October 25, 2016
What unique aspects of the TEAM Malawi project allow for participants to do meaningful, translational research in a global context? How do we foster successful cross-sector, global collaborations like TEAM Malawi through Beyond Boundaries? To further investigate this question, I attended a TEAM (Technology – Education – Advocacy – Medicine) Malawi meeting and spoke with key players in the collaboration. As Beyond Boundaries moves forward with its call to extend Ut Prosim to other parts of the world, the university will need to identify “best practices” to guide its transformation. TEAM Malawi's success provides some insight into how faculty and students can work collaboratively with communities and institutions in other countries to improve the human condition.
A Hokie History in the Warm Heart
Virginia Tech has been working in Malawi, called the Warm Heart of Africa, for about twenty years. With the passing of a 1994 referendum to allow multi-party elections, Malawian president Hastings Banda was voted out of power. Following the government’s shift away from a dictatorship to a more democratic system, Professor Emeritus Dr. Josiah Tlou, from Virginia Tech’s Center for Research and Development in International Education, went to Malawi to conduct research and implement a civic education program. After this experience, Tlou and his team worked in Malawi for over twenty years, eventually creating pathways for over twenty-five Malawians to earn advanced Virginia Tech degrees, many of whom are now integral members of Malawian universities and the country's education ministry.
Because of this education program, members of TEAM Malawi work with Virginia Tech alumni on many of their projects in the country. These initiatives include the College of Engineering and the Carilion School of Medicine’s incubator project, highlighted in President Sand's State of the University address. Virginia Tech also has multiple study abroad opportunities including the College of Education's Teaching and Learning in Malawi in which they partner with Radford University, and the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs’ Experience WASH in Malawi. In addition, Professors from Virginia Tech and Radford, and community members from Blacksburg’s Presbyterian Church have been integral in the rebuilding of a Malawian library with The Mzuni Library Initiative. There are many more projects that will soon be documented in more detail on a website being developed by Virginia Tech's Office of International, Research, Education, and Development.
Fostering Innovation and Ut Prosim
A few key aspects make TEAM Malawi distinctive. First of all, Dr. Tlou’s initiatives in Malawi had a long term vision. When Dr. Tlou was asked to assist with improving the country’s struggling educational system, he insisted on a “Train the Trainer” approach. Malawian educators earned advanced Virginia Tech degrees and worked within the country’s educational system applying the skills and knowledge gained during their time at Virginia Tech. This approach has the potential to be more sustainable because Tlou was training educators, and they train teachers throughout the country, therefore, creating a critical mass of Malawian educators who can sustain teaching and learning into the next generation.
Second, Team Malawi is a network that includes people from across campus who are connected and passionate about working in Malawi. Their collective passion empowers researchers and students from multiple disciplines to collaborate effectively. In many ways, this network is an example of the Beyond Boundaries Communities of Discovery, where people from across campus are working together to solve a complex problem through shared understandings and motivations.
Third, TEAM Malawi demonstrates how Virginia Tech is integrating local perspectives and ideas throughout the research process. Dr. Andre Muelanaer, Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, is mentoring students on the incubator project, as well as other projects in the country. Muelenaer’s work in Malawi is an example of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), a research approach that includes participants as partners from the research question to the publishing of results. He recommends that professors interested in doing community-based research should, “learn the principles of CBPR, and apply it to whatever your interests are.” Virginia Tech is also engaged in other CBPR projects in the Appalachian Foodshed Project and the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community.
How do we foster more these sorts of initiatives at Virginia Tech? One area is through innovative uses of funding. Echoing similar suggestions from Provost Rikakis, Dr. Hall, Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and co-leader of the Experience WASH in Malawi study abroad program and the Mzuzu Library Initiative, recommends that highly interdisciplinary groups of faculty who have demonstrated an ability to advance research, teaching, and service in an international (or national) setting could be provided with financial resources to enhance the translational impact of their activities. This funding model could be used to enable more students to obtain international experiences or bring international scholars (e.g., Malawian faculty or graduate students) to Virginia Tech to help advance collaborative research ideas and enrich the education of students by their support of seminars/classes/design studios/etc. Furthermore, the development by faculty of these international (or national) communities of discovery could become an important factor in decisions related to their promotion and tenure.
In addition, Beyond Boundaries is investigating ways to make our international efforts more meaningful. For example, in study abroad, we are researching how to remove barriers for students to participate in study abroad and investigating how and why certain study abroad and experiential learning engagements are more impactful than others. Moreover, TEAM Malawi shows how international alumni networks can be used as a way to deepen our relationships in a geographic place.
TEAM Malawi demonstrates the importance of conducting community-based research that is intentional, translational, and participatory, where both parties are learning and growing in the process. Overall, as we think forward, we will to continue to glean ideas from projects such as TEAM Malawi to foster dialogue and research on how Virginia Tech can advance Ut Prosim abroad and why this work is important in a changing world.