Posted by: mhirdyounger | September 12, 2014

The Value of Experiential Learning – Guestpost

Another guestpost from AgEx JF Aliya Lakhani who joined us from the University of Alberta chapter of EWB! 

I hear, and I forget

I see, and I remember

I do, and I understand.

—Ancient Chinese proverb

As a 5th year engineering student with only a few EWB meetings under my belt and no formal training in development theory, I was given the opportunity to work in Ghana for 3.5 months with EWB’s Junior Fellowship program. I was tasked with facilitating the restructuring of the Internal Attachment Program (IAP) at Ohawu Agricultural College (OAC), one of the 5 public agricultural colleges in Ghana. The IAP is a graduation requirement set out by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) that mandates that first year students spend 6 weeks gaining practical farming experience on campus. In previous years, students spent the first two weeks of the program working on the campus farms after which they paid laborers to maintain the farms. The colleges expressed an interest in modifying the existing program to better achieve the objectives set out by MoFA and this year adopted a structure resembling my co-op engineering program whereby students were placed in farming communities surrounding the college and get to experience the lifestyle of a Ghanaian farmer. At OAC, the students were placed with both medium size and large scale commercial farmers in rural Ghana for 16 days.

Over half of the Ohawu students were raised in urban areas and for most this was their first exposure to rural farming. They were faced with many of the same challenges that I faced as a Canadian working in Ghana: the language barrier, the need to quickly adapt to and navigate a new set of cultural norms, and being away from many amenities that had previously been taken for granted. While I was struggling to remember to eat only with my right hand, send out multiple reminder messages on the day of a meeting, and bucket bath, the students were learning community entry strategies and fetching water from boreholes in the morning. In our respective placements we were obvious outsiders whose presence was met with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity and whose purpose was always questioned and never fully understood. Our words and actions constantly filtered by the knowledge that we represented a much larger group: the students their college and me, AgEx and maybe even westerners as a whole; as a result there was an almost tangible pressure to have all the answers. Though there were many tough days, I was inspired by the growth that I saw in the first year OAC students over the course of the IAP as they overcame the challenges that they faced.

From my conversations with farmers, students, and lecturers I was convinced that the students gained much from the community stay portion of the Internal Attachment Program. Before the IAP many of the students perceived rural farmers to be uneducated, unintelligent, and lazy. Even on my first visit to the communities to see the students on the 4th day of their immersion it was evident that students were challenging their assumptions about rural farming livelihoods. And after working alongside a farmer for 16 days, not a single student still thought that farmers didn’t work hard. As their hosts exposed them to the day to day socio-economic, personal, and technical challenges of farming, the students gained understanding and empathy for the rural farming livelihood, a trait that is invaluable in an agriculture extensionist whose role it is to disseminate information and change the behaviors of farmers to improve their lives and decrease their vulnerability. Students gained the ability to innovate, think critically and problem solve as they searched for solutions to the problem with which they were presented while working in a resource constrained environment and often they were challenged to determine the root causes of the problem. Partnering with farmers through the problem solving process, students improved in their ability to communicate meaningfully with the farmers through language and cultural barriers. As students returned from their community stays and reflected on their experience, they were able to define aspects of the experience that they enjoyed and use this to provide clarity on the career path they will pursue upon graduation. Students built a diverse knowledge base and skill set during the course of the IAP that will serve them in agricultural entrepreneurship and extension.

It took until my return home for me to realize that I have taken away from my placement many of the same things that the IAP taught the students. Supervising the students during their community stay and talking to the host farmers I was directly exposed to the ramifications of some of the inherent flaws in global food systems, chiefly the distribution of profit in the value chain. On my village stay I was exposed to the vulnerability of rural farmers and the thought of my host family being affected by poor yields or illness motivates me to change this. I was also able to better understand the role of NGOs in Ghana’s agriculture sector, speaking to individuals who benefited from interventions and those who were negatively affected by them. Completely immersed in Ghanaian culture, I experienced and witnessed the struggles faced by Ghanaians, barriers to accomplishing their goals. Operating in an unfamiliar environment allowed me to gain confidence in my decisions and forced me to become adaptable and resilient. I learned how to work with cultural sensitivity and gained skills in cross-cultural communication. I found that my work entailed searching for and treating the root causes of problems and to address these problems with limited resources. Living in Ghana has challenged me to put curiosity before judgement, to ask questions and evaluate the validity of the assumptions behind the judgement. Just like the students staying with, working with, eating with and learning with farmers, the value of my own placement was in the opportunity to see, feel, hear, smell and to relate personally. To learn experientially.

Thanks Aliya for sharing! 

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