Namaste, rolex, mañana: With its worldwide staff, Acara fosters not only global preparedness, but also sensitivity
In 2009, a small, ragtag group of summer study-abroad students and instructors landed in Mumbai, India. They didn’t know what they were in for – just that they were on an unforgettable path, laying the foundations of Acara, an interdisciplinary leadership and impact entrepreneurship program at the University of Minnesota. From these humble beginnings, Acara has now spread its wings, contextually, geographically and in terms of its impact goals.
Today housed within the Institute on the Environment, Acara has now trained more than 650 UMN students, plus hundreds of students from international universities, to become innovators, global citizens and entrepreneurial change-agents. Through summer study abroad programs, a variety of courses in which students develop social innovation-related ideas and solutions, the annual Acara Challenge and numerous other initiatives, Acara nurtures innovation at its most textured.
The nucleus of this model? A comprehensive intercultural platform, supported by a rich and growing network of partners, creative opportunities for students to work in cross-cultural settings, and – a distinctive component of the program – a trio of in-country expert instructors.
A natural – and nimble – evolution
From being an India-based and -focused program in its early years, Acara now has four geographical focus areas: its home hub of Minnesota, along with India, Uganda and Nicaragua. Each of the three countries now has a dedicated staff person – a local expert, instructor and coordinator, who functions at the crux of providing information, context and networks. These Acara staff bring a wealth of experience and connections to the program.
Acara’s Aruna Raman is based in India, while Faith Nawagi is in Uganda, and Karla Castro is in Nicaragua. These three women (no coincidence!) play an integral role in buttressing Acara’s skills-based and experience-based coursework – and they navigate both worlds with equal finesse, thanks to their education, experience and skills. Raman spent time in the United States as a Masters student and in program management and diaspora engagement roles, while both Nawagi and Castro have expertise in working with international groups through research grants, projects and service-learning experiences.
Their backgrounds are especially critical in the courses Acara offers through the University’s new Grand Challenge Curriculum, in which interdisciplinary groups of students work on country-specific social-innovation ideas. They then bring those ideas to fruition through comprehensive business plans.
In many cases, students are developing social business models and solutions situated in countries that they might not even have visited yet. Raman, Nawagi and Castro support the students through seeking information; identifying researchers, practitioners and partner organizations for students to liaise with; and, most importantly, providing the critical cultural prism for the ideas and frameworks. “The idea is to make the inputs and experiences as real as possible,” says Nawagi.
More intangibly, the three women’s involvement awakens a life-long love-affair for some students – with countries, contexts and opportunities. Their work as co-teachers gives global interdisciplinarity a place at the table.
“Interacting with Aruna, Faith or Karla is always an incredible learning opportunity for students, not only because it’s a chance to work with someone in another culture, but also because it’s a chance to work with someone who challenges their thinking,” says Fred Rose, Acara director.
Beyond global preparedness
Why is being challenged in this way important? To be ready to navigate today’s globalizing world, students need not only global preparedness, but also global sensitivity: the ability to be empathetic, compassionate and adaptable. And as colleges and universities heed the clamor for this type of student preparation (including more study-abroad opportunities), it’s essential to have an interdisciplinary and intercultural instructor pool to craft truly rich learning experiences.
As in-country Acara staff, Raman, Nawagi and Castro are not merely conveyors of information, but purveyors an “intercultural nimbleness” that ensures that students are firmly rooted in specific cultural and innovation milieus.
“There is significant upskilling that happens during these courses,” Raman says. “Students are not only learning about the mechanics of communication – such as setting up Skype appointments across time zones – but they are learning that the intricacies of the communication and information exchange process are very different from their own.”
“One example is how we set up meetings here in Nicaragua,” explains Castro. “If we want to have an interview or a meeting here, then it is necessary to arrange it beforehand through a formal letter delivered personally. This is much better and much more common than sending e-mails or making phone calls. This is a simple difference, but an important one.”
This intercultural nimbleness is also critical when Acara students are evolving their ideas into valid social business proposals. Social common sense and responsibility dictate that ideas can’t simply be transplanted from one milieu to another. There are cultural sensibilities to consider, in addition to local infrastructure, economic and political contexts. There is also another element – a sensed-rather-than-articulated “local”ness.
Raman recalls visiting a village in the north of her state with a student group, where a nonprofit had worked to equip homes with cookstoves. Curiously, in some homes, these cookstoves had been garlanded and accorded pride of place. Upon further investigation, Raman learned that the cookstoves didn’t particularly cook the local-style flatbreads – rotis – well. As a result, the villagers had adopted a hybrid process, using the cookstove when possible and relying on their original trusty wood or kerosene stoves for rotis. Those who navigate multiple cultures are able to make sense of the nuances of local cultures and then effectively coalesce them into learning experiences.
This rich intercultural diversity, coupled with expertise and insights, are creating possibilities to build inter-Global-South networks as well, notes Raman. While Acara’s work builds connections between the Global North and the Global South, countries in the Global South, including India, Uganda, Nicaragua and others, are emerging as powerhouses of innovation, talent and progress. So, in addition to serving as experiential and learning testing grounds for students in the Global North, there is immense potential for South-South collaboration in knowledge, resource and talent exchange.
“The fact that the three of us – Faith, Karla and I – are working together to shape innovation and learning outcomes is testament to the fact that such collaborations are possible,” Raman says.
Acara offers a number of courses through the U’s new Grand Challenge Curriculum, including fall courses on global venture design (GCC 3005/5005) and solutions to global health issues (GCC 3003/3005), as well as a spring course focused on launching those ideas (GCC 5501). Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a Q&A with Raman, Nawagi, and Castro, who speak more about their experiences as in-country instructors, navigators, and liaisons.