Global Engagement Day: Non-Traditional Study Abroad

Another panel that I attended for Global Engagement Day was for non-traditional study abroad experiences, “non-traditional” meaning those to places outside of western and central Europe. I really looked forward to this one because I had been to both Brazil and Zimbabwe with OU and was eager to hear how my experiences compared with others’. Among the panelists, places traveled included Tanzania, Ecuador, Uganda, Israel, and Cambodia. Besides Australia, all of the habitable continents were covered. All of the trips were short-term, mine included, with the exception of my friend Holly’s semester in Ecuador. It was interesting hearing about how different everyone’s trip was, especially in terms of accommodations. In Tanzania, my friend Hannah said that they had to use buckets for showers and use the restroom in the woods. These methods contrasted sharply with the hot showers and zippy plumbing my CCEW team and I enjoyed in our hotel in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. And I think all of our short-term experiences paled in comparison to the months-long tenure that Holly had in Ecuador, especially since she lived with a host family and spoke Spanish most of her trip. It made me aware of the vast differences in study abroad opportunities that OU offers. It also made me anxious to return to Brazil, Zimbabwe or somewhere else for a longer stint of time–maybe something that a Fulbright could provide!

 

Zimbabwe, Part I

Each semester, the Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth (CCEW) assigns high impact projects to interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students, one of which focuses on social entrepreneurship. During the Fall 2016 semester, CCEW’s Social Entrepreneurship team was tasked with facilitating the expansion of the Zimbabwean company Educate. Educate provides Zimbabwean students with needed microloans for the tuition and fees to attend school. Educate’s business model is built for the typical Zimbabwean: it caters to the informally employed (over 70% of Zimbabweans), and relies on flexible payment plans for families with irregular income, like farmers. Over 60% of Zimbabwean students attend private school because government schools are sparse and of poor quality. Culturally, education is considered of the utmost importance. Thus, quality private schools pose a significant but necessary cost. As a direct result of said cost, more than 40% of Zimbabweans drop out between primary and secondary school. Zimbabweans also experience serious liquidity problems; frequent bank runs prevent families from withdrawing more than $50 at a time from ATM machines, and not without fees. Educate’s unique financial services allow students to receive the valuable education that will help spur social and economic growth within the country.

Our project focused on developing a growth plan for Educate, which addressed internal changes and new relationships with schools. Internally, we recommended new marketing strategies that Educate could use to reach a wider audience. Externally, we created a focused list of new schools with which Educate could partner. Additionally, as part of a wider financial expansion plan, we contacted regional investors with whom Educate can potentially partner for new capital. These recommendations were based upon an entire semester’s worth of research, including interviews with NGOs, embassies, schools, banks, and MFIs. We compiled our recommendations into a thirty-page document, so that Educate could reference our research in the future.

A trip to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe was extremely helpful in verifying our recommendations and their implementability. In fact, experiencing the economic environment was the final seal of validity we needed for our research. During the semester we could communicate frequently with Educate, contact several of their partner schools, and research the Zimbabwean education system online and by phone, in-person conversations are infinitely more valuable for such detailed research. In Bulawayo, we were able to meet with the other members of the Educate team to walk through our final report and discuss the specifics of the growth plan. We had the opportunity to meet with 12 partner schools and conduct in-depth interviews, which led to new recommendations, and improvements to original ones. Not only did these visits strengthened Educate’s relationships with their partnering institutions, but several schools also gave our CCEW team very frank feedback, which they surely would have never told Educate’s own staff.

Among the schools we visited was Whitestone primary school. We interviewed Cleo, the school’s bursar. She described the standard financial situation of her school’s families: parents will be a late paying tuition, because their paychecks are late, because their employers are waiting to be paid, and so on, and so forth. Cash is limited, and with sixteen currencies in the country, a solution is anything but simple. Financial difficulties piggy-back, until families are eventually incapable of affording their children’s school fees. During our interviews, we observed a remarkable patience in the Zimbabwean people, particularly in their schools. Cleo expressed trepidation in regards to the recent introduction of the USD-based bond note, but with a persistent hope for improvement. We observed consistently impressive curricula despite the surrounding difficulties. Girls College, an all-girls secondary school, teaches their fourteen year olds Python in their computer science courses. Students prepare for top universities in China, the United States, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

As a result of these extensive interviews and first hand experiences, the trip to Bulawayo added significant value to our project with Educate. It thoroughly validated our already extensive research, and we are confident that Educate will enact our recommendations and consequently experience substantial and efficient growth.

The trip also added value to our own education by providing us with a truly unique international experience. None of us had ever visited any country in Africa, and our daily interactions in Zimbabwe introduced us to countless political and cultural differences. After stepping off the plane outside the Bulawayo airport, immigration almost refused us entry into the country because of suspicion regarding our trip’s purpose. The government is wary of foreigners and their power to produce “propaganda.” An airport employee instructed us to step aside, while he investigated and confirmed our trip’s purpose. This exchange was an introduction to the intense presence of a dictatorial government. A portrait of President Mugabe hung in every business and school, even though many in the country oppose his rule. President Mugabe is entering his twentieth year in office. The people’s frustrations amplify in the midst of an economic crisis in which people have little to no access to cash, jobs are scarce, and those who do have jobs hardly receive paychecks on time. Rampant corruption means police roadblocks around every corner, with officers demanding petty fines for doubtful violations. The only people who seem to be secure are those employed directly by the government.


Zimbabweans’ patience is interesting; through various conversations with Zimbabweans, we learned that most would rather wait silently and hope for change than protest and risk conflict or war. They attribute their prioritization of peace to education. Their powerlessness certainly shed a new light on the current American political conflict. We were in Bulawayo during the Presidential Inauguration, and consequently we had the opportunity to hear a lot of Zimbabwe’s perspective on the transition of power in the United States. Needless to say, visiting a country that has endured colonization, several severe economic crises, and the regime of one, unending President provides a certain level of perspective for those of us who have been privileged enough to live in a far less volatile environment.

Rhodes and Marshall Meeting

While I plan to apply for the Fulbright next year and enjoyed listening to the panel of past winners at Global Engagement Day, I am also looking forward to applying for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, both of which provide study for students in the United Kingdom. Just as I had to do some soul searching and reflection to decide which Fulbright to apply for, I had to do a similar process for determining which types of master’s programs to apply for in the UK. However, that is not an easy decision. Fortunately, I was able to meet with a past Rhodes winner from OU to learn more about his process and studies, and to ask him questions about how his degree will fit into his career. Mubeen, the former student, studied anthropology while at Oxford, and also received a master’s in public policy at the relatively new Blavatnik School of Government. I found his choice interesting since he is now earning his medical doctorate, and he studied hard science. However, he said that his master’s degrees fit more into what he would like to do in the long term, involving studying and shaping how policy and medicine interact in our immensely complex healthcare system. He encouraged me to think more about what I would like to do in the long term, which I found very helpful, since it is difficult to think about the short-term benefits and effects of a master’s degree, as opposed to seeing it in the broader picture. Thankfully, his encouragement of reflection helped me think a lot more about what interests motivate me, how those might coalesce into a career, and which programs might help with that goal. I have not made a final decision as to degrees, but this meditation did help influence me to change my major to economics for my final year in undergrad, and it helped me realize my interest in understanding global economic trends and financial systems, as well as how economics and capitalism affect developing communities. Regardless of whether I win either award, I am incredibly thankful for the advice I received in this meeting, and excited to pursue study and work in these fields, either directly or indirectly, one day.

 

Global Engagement Day: Study Abroad Story Time

The final panel I attended for Global Engagement Day was for students to tell stories about their times abroad with OU. I attended this session last year as well and thought it was fun to hear about each other’s travels, even though I am not nearly as good at recanting stories as some others present. My favorite one was from Louise, who ran a 50K race while in China. She expected it to be intense but “typical” fifty-kilometer race (whatever that means). However, after signing up through some friends in a running group she had discovered in her town, and after running a few kilometers along the route, she realized that she had enlisted in a much more extreme trek than she had thought. Louise said that she would approach nearly vertical rock faces with arrows directing her to scale upward, and have to run along the eaves of hills that would mean death if she had slipped. My favorite part of the story was when she arrived suddenly at a temple, deep into the journey, that had a very large statue of Buddha. She said it was beautiful, but in her daze she focused more on a group of fish in a courtyard fountain. Ultimately, she ended up finishing in a close fourth place, and she now has a great story to tell friends at parties. Her story also really made me want to explore rural China, which has been on my bucket list for several years. I will not, however, be running any 50Ks!

Fulbright Panel

As part of Global Engagement Day, I attended a discussion with a panel of four Fulbright winners. I was surprised by the variety of experiences of the panelists, and it helped me get a better idea of what type of Fulbright I want to apply for. One of the panelists did an English teaching fellowship in Germany, and she enjoyed her experience and living in the country for a long period of time. While I originally thought I would dislike that type of Fulbright, her experience seemed really positive and influential, although I probably would be better suited for other fellowships. Another one of the panelists received a master’s degree fellowship, and she pursued a degree in European Studies at a university in Belgium. When I entered the meeting, I too thought that I would apply for the Fulbright to receive a graduate degree at a university in another country, likely in Europe. Her experience seemed very positive, and her degree was free of course. Two of the panelists conducted research, and it was really interesting to hear their stories, since research was a little vaguer and hard to picture. One did research in China and another in India. It was interesting to hear how they were able to set up these projects and coordinate letters of affiliation. At first I thought that research would not apply to me since both of the panelists were already in graduate school and getting their masters, but I ended up meeting with the coordinators of the Fulbright program at OU and they convinced me that research was actually possible, especially with my research I already conducted in Zimbabwe. I will talk more about my application and research proposal in a later post.

Overall, I was happy to see in all of the experiences the level of immersion that the panelists had during their Fulbright year. While each of them said that the time passes by too quickly, I could sense that each of them truly lived in another country, and brought part of that culture back with them, which is partially what the Fulbright is for in the first place.

Non-traditional study abroad: with Holly Crawford (studied abroad in Tanzania and Ecuador), Kayleigh Kuyon (Israel), Felicia Padilla (Uganda), and Tanner Satterthwaite (Cambodia)

Another panel that I attended for Global Engagement Day was for non-traditional study abroad experiences, “non-traditional” meaning those to places outside of western and central Europe. I really looked forward to this one because I had been to both Brazil and Zimbabwe with OU and was eager to hear how my experiences compared with others’. Among the panelists, places traveled included Tanzania, Ecuador, Uganda, Israel, and Cambodia. Besides Australia, all of the habitable continents were covered. All of the trips were short-term, mine included, with the exception of my friend Holly’s semester in Ecuador. It was interesting hearing about how different everyone’s trip was, especially in terms of accommodations. In Tanzania, my friend Hannah said that they had to use buckets for showers and use the restroom in the woods. These methods contrasted sharply with the hot showers and zippy plumbing my CCEW team and I enjoyed in our hotel in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. And I think all of our short-term experiences paled in comparison to the months-long tenure that Holly had in Ecuador, especially since she lived with a host family and spoke Spanish most of her trip. It made me aware of the vast differences in study abroad opportunities that OU offers. It also made me anxious to return to Brazil, Zimbabwe or somewhere else for a longer stint of time–maybe something that a Fulbright could provide!

Zimbabwe Trip: One Month Away

Today, my CCEW officially purchased our plane tickets to travel to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in January! I am very excited, yet also trying to process my emotions and prepare mentally for the trip.

 

When I first found out that I was going, several months ago, I was excited to travel to this seemingly exotic country on a continent that I had never travelled to before. I was excited to see how different things might be, what the weather might be like, the people, the food, and all of the exciting aspects of visiting a new country. Only this time, it was truly a country that I was unfamiliar with – not western Europe, not even a pretty well-known BRIC country. I felt as though I would be traveling to another world, in the far reaches of the globe, deep in the heart of a developing continent.

 

However, since learning more about the country, speaking to others who have been, researching locations online, and meeting more people from the country, I have become more blasé about the trip. Maybe my attitude is partially due to the desire not to freak out my parents, who are a little anxious about my trip, and possibly also not to seem naïve or sheltered. Zimbabwe, cool, just another country, so what? As someone who is angered when he hears someone refer to Africa as a country, or, more commonly, treats all countries in Africa the same, part of me wants to do what I can to end that stereotype or misconception by treating this trip as I would any other.

 

But, as I prepare for my trip, I also have to remind myself that this truly is more different of a place than I have been before. It’s not another planet by any means, but, to the best of my knowledge, Zimbabwe will be pretty different from England or France, countries I have been to before. I am doing the best I can to be educated an not treat Zimbabwe as exotic or different from other countries, but also educated in the sense of being aware of the differences in language, lifestyle, economics, safety, attitude, logistics, and any other differences that may or may not exist.
Anyway, I will keep the blog updated as I learn more and when I travel. One thing I am 100% sure of—I am excited!

Cuba

Another international locale that has been on my mind lately is the newly “opened” country of Cuba. With the lifting of the embargo, and recent visits by the Obamas and Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is one of the “coolest” places to travel to right now. I wanted to go for spring break but for the expensive flights, although my friend and I are eyeing some cheaper fares in May that we are thinking of hopping on.

 

I do, however, wonder about whether traveling to Cuba is responsible. I am not worried about danger, and I am definitely not worried about the politics of such a trip, but I wonder whether a massive influx or tourists (and my contribution to that influx) would be good for Cuba. Already I have read articles about how people are going hungry in Cuba because tourists are eating so much of the food while local farmers are not growing more to keep up, therefore increasing the price of food as well. Is that something I want to support?

 

I also look at other sites around the world that have become tourist hotspots. Venice, for example, is in danger of losing its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the effects on the city of tens of thousands of tourists visiting each day. And beyond the tourism, the local government is treating down older buildings and municipal facilities to make way for tourist infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, etc. I could see the same thing happening in Cuba.

 

Even if Havana didn’t become as extreme as Venice, I still would feel bad about Cuba turning into the next Bahamas, where Americans view it only as a place to go to the beach or to go swimming with dolphins.

 

Ultimately, I probably will end up going anyway, if I am being honest – I am a strong supporter of and believer in the power of the sharing of cultures, and I hope that those benefits might outweigh any drawbacks.

Zimbabwe – What Language Barrier?

Had you asked me at the beginning of our project about the language barrier, I don’t know what I would have said. To be honest, when I made my first phone calls for research, I didn’t even really think about what I would do if the person who picked up the phone on the other side of the world didn’t speak English. Fortunately, she did, and so did almost everyone with whom I spoke. To start, this was a very lucky result, since we would not have been able to gather the information and research that we did if a language barrier had stood between us and the people we called. While most did have a British accent, leftover from colonialism, everyone spoke English flawlessly and was usually excited to speak to someone from the US. The only situation where I was not so lucky was when I had to call an investor in India. After a few lines back and forth in what we both likely thought was pure gibberish, we both just concomitantly gave up and ended the call. At 3:00 in the morning, it was honestly pretty amusing, even though I likely missed out on some valuable information if only I had known his language.

 

This realization also reminded me that I was somewhat ignorant about Zimbabwe and inexperienced with international work. This situation reminded me that I needed to be prepared for challenges on the project and be less anglo-centrically minded in my expectations. I am working an internship this summer at a globally active company, and there are many international experiences possible on projects in their offices around the world. While English is a requirement for employees of the company, I think that my learning experience on this project with Zimbabwe will allow me to have more realistic and humbler expectations going into any international projects “in the real world” after I graduate.

 

Zimbabwe – Time Difference

One of the biggest immediate challenge was simply the time difference. Zimbabwean business hours in Central Standard Time were between 2:00am and 10:00am. Since I had 9:00am classes every day, my calling window for research was quite limited. It reminded me of when I attended a conference hosted by the College of Engineering, and one of the sessions touched on the benefits and drawbacks of international work. One of the panelists said that she worked on a team that literally could not all meet at once because of the time differences, with members of the team in at least three different parts of the world. As a result, I felt as though I gained good experience with that aspect. I adjusted my sleep schedule accordingly—at least the best I could, anyway—and did my best to force myself into becoming a morning person. Or, some nights, a more extreme night owl. While it worked out ok and I was able to have around 20 different interviews over Skype with people in Southern Africa, it did take a toll on my energy levels. Some weeks I just couldn’t bring myself to wake up at 5:00 several days in a row when my homework and involvement was causing me to go to sleep well after midnight. However, I prioritized sleep when I was less busy so I would have the energy when the going got tough, and that way I was able to commit the time and energy I needed to allow the project to succeed.

Intro to Zimbabwe / Challenges

This semester I have worked as an interdisciplinary analyst for OU’s Center for the Creation Economic Wealth. I chose the social entrepreneurship team and have been lucky enough to work with an education-focused microfinance institution that is based in Zimbabwe. While much of the work has been typical of a CCEW project, such as financial modeling, market research, and cold calling for research, it was very exciting to do all of this work in an international context. The next few posts will discuss some of the challenges and benefits of this type of work, and what it means for the future.

 

Challenges

 

Some of the challenges on the Zimbabwe project have been navigating the differences and trying to learn the unknown, both in Zimbabwe and the surrounding countries. Here is a list:

 

  • South Africa’s higher education system is currently enveloped in protests, making it difficult to understand why students might have trouble financing their education, and difficult to assess a potential market size
  • The quality and type of schools can vary greatly depending on the province or whether in urban or rural areas. This makes sense and is similar to the US, although more difficult to get a feel for in other countries.
  • Policy is constantly changing that can affect the project. For example, Botswana just made all public schools free, drastically affecting the distribution of school children in the country.
  • People often want to do business with other native Zimbabweans, not outsiders, making it difficult to gain rapport when calling for research.
  • The vast majority of Zimbabweans are informally employed, meaning that their income is often variable and undocumented.
  • Despite recent economic countries, Zimbabwe has among the most literate population of any country in the world.
  • Businesses must be careful to navigate their relationship the government, which can nationalize a business if the government so decides.

 

These are just a few insights and challenges from the project. I am excited for many more once we visit.

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