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Extra Ordinary

New extra-disciplinary seminars add a global perspective to a Northern education.

Of all the words to enter into our lexicon over the past decade, none is more macro than globalization. The word is used in virtually every sphere of our society — economics, politics, consumption, human rights, the environment, war and peace, the arts, and, most certainly, education.

This year, Ohio Northern University introduced a new general education requirement to provide students with an educational experience outside their majors. The program, called the extra-disciplinary seminar, is designed so that all the courses focus on a common theme. This year’s theme is globalization, the process by which everyday life is influenced by conditions, events and ideas around the world as a result of increased interconnectivity.

An extra-disciplinary seminar offered through the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts last fall presented students with a first-hand view of globalization through an investigation of international aid projects with a special focus on the Dominican Republic.

International Projects: A Dominican Perspective, introduced students to international aid and examined the basic practices and principles used by aid organizations. It invited critical thinking into the motivations behind aid projects as well as long-term outcomes of these efforts, and asked students to consider whether “doing good” can be bad.

“It was an a-ha moment,” says North. “I think that exercise taught my students that, maybe, people’s life circumstances don’t allow them to do what they know they should do.”

“Aid projects can actually teach the very people they are trying to help to become dependent on aid,” says Christine North, associate professor of communication arts. “You end up teaching them to expect the next free handout as opposed to empowering them to become more self-sufficient by providing the education and materials necessary to do other work.”

The idea that helping others can actually do harm is at the core of North’s course. It is the springboard from which students learn about the factors that cause poverty. This knowledge allows them to understand the circumstances of those in need of aid and helps students appreciate what constitutes effective aid.

“In this class, we learned about different views on aid. Government organizations tend to do aid from the top down. They decide what they think would be best for the country and their problems. They don’t really go in and ask the people what they are actually struggling with, what they actually want help with,” says Elizabeth Rogers, a second-year pharmacy major from Genoa, Ohio. “So they just put in place these programs, or do these development projects, and the people either don’t want them or are never taught how to use them and they just go to waste.”

In comparison, the class learned about bottom-up approaches like microlending popularized by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Bottom-up approaches deliver aid as directly as possible to the people in need, and gain from the direct contact between the aid givers and receivers. However, if the aid organization fails to develop a relationship with the people it is trying to help, then even a bottom-up approach can fail.

“One of the things that I teach in this class is that aid without a relationship is wasted,” says North. “You have to build relationships. We cannot go somewhere and march in as experts. We have got to go in and learn from them and learn what they want, and not what we think they need.”

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If North sounds like she’s speaking from experience, it’s because she is. For the past four years, she has organized aid trips to the Dominican Republic for various groups on campus. This fall, she made one such trip a part of her extra-disciplinary seminar course for students who wished to participate.

“One of the things that I’m really passionate about in my work in the Dominican Republic is that we don’t do what I call ‘drop-and-run’ missions where you show up, ‘do good’ for a week, and then disappear and its all over. That doesn’t make for good, sustainable, lasting change within any community,” she says.

The trip was optional for students, and, of the 14 enrolled in the course, four traveled to San Juan de la Maguana over Thanksgiving break to participate in active aid projects such as the construction of a new school, assisting at a remote health clinic and providing nutrition education. In addition, they learned about microbanking from a Peace Corps volunteer who is helping a women’s cooperative develop a business making a high-calorie peanut butter nutritional supplement.

As meaningful as their exposure to multiple aid projects was, witnessing the context in which programs were being administered was equally important. When they returned, students were able to process what they saw with the rest of the class and lead discussions on what worked, what didn’t work, and what would have to happen before the aid groups could pull out and have people remain self-sufficient.

For the students who traveled, the trip made a lasting impression and helped reinforce what they had learned in class. For one student, Onoriode Ominiabohs, a sophomore accounting major from Olanrewaju Yaba, Nigeria, the trip also solidified her personal feelings on international aid.

“More than $1 trillion has been given to Africa, and there is literally nothing to show for it,” she says. “I feel that it makes more sense to go into the villages and actually give to tiny groups of people. In the Dominican, we actually saw what we were doing. Even if it was a little group of people we helped, we saw a difference where we went.”

The lasting lessons of the class were not dependent on visiting the Dominican Republic. To help all of her students relate to people who are often on the receiving end of international aid, North developed a class project to show how a simple task like fetching water can change behaviors and perceptions.

The project was a role-play that began at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. There, the stairwell landings became a metaphorical “mountainside” community of people living without running water. According to the narrative developed by North, every day the people collect water for their daily needs from a river on the other side of the mountain, which, in this case, was a chemistry laboratory in the Mathile Center.

To really force the students into the spirit of the role-playing, North assigned each student a character from the mountainside community. One student might be a 76-year-old grandmother, another an 18-year-old woman with a newborn child. These roles put into context the nature of the task and added a layer of contemplation to its execution. For example, the grandmother cannot walk, let alone collect water, but she also requires that someone stay with her, thereby increasing the burden on that family’s water carriers or limiting the family’s available water for that day. As the able-bodied family members carried water across campus, they experienced how difficult it could actually be.

“Dr. North told us what we were going to do, but she didn’t tell us there would be constraints. So I initially thought, ‘Okay, I can carry a bunch of water back for everybody,’” says 6-foot-5-inch, 275 pound George Hess, a sophomore engineering major from Newbury, Ohio. “But then she told me I was a 6-year-old, so I couldn’t do much. It forced me to realize what a struggle it would be for someone to have to carry water every single day.”

When they returned to their landing in the stairwell, North continued the role-playing scenario by explaining to her students why they needed the water. If there are six people in each family, that’s six people who need to bathe, she explained. That’s a gallon of water to cook enough beans and a gallon of water to cook enough rice. She reminds them that they are poor so they can’t afford to buy vegetables, but they do have a garden, which they’ll need to water because it hasn’t rained in a few days. At the end, she asks her class a question:

Now, a couple of weeks ago, we had this aid organization come through, and they were telling us about how important it is that we practice proper hygiene and how we need to wash our hands with soap and water every time we use the restroom, and every time before we prepare food. So how many of you are going to wash your hands five or six times a day?

No hands raised.

Well, why not?

Silence. Finally, a student answers.

Because the water is heavy, and I don’t want to haul it.

North smiles.

Oh, so you mean these people just aren’t stupid because they don’t want to do what we tell them to do?

“It was an a-ha moment,” says North. “It is easy to assume that people in these impoverished countries are just dumb or lazy because they don’t do what we know is best. I think that exercise taught my students that, maybe, people’s life circumstances don’t allow them to do what they know they should do.”

Spring extra-disciplinary seminars

Earth, Wind, and Water
Culture, Illness and Medicine
Spanish Composition
French Musical
HONORS: Exploring Worlds Lang
Architecture Landscape Place
Nostalgics and Nowhere-ians
The Nature&Value of Community
Christianity, Economics & Good
ColdWar/Hot Place-US in Africa
East meets West
Women's Literature
One World, Many Stories
Principles of Entrepreneurship

True to its name, North’s extra-disciplinary course was full of engineering, business, pharmacy, nursing and exercise physiology majors. A majority admitted to not knowing or even caring what the class was about. It was required, and it fit their schedules. At the beginning of the semester, that was enough. Having finished it, students like Matt Flynn, a sophomore engineering major from Lake Mary, Fla., are glad they took the course and see it benefitting them in their careers.

“For engineers, it’s easy to design something that you think will benefit others if you don’t have to take into account their perspective,” he says. “This class will help me think about how something needs to be designed to truly help others. That is going to help me be a better engineer.”

North saw attitudes change throughout her course. She had her students keep journals, and, for their last journal entry, she asked them to answer the questions: What impacted you most about this course? How has your view of poverty changed? How has your view of aid changed? Will it shape what you do in the future?

“It was interesting. Very interesting. They made comments that demonstrated an awareness they simply didn’t have before,” she says.

As college courses go, International Projects: A Dominican Perspective was rather unorthodox in its approach. Apart from its international field trip and temporary colonization of a performing arts center, there were no exams given. There were no exams, says North, because when it comes to eliminating poverty, there are no right answers to learn and write down on a test.

If there were, there’d be no class to take.