiss Embassy. Not that I’m complaining.
How did I find myself here? My road to GPP started with conversations with three people I look up to in my Department, Engineering Education: Jake Grohs, my Practicum professor, who eventually became my mentor and advisor; Homero Murzi, who reached out to me from halfway across the world, encouraged me to choose VT, and became my friend and next-door neighbor; and Sreyoshi Bhaduri, initially my department-assigned peer mentor but with whom I quickly developed a personal friendship that went beyond that initial assignment and that I know will last a lifetime. Three people I got to know in different ways but who shared a common experience: GPP. They shared their stories with me, led by example, and encouraged me to share that same experience that they had.
So here I was, a large purse containing the envelope with the required documents for a Schengen visa application on my shoulder, making my way to 2900 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington D.C. It was my third time in the U.S. capital, and I have not been to that part of the city. We went past Embassy Row, past the Embassy of the Philippines and my country’s flag flying high, into quiet streets with beautiful houses. When I saw the Swiss flag flying at a distance, I did not have the same feeling of dread and anxiety that I had the last time I had to apply for a travel visa, maybe because the area was so serene and peaceful – like nothing could go wrong.
As a citizen of the Philippines, I am used to having to go through a stringent vetting process before being allowed to travel. While there are countries I can visit with much more ease and mobility (such as Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia), traveling to the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, among other countries, entails more effort, paperwork, and time. I had traveled to the United States for work before coming to Virginia Tech, and for both purposes, that meant a lengthy preparation process, long lines, witnessing applicant after applicant being denied visas (with some of them leaving in tears), and the anxiety that goes with the possibility that you will end up interviewing with a stern and intimidating consul officer. It was this long-winded affair that took days to prepare and a lengthy half-day (sometimes more) personal appearance at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which was surrounded by barricades, guards, and hawkers offering services and wares: “Ballpen for sale here!”; “Leave your cellphones here, they are not allowed inside!”
This, however, was not my experience when I applied for the Schengen visa. There were no lines, and while the interviewer was thorough, the environment was much more relaxed. It was a pleasant experience, and it made me look forward to what lies ahead even more. I had a 9:30 am appointment, and arrived at 9 to leave time for contingencies. I had barely taken my class reading out of my purse when my name was called; by 9:30 am, I was trying to find an Uber to take me back to the hotel.
I had more than half a day to spare, as Megabus to Christiansburg did not leave til the following morning. My daughter and I decided to spend this time doing something we both loved: immersing ourselves in history. We were able to go to two places that we felt were meaningful: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
I have always maintained that in order to move forward, it was important to look back and learn from the lessons of the past, a sentiment that I am glad my daughter also shares. And if there is one moment in history that imparted valuable lessons that we have to remember to this day, the Holocaust would be one of the most – if not the most – defining moments. As we went around and saw for ourselves relics and replicas of things and scenes that we only read about in books or watched in documentaries, we could not help but shed tears. We sat and listened to personal stories as told by survivors. And we also learned about how the rest of the world reacted to the growing situation of unrest in Europe in the 1930s, of Jews searching for refuge as they were forced out from lands they once called home, of the opportunity to provide a safe haven and the debate regarding whose responsibility it was to provide refuge, and could not help but shudder. Somehow, there are echoes that seem to reverberate to this day, and it is important now, more than ever, to remind ourselves: Never Again.
We then walked about twelve minutes to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and read the words that we have been signing in our heads since we were introduced to the awesome musical that is Hamilton: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” We spent a few minutes just reading through the words as Jefferson penned them; reflecting on what this country that we temporarily lived in held dear; watching the Potomac; and thinking, how lucky we were to be alive right now and sharing these experiences, together.
Then we went back to Blacksburg, the place we, at least for now, call home. Two days later, I received my passport back in the mail, newly updated with a Schengen visa. An important box has been checked off my “To Do” list, and I am ready to leap forward to what lies ahead: to new friends, new memories, new experiences. The Road to GPP is certainly very much under way.