Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Qatar Young Professionals Institute - reflections

We are now a week past the departure of our visitors from the University of Maryland and University of San Diego graduate programs. The lapsed time has allowed us to pull our evaluations together and to gain some distance from the experience, which was quite intense.

In retrospect, I am reminded that we attempted something that was very different than the typical study tour. I’ve seen other study tour itineraries, I’ve hosted visitors, I’ve helped plan, and I joined in facilitating a student affairs study tour in central Europe a couple of summers ago. What we proposed and delivered in Qatar was actually more of a departure than I realized and that reality has only begun to sink in. The essential differences in what we did were; it included significant cultural preparation for the visitors, it required cultural immersion and engagement, and it utilized inquiry learning to build relationships between our visitors and those of us in Qatar as we addressed questions essential to Qatar’s future.

I’m not sure the degree to which the faculty/staff at the two visiting institutions had to convince their students (23) that the advanced preparation, literature research, and conceptual integration were worth a trip to Qatar. The interesting point is that we did not hear any complaints from the visitors about this preparation. In fact, they seemed to pick up on Qatar and the Arab world much more quickly and were able to accommodate the cultural adjustment much more readily than other groups we’ve hosted. During the early stages of acquaintance and idea exchange, our Qatar participants seemed reluctant to engage in the distance learning part of the interaction which took place through “google-groups” dialogues. This hesitance caused me to wonder if the group of 38 people that we anticipated would actually show up. When the final kick-off morning arrived, 35 of the 38 Qatar participants appeared. What was even more impressive was that the general level of participation from the Qatar participants was active and deep throughout. During the two days when these 58 graduate students and young professionals were involved with each other, it was pretty exciting. There were numerous reports of long, struggling conversations that opened pathways of understanding that were powerful for all. For the U.S.A. participants, the pathway was one of understanding culture and beginning to realize that it is expressed in many more complex ways when dealing with individuals from throughout the world. The Qatar participants pursued paths that introduced them to the research and theory of student affairs. Most of the Qatar participants were not trained in student development and some did not know that it was possible to receive professional preparation for such work. Ultimately, the two groups bound together by struggling with very important issues and they learned a great deal from each other.

The thing we did not anticipate was the variability among our participants in the way they understood inquiry learning. We communicated throughout the preparatory stages that a major part of being involved was participating on an inquiry team but the implications of this may not have been fully understood. While our evaluations reflect high satisfaction and learning among most participants, there were a couple who perceived that the 23 guests were presumptuous to offer any input on our inquiry questions. The flip side is that the majority of both visitors and Qatar participants reported relishing the opportunity to be fully participatory rather than passive in their learning. For those who view learning as acquiring and demonstrating knowledge rather than discovering knowledge with and through others, it is understandable that inquiry learning was a stretch.

Ultimately, when the Young Professionals Institute was over, there was a great deal of good will and participants were reluctant to go their separate ways – a very good sign that something significant had taken place. The pre and post assessments were all high where we would expect them to be. Perhaps the anticipation was so high that it left little room for increasing scores from pre to post measures. The “fill in the box” responses were overwhelmingly positive and reflected a desire to refine and replicate the model. The “sticky-tab” exercise that called for reflection on the process was even richer in its advocacy to continue and to deepen the discovery learning of the Institute. And, one of the items that reflected the largest increase from pre to post (4.17 to 4.39) measurement was an item asking participants to agree or disagree with the statement “I see my cultural background as an asset to my work as a Student Affairs professionals.” If no other item increased but this one, the fact that our Qatar participants gained a greater sense and pride in their cultural background as an asset in their work would have been enough.

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