January 13, 2010 — "Hello, I am here to save the world!"
This is a notion students seeking to conduct international research projects must disabuse themselves of, said Robert Swap, a research associate professor with the University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences.
The course, which has grown in popularity since its launch in 2006, seeks to teach aspiring student researchers to create international projects in a thoughtful way that creates partnerships with the target communities so that the work is sustained even after the students leave.
"We want to dispel the notion that they know everything," Swap said. "We want them to leave the class realizing that they are ignorant. Our goal is to make them aware that they are unaware."
The class is enjoying its largest enrollment ever with 32 students. They are benefiting from not only the expertise of their instructors, but also of 20 international scholars who hail from Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and Brazil. These women and men include teachers, children's rights advocates, engineers, nurses and geographers.
Over the course of the rigorous two-week course, students work in small groups to design a potential research project of their own and present it to the entire group.
Betsy Graves, a third-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, intended to spend January working on a project in Kenya, but changed her plans at the last minute.
"I threw my suitcase in the car, drove two hours to Charlottesville from my home in Southwest Virginia, and got in town right in time for the first session of the course," said Graves, a double major in foreign affairs and English and the Modern Studies Program. "Rather than searching out these people across the African continent, it was an incredible experience to meet and work with them in class here in Charlottesville."
Musa Manganya, who traveled to U.Va. from South Africa's Limpopo province, holds a master's degree in public health and a nursing degree from the University of Venda. He said one of the biggest pitfalls for students embarking on international research projects for the first time is failing to fully partner with the members of a community.
"They should be fully involved and engaged – if they are involved from scratch, that will be best," he said.
The benefits of the class are not only going to the students. Kelebogile Mfundisi is a research fellow at the University of Botswana-Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Center and holds a Ph.D. from Germany's Bonn University. She said she, too, has learned about the ethics of research these past few weeks.
"It is going to change the way I look at things. We forget about the communities," she said. "Most of the time, we do research to get in the publications; this is what we do to get published. We must focus more on reaching out to the public."
Teaching assistant James Ngundi said he has cherished his time this January.
"This is perhaps one of the best experiences I've ever had," said the Kenya native, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Curry School.
He said the students have had wonderful interactions with the visiting scholars and some have already agreed to work together overseas.
"I pray that nothing happens to cut this short," Ngundi said.