U.Va. J-Term Course Shows Impact of Local Actions on the World

January 08, 2010

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

January 8, 2010 — Just what does it mean to "think globally, act locally"?

Josh Yates, a research associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is offering some answers in a January term course.

"It is a huge topic," he said. "It is abstract and the students struggle to wrap their heads around it."

U.Va.'s "J-Term" offers students an opportunity to take an intensive, two-week elective course before the spring semester starts, and earn three credits.

While so much of people' lives are shaped by global connections, Yates wants to help students find ways to think about how they can live their lives in Charlottesville and make a difference globally.

Globalization is a large topic that attracts students who are either very passionate about a part of it, such as relieving Third World hunger, or who are fatalistic, saying it is too big for a single person to make a difference, he said.

"I want to give them purchase and show them if they can shape their lives, that gives them empowerment that really matters," he said.

First-year student Gracie Burger said she is interested in global development and is encouraged by the course.

"We talk about global issues and how we can affect them on a local level without being overwhelmed by trying to save the world," she said.

James Fulton, a fourth-year biology major, described it as "the best course I have taken at U.Va." Originally attracted because he was interested in social and economic interaction, Fulton said he sees better how things actually happen.

"I have learned about a greater web of interaction among federal, state and international agencies and how an individual in one society can have a strong impact on someone in another culture," he said.

Yates wants the students to see a central problem and then determine a local solution. He said taking "bite-size pieces of engagement can add up."

Among Yates' suggestions for individuals: take alternative vacations, which combine conventional tourism with some kind of service work in places such as Haiti and Africa; or select one problem and support groups working on that problem.

"I know a number of people who support a child in a poor country, or loan money through micro-lending groups like Kiva, or who, in lieu of buying a Christmas or birthday gift will purchase a chicken, goat, sheep or even a cow for a poor family in the Third World through groups like Heifer International," he said.

"When dealing with these topics, it is hard not to be pessimistic, because they seem unconquerable," said second-year student Clare McCormick, who said she is impressed with Yates' handling of the topic. "He makes it manageable. He shows how we can have an impact."

"When they leave the class, I want them to see globalization is not an abstraction," Yates said. "I want them to have a composite picture, see a many-layered picture, with a better skill set of how we live and deal with things without fatalism."

He also wants the students to see opportunities.

"It's made me realize how much I care about social and environmental issues," McCormick said. "It helped me to realize what I can do to make a difference."

"I have learned that I want to work for a non-profit," Burger said. "Every person can have an impact."

Yates said the course is well-suited to U.Va. because of the level of commitment and public service that already exists among the students. Madison House, U.Va.'s student volunteering center, enlists about 3,300 students who volunteer weekly in a diverse array of 19 programs at almost 90 sites in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,

— By Matt Kelly