Expanding Horizons: VCU's Inaugural Faculty Development Seminar

By: V. Renee Russell
Global Education Office
(804) 828-3636

Richmond, VA (June 4, 2013) — Two weeks in a foreign land are certain to change ones perspective on the world. And for the eight VCU faculty and staff who participated in the Global Education Office’s Inaugural Faculty Development Seminar, this was no exception. The seminar from May 11-25, 2013, took participants to Spain and Morocco, with stops in Córdoba, Tarifa, and Madrid, Spain, as well as Tangier, Tétouan, and Marrakesh, Morocco.

In support of the internationalization goals set forth in VCU’s strategic plan, Quest for Distinction, the seminar provides opportunities for VCU faculty to cultivate their teaching and research connections with counterparts abroad, as well as better equips them to effectively advocate for and advise their students with regard to study abroad opportunities.

While the seminar topic will rotate annually, this year, participants focused on migration. In collaboration with VCU’s strategic international partner, the University of Córdoba, participants explored the links between Morocco and Spain on a variety of levels, including the region’s rich cultural and historic heritage and the intersection of the “developing” and “developed” worlds. Special attention was given to human rights within the context of clandestine migrations, to the unsolved political and humanitarian issues affecting people in the region, and to the role that education plays in determining the future of society.

During the 2013 spring semester, the group participated in a pre-departure program which included readings, lectures, discussions and writings designed to make the travel experience as fruitful as possible. During the travel portion of the seminar, the group toured and met with students, professors and administrators at University of Córdoba in Spain, University Abdelmalek Essaadi in Tétouan, Morocco, and Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh, Morocco. They also participated in presentations and discussions with several NGOs and visited some of the most significant points of interest in the area including sites of historic relevance, local villages, and metropolitan areas. Together, these components of the trip provided exposure to the breadth and depth of academic, cultural, and everyday life in both Spain and Morocco.

Give and take: uncovering collaboration opportunities at VCU and beyond

For Alison Montpetit, RN, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, who studies exhaled breath biomarkers in infection, interaction with faculty at the University of Córdoba brought about opportunities for future collaboration in two specific areas. “The university has an exhaled breath biomarker study for lung cancer in Córdoba, so in terms of research, there is a natural opportunity for collaboration in that area,” she said.

After hearing about the IMIBIC, Instituto Maimónides de Investigación Biomédica de Córdoba, a translational health research institute similar to the VCU Center for Translational Research, Montpetit identified yet another area in which she could contribute. “I plan to write a Fulbright proposal to work with them in my area of research and hope to assist in incorporating nursing research into IMIBIC,” she said. “Because there isn’t always a clear understanding of what nursing science is about, it is often unclear exactly how nurse scientists can contribute to a translational research mission. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to help elevate the nursing science IMIBIC program – and the VCU-University of Córdoba collaboration – by sharing my experiences as a translational nurse scientist.”

Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and associate director of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, echoed that sentiment in her desire to delve further into the group’s discussion about building partnerships between the university, the community, and the local government. “Most sociologists are concerned about social issues and what makes us better, but we need to do a better job of connecting our research and understanding of social problems to public policy,” she said. “I was really interested in hearing about how they’ve done that at the University of Córdoba and would like to learn more about the structure of those relationships. I’d also like to explore ways that we can build similar relationships in the U.S.”

Brubaker identified another area of potential development that could benefit the Wilder School. “We held several sessions that were of interest to me because they were related to conflict resolution,” she said. “We have lots of students in public administration and criminal justice as well as applied social science fields like homeland security and emergency preparedness, and urban and regional studies and planning. I think conflict resolution would complement those areas very well and would be meaningful to us. It would be great to partner with the University of Córdoba because they have such expertise in that area.”

The seminar not only uncovered opportunities for external collaboration but internal collaboration, as well. “Learning about our partner universities has been great, but I’ve also learned a great deal about our own university,” said Chriss Walther-Thomas, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Education. “Being relatively new, I’ve been able to learn so much about the various departments at VCU and the work that’s been taking place. We’ve had these great conversations that will facilitate future collaboration and I can already think of people with whom I will share this information. The opportunities are greater than I imagined they would be.”

The face of immigration: moved by the men of KALA

While participants identified a wide range collaboration opportunities within their respective areas of expertise, the seminar theme of immigration remained the lens through which many of their discussions took place. On Day 4, participants were invited into the home of several young men who migrated to Spain from various parts of Africa, and were taken in by the social service organization, KALA. Many were visibly moved by this interaction and the accompanying stories of survival and determination.

“Sana, a young man from Ghana, shared with us a very riveting story of his journey from Africa to Spain, traveling the rocky waves of the Strait of Gibraltar on a small boat,” shared Shajuana Payne, executive director of academic advising for VCU University College. “He went on to explain that there were many who began the journey, but sadly, five did not survive.”

“I told him with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes that he was indeed one of the most courageous people I had ever met,” Payne continued. “He so graciously and humbly said, ‘I just knew I wanted to make it to have a new chance at a future’.”

Through interaction like this, the participants were exposed to the differences between the immigration systems in Spain and the U.S. “One thing that seems to be true is that it’s easier to legally migrate to Spain, but there isn’t necessarily integration into a community,” said Patti Aldredge, Ph.D., director of field education at the VCU School of Social Work. “Conversely, in the US, it’s easier to become part of the community, but much harder to immigrate legally. It’s a very interesting dichotomy,” she said.

“One word in Spain that struck me, which I never hear in the U.S. discourse about immigration, was ‘dignity’,” Aldredge continued. “Representatives of KALA talked about approaching people with dignity and making sure that they feel affection. Although they make a very clear distinction that they are not the biological family, there is a real sense of belonging and nurturing,” she said.

Organizations like KALA help support recent immigrants to Spain, by taking them in and helping them build life skills. This particular organization sparked the interest of and opened up an opportunity for potential international collaboration for organizational psychologist Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Medicine and affiliate assistant professor of psychology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. “I’m particularly interested in learning how the individuals are integrating themselves into the organization, and at the same time, how the organization is able to engage these individuals to make sure its programs are being productive,” she said. “I’ve spoken with them about helping to ensure that their targets and objectives are being met, and I look forward to future collaboration with them.”

Being the other: a humbling experience

One of the most poignant insights for the participants was the experience of going from being part of the dominant culture to being “the other,”-- in terms of language, culture, and in some cases, even appearance. Most discussions during the trip were held in languages other than English, using translators and diligent work to find a common language. This was an eye-opening experience for many in the group, for some of whom, this was the first time traveling outside the U.S.

“You may think you identify or understand how those of a different culture feel in your environment, but until you actually feel the differences for yourself, I don't know if you can fully identify. It’s very humbling,” Montpetit explained. “Going into this, I thought I identified, but experiencing it, made it real for me.”

Aldredge echoed that sentiment. “The academic exchanges we’ve had were really rich and stimulating, but the moments when we were able to enter the world of ‘the other’ were life-changing,” she said. “In the field of social work, we teach our students “reflective practice,” and we’re often working with those who are vulnerable; who are the other. Being immersed in being ‘the other’, and getting a real sense of what that’s like, has been a real gift for me. I definitely will take that back and think about how I can recreate that experience for my students.”

Bringing the world back to VCU: an awakening

While many will bring back opportunities for future collaboration, greater knowledge of the discourse surrounding immigration, and enhanced self awareness, perhaps the most tangible takeaway from this experience is the potential that the seminar has to impact faculty and students at VCU, both culturally and academically.

“I can see a host of opportunities for faculty,” Walther-Thomas shared. “Someone who may be preparing for a sabbatical or for a Fulbright might be thinking about what they want to do with that time. Just knowing how to go about building these relationships is important and the fact that the university’s senior administration has already put the pieces in place that will allow early career faculty to be able to take advantage of these opportunities is commendable.”

For Rob Tombes, professor of biology and associate dean for research in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, one particular incident in Tétouan, Morocco has the potential to shape his future interaction with VCU students. “Although I’ve lived in many places around the world, I’ve never been to an Islamic country before,” he said. “To be awakened at 5 a.m. by a ‘call to worship,’ was a reality check. It was truly enlightening to see what an integral part of the cultural the Islamic religion is.”

“We have plenty of students from all around the world at VCU - but you don’t ‘get it’ until you live it,” he continued. “I will seek out opportunities to interact with students from this part of the world, because I now feel more connected to them because of this my time here.”

Of course, it’s no surprise that this seminar has academic implications. “I see great opportunities to bring this experience back to our students at VCU,” said Payne. “Specifically, I plan to find a way to integrate the idea of strengthening global competency and awareness within our Introduction to the University courses. We also need to begin having concrete and intentional discussions built into advising and our courses, and this seminar has given me some definite ideas about how to implement that.”

“I would also like to find more ways to have our students experience the spirit of this exchange; the awareness that it brings,” she continued. “Even if they can’t be here physically, we need to think about virtual ways to do that.”

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