Learning is a journey

October 12, 2012

By: Nicole Geary

As a World Grant institution, Michigan State University considers globalization core to its mission. And when it comes to study abroad, MSU sends more students overseas than any other public university.

However, study abroad has been an experience traditionally enjoyed by undergraduate students. At the graduate level, international learning opportunities tend to vary widely and be less readily available.
So when former dean Carole Ames announced in 2010 that every doctoral student in the MSU College of Education would be eligible to go on an international study trip — with nearly all expenses covered — it represented a bold step within the university and among graduate schools nationwide.

Since then, nearly 100 emerging scholars have participated in the annual Fellowship to Enhance Global Understanding with destinations in China, Vietnam, Botswana and Cyprus. Next up is Indonesia.
Although each trip is different, fellows interact with students and faculty at universities, visit schools and community organizations, explore cultural activities and learn from each other in the process. Participants, who must be in their first three years of doctoral study, come from every discipline in the college.

“We can teach about other countries’ educational systems in our classrooms here in East Lansing, but it’s not the same experience as having our students participate in an intensive visit to another country,” said current Dean Donald E. Heller, who has committed to continuing the program.

“These trips provide our doctoral students with a firsthand, in-depth understanding of how these systems work in other countries. The college invests a large sum of money to ensure that our students are provided with these opportunities.”

To keep resources from hindering students’ access, the fellowship covers costs for travel, lodging and some meals over two to three weeks.

Prospective students say the program sets the College of Education – which is already known for offering a high level of research support to graduate students – further apart from other institutions.
Each trip is led by faculty members with a rich background in or connections to the host country. The trips are non-credit bearing, and students are encouraged to immerse themselves in the culture and educational climate in ways that suit their professional interests.

However, there are also clear expectations. Faculty leaders demand a high level of intellectual engagement in debriefing sessions. They have assigned fellows to present lectures while in country, complete final projects back in the U.S. and share their experiences with the rest of the college community.

The results have been, well, life-changing.

One student, as Professor John Dirkx found in a related research project (see page 25), said the trip was “like dropping off a cliff.”

“It caused her to completely question her identity as a student, educator, mother and American,” he said.
Not every traveler reports such a profound impact, but the study trips are shaping the personal and scholarly journeys of all Ph.D. students involved in important ways.

As fellowship coordinator Reitumetse Mabokela puts it, they are gaining a broader understanding of the human experience – living, learning, teaching, dealing with challenge. For some, the excursions have opened new possibilities for international research and even sustained projects in the same world regions. For others, the trips have added outside perspectives to their search for educational answers within the United States.

And for all participants, the experience has taken them one step closer to becoming truly global citizens.
It is a goal the college, the university and educators everywhere are now striving to meet.
“I find the overseas experience unparalleled for opening minds to other ways of thinking and interacting with one another,” said Associate Professor Lynn Fendler, coordinator of the Cyprus trip. “I don’t think there’s anything more valuable, educationally speaking.”

Cyprus is small, a Mediterranean island not quite as big as Connecticut. But the nation’s long history of conflict and conflict resolution makes it an especially powerful place to learn about peace or, more specifically, peace education.Much has happened since the Greek military coup and Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The conflict resulted in an imposed border between north and south, but Cyprus has now been non-violent since the 1990s. Since then, many Cypriot educators have become known for their pioneering approaches to teaching social justice, cross-cultural communication and other topics against the backdrop of vast ethnic, religious and cultural differences.

Lynn Fendler, associate professor of teacher education, reached out to one of the world’s foremost experts on peace education, former MSU colleague Michalinos Zembylas, to plan MSU’s first doctoral study trip to Cyprus. The group spent time at Open University in Nicosia, where Zembylas is on the faculty, and visited several types of schools and organizations in a search to understand what continues to divide — and reunite — the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Adding to the planned agenda, MSU students say they talked candidly with locals in and around their home-base hotel and felt some of the Cypriots’ deep-rooted frustrations over being forced to migrate when they passed through the buffer zone separating the two halves of the country. There they also visited the recently opened Home for Cooperation, the first shared space for all Cypriots focused on intercommunal dialogue, historical inquiry and research.

The MSU doctoral students also explored ancient culture with visits to archaeological sites.

Playing For Peace

From the basketball court used by Peace Players International in Cyprus (see photo above), you can see aging bullet holes in the nearby building and barbed wire around the perimeter.
It’s a place within the buffer zone where youth from both sides of the island come together to shoot hoops and learn to respect each other’s differences in the process. And, unless you have special clearance from the United Nations, it’s off limits to outside visitors.

However, four Ph.D. students from the MSU College of Education had the chance to dribble, run through drills and discuss the program as a side-project during their stay in Cyprus.

“They not only talked to us, but got us out there to experience some of the curriculum,” said Leslie Jo Shelton, a doctoral student in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE). “We didn’t get to see the kids play themselves, but I could just imagine what it would be like.”

What she did see was how moving and laughing together could start to break down generations of mistrust among adolescents growing up in mostly segregated communities. Basketball clubs throughout Cyprus meet for education sessions throughout each week then gather for monthly “twinnings” (tournaments) in the neutral area between north and south Cyprus.

Shelton sought out the opportunity to explore Peace Players, an organization operating in other conflict-ridden parts of the world, along with School Psychology student Marla Pfenniger Saint Gilles and Kinesiology students Missy Wright and Alison Ede. Wright and Ede created a joint final project based on the experience, and expect to incorporate their firsthand knowledge into existing kinesiology courses and projects back on campus.

It was a rare chance to understand more fully how sport can support the goals of social justice — and that social justice doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, everywhere.
“It’s a different perspective on what I take for granted,” Ede said. “I can’t imagine if I had to show my passport just to go to … Ohio.”


The Fellowship to Enhance Global Understanding began in 2008 under the leadership of Dean Carole Ames as a pilot study tour to China. The participants, which included doctoral students from the MSU College of Education, University of Washington and University of Delaware, were immersed in learning about China’s educational system as well as its culture and history.

The itinerary starts in Beijing, where students are briefed on the broad scale of educational challenges in China at Beijing Normal University, visit Tiananmen Square and climb the Great Wall. They give lectures and pair up with students with similar interests at Southwest University (SWU) in Chongqing, explore Shanghai and visit a range of school settings along the way.

It didn’t take long for College of Education leaders to see how the three-week experience influences doctoral students’ perspectives on research and teaching in powerful ways. After two successful China trips, in 2009 and 2010, Ames announced she was expanding the program to all Ph.D. students in the college and asked faculty members to propose additional destinations abroad.

Along the way, MSU has developed a particularly strong relationship with SWU, a key university that shares many similarities with MSU. Every fall since the first U.S. student trip to China, SWU’s Faculty of Education has sent about a dozen of its students and faculty members to stay and study on the MSU campus for nearly the entire academic year. The College of Education organizes a range of academic and social activities for the visiting scholars.

Late last spring, new Dean Donald Heller traveled to Chongqing to meet SWU’s dean – who is also new – and reaffirm MSU’s commitment to the faculty and student exchange program. Heller also hosted the farewell reception for last year’s Chinese delegation in his own home.

“In the Asian culture, those actions are highly symbolic,” said Dan Schultz, who has led numerous MSU-sponsored trips to China for educators and other groups.

Because MSU and SWU have a formal Memorandum of Understanding, and with the Chinese scholars spending an extended time at MSU, the Michigan State students who travel to China find familiar faces when they arrive in Chongqing. Their scholarly exchanges – and friendships – have become year-round.

“A Field That Doesn’t Exist”

To most students, the Great Wall is amazing. Like many travelers to visit schools in China, Kristen Girard was also amazed by the size of classes — about 50 students — and the high level of control and discipline that goes with them.
It was an eye-opener in terms of thinking about classroom management.

“But I kept thinking to myself, what happens if one or two students in the class are really struggling?” said Girard. As a school psychology scholar, she found herself looking for practices from an educational field that doesn’t really exist in China.

She learned that while the Chinese system provides services for students with learning disabilities, it’s often up to families to seek outside resources to obtain a diagnosis for their child’s mental or emotional difficulties. At Southwest University, she learned more from a special education professor about the Asian nation’s take on inclusion versus specialized classrooms and how students are originally diagnosed with various disabilities.

Girard is from Rhode Island. She came to MSU three years ago because she liked the community feeling of the School Psychology doctoral program, which has opened opportunities for her to study strategies for improving early reading skills, a major interest.

Now that she has shared long plane rides and language-restricted restaurant adventures with students from other programs, Girard feels like she is part of a much broader community, one that carries across the whole College of Education – and entire continents.

“I had a very clear mindset about what I thought a good U.S. classroom looks like, but there are different ways of doing things and some are better,” she said. “When I get back into the schools this year, it will definitely change my lens.”


From north to south, the MSU delegation to Vietnam travels nearly the entire length of the country. And that is by design, says coordinator John Dirkx, who wants the doctoral students to see each of Vietnam’s three distinct cultural regions and come away with a broad overview of the educational system.
The nation is rapidly developing. Schools, vocational centers and colleges are moving quickly to keep pace, which makes Vietnam an exciting place to study efforts to build administrative and instructional capacity.Dirkx himself, a professor of Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) at MSU, has been working with universities and colleges in the Mekong Delta region to improve teaching and learning for students in higher education over the past six years. He knows Vietnam well and has worked closely with three Vietnamese students in the MSU College of Education to plan the study trip. They are Ngoc Lan Thi Dang and Le Thi Thuy Trieu, who also accompanied the group and provided translation this year, and Hoa Thi Pham, who went in 2011.

The 2012 travelers visited beautiful beaches, mausoleums and remnants of the war that still haunts many aspects of life in Vietnam (even climbing through hidden underground tunnels formerly used by soldiers). They observed secondary and postsecondary teachers teaching, shared research with scholars at several universities and visited the rural villages where MSU Professor Emeritus Christopher Wheeler led a lasting project integrating school reform and community development.

Wheeler, Dirkx and other MSU faculty members have established partnerships with Can Tho University, which helps MSU develop the itinerary for the study tour by identifying contacts in host cities and facilitating relationships with host faculty members and administrators.

Breaking The “Bubble”

When James Pippin started the Ph.D. program in Educational Policy at Michigan State, he planned to learn more about education in the United States. After spending years teaching in Asia and obtaining a master’s degree in international education, dissecting American schools felt like the missing piece of his puzzle.

But the prospect for more global travel was a powerful pull for the Ohio native. During his trip to Vietnam, Pippin discovered something else he had been missing: the chance to access a foreign ministry or department of education.

“That was really profitable for me to sit in on meetings at real policymaking levels and learn what kinds of challenges leaders in that country are dealing with,” he said. During brief personal encounters, he began to see how policymakers and researchers in Vietnam react to questions related to educational quality and policy implementation. He also got a glimpse of the processes and cultural norms he would have to navigate if he were to return to conduct policy-related research in Vietnam, or a similar nation.

Thinking over the trip, however, Pippin said he will remember the train rides across the countryside most vividly. From the hectic hustle through crowds at boarding time to the ground-level views of the poverty at play in students’ lives, the experience immersed Pippin and his fellow travelers more fully in their Vietnamese surroundings — and gave them a chance to reflect along the way.

Like a metaphor for what they intended to break free from as U.S.-centered scholars, the tour bus, as the group decided, often felt more like a “bubble” as it traversed through busy Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“Visiting other countries, for me, will never be finished. It’s not a checklist,” Pippin said. “I feel like I need to be repeatedly put into a different cultural environment to sort of renew my interests.
“Going to Vietnam helped narrow down some (research) topics and created an explosion of others at the same time.”


Based in the capital city of Gaborone, the MSU delegation to Botswana set out daily to understand what goes into child development in a sub-Saharan African nation.The doctoral students learned about tribal history, family structures, literature and other topics from faculty at the University of Botswana (UB), where they lodged in dormitories. Then they traveled to – and sometimes hiked – to places where they could see the contexts in which children live, learn and play: primary and secondary schools; a “village” serving as home and school for children living without their parents due to AIDS and other reasons; a community athletic complex where the MSU students challenged the kids to a soccer game (and donated 60 pairs of cleats).

Halfway through the trip, the group also embarked on a camping trip in the Moremi Game Reserve. Hyenas explored their camp occasionally and elephants shuffled within earshot. Co-leader Evelyn Oka, associate professor of school psychology in the College of Education, says visitors cannot fully appreciate the values of Batswanan people, such as commitment to environmental stewardship, respect for life, collaboration and resourcefulness, without going into the bush. Desert covers 70 percent of the country, which has limited the scope of development and created a long history of migration and assimilation for parts of the population. Eco-tourism is emerging as a key industry.

The first Botswana trip, in 2011, was led by Dan Schultz and kinesiology Professor Deborah Feltz. She first established connections with UB through Leapetswe Malete, a two-time MSU kinesiology graduate who is now an associate professor and director of international education there. Through the study trip, a former UB student, Tshepang Tshube, has also become a Ph.D. student in the MSU Kinesiology Program. Tshube served as a guide and translator for the group during this year’s trip.

The Power Of Storytelling

Teacher education student Raven Jones booked her trip to Botswana with a narrow concept of being abroad. And she was nervous because she was the only African American student going.

Born and raised in Detroit, she wondered if her own cultural experiences would have any connections with those of the Batswana and how they would perceive her. When she greeted the university’s deputy dean of education on the first morning, the familiar-looking woman didn’t just welcome Jones. She said, “Welcome home.”

By the time the journey ended, Jones recalls, she didn’t want to go back home. In fact, she can see herself returning there to teach and conduct research. A former debate coach for alternative high school students, she is interested in how students acquire literacy in non-traditional ways – especially when they are free to draw on their own language and daily lives.
“Sometimes we, as in people in the U.S., only think literacy to mean anything dealing with reading and writing, but it’s so much more than that,” she said.

In Botswana, she saw the power of storytelling, poetry and music – a kindergarten class gathering every morning to sing Setswana lyrics about bright futures for themselves despite their disabilities. She also saw children thriving despite humble means – an experience not so far from her own. She returned with those scenes ingrained in her mind, and with her own stories to tell.

A first-generation college student, Jones described the trip as a “pilgrimage” on behalf of her husband and family.

“People invested in me financially, emotionally and spiritually and encouraged me to come back and share my stories,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

More Online: msubotswana.blogspot.com

The Research

Research on graduate study abroad has been almost non-existent. Michigan State is starting to change that with a study led by scholars in the College of Education.

Working in collaboration with colleagues from International Studies and Programs at MSU, Professor John Dirkx and a team of doctoral students are gathering data about what types of international experiences are available to graduate students in institutions across the Midwest, and how those experiences make an impact.

The Graduate Learning Experiences and Outcomes (GLEO) project will create a valuable overview of programs offered across each of the 13 CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) member universities, plus New York University. Using survey instruments designed to assess student outcomes, GLEO is believed to be the first systematic study of graduate-level study abroad.

“There’s been no attempt to provide an overarching conceptual framework for graduate study abroad,” said Dirkx, a faculty member in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE).

The College of Education’s Fellowship to Enhance Global Understanding, although unusual, is one example of graduate education abroad. And Dirkx is conducting research on that, too.

He has funding from the MSU College of Education for a sub-study that has been exploring what College of Education Ph.D. students gain from the study trips and what factors make a difference, factors such as students’ pre-journey preparation and whether they stay in residence or keep moving from location to location within the country. The data come from personal interviews with participants, as well as written assessments.

Graduate study abroad has been a focus for Dirkx since last summer when he became the current Dr. Mildred B. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education. The three-year appointment, funded by W. Bruce Erickson (see page 58), provides resources for HALE professors to conduct research and outreach activities tied to their interests. Dirkx is particularly interested in how international travel for graduate students can be a transformative learning experience.

“A lot of students take a very academic approach, to get as much information as possible,” he said. “What they are not really paying attention to is their emotions. Their affective responses are associated with some potential for really deep learning.”

In March 2012, more than 60 people attended a special symposium on the power of graduate study abroad at Erickson Hall featuring author and world traveler Phil Cousineau.

The GLEO project also has support from the MSU Graduate School. With Dirkx, the co-primary investigators are Kristin Janka Millar, associate director of the MSU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and Brett Berquist, executive director of the MSU Office of Study Abroad. The research assistants are Gina Vizvary, Julie Ann Sinclair and Nathan Jay Clason.

On The Web

GLEO research project: education.msu.edu/ead/outreach/gleo
Erickson Chair: education.msu.edu/ead/outreach/ericksonchair.asp