Published October 17, 2016
As the newly appointed administrator who will steer UB’s enhanced and expanding global learning opportunities, Trevor Poag can’t help but get excited about the value of studying abroad.
He punctuates his words with the emphatic cadences of a confident, impassioned speaker. He leans his large, lean frame into the person he’s talking to, tapping his finger gently on his desk while his voice slows down to deliver the high points of his message with an educated, dignified but unmistakable urgency.
His enthusiasm isn’t exactly about what one might think. Poag’s ultra-conviction skates right over what he calls the “mainstream narrative” of the traditional appeal for studying abroad. He’s got more than a touch of a poet in him, so he can communicate on several levels.
“The mainstream narrative of studying abroad is just what you said,” says Poag, director of global learning opportunities in the Office of International Education. “That one says, ‘It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s good for your resume.’ Students, of course, are thinking, ‘It’s kind of sexy. Go abroad. Eat some cool food. Do some dancing. Meet a girl or a guy.’”
Poag says he’s not going to spend any time addressing that kind of thinking. Instead — while still maintaining that educated persona — he’s going to lead with his “counter narrative.” Studying abroad is not a vacation, he says. It’s not an excuse to have a lighter load or relax for a semester.
“No, no, no,” Poag says. “That’s not the priority. Of course, students who study abroad will find fun on their own. We don’t have to work on that.”
Instead — and this is where Poag gets animated — he expresses his vision of UB’s brand of global learning opportunities in one sentence. It may not sound as, well, mischievous as that mainstream narrative at first. But it’s where the real value of studying abroad lies, he says. And Poag is ready to lead a coordinated and collaborated charge with all UB departments to make this clear idea a reality for UB students.
“I think study abroad, when it’s designed thoughtfully and with care, can prepare students to be collaborative problem-solvers,” Poag says. “That’s what I think the end is really about. It’s about collaborative problem-solving.
“As we look around the world, we’re facing a lot of substantive and pressing problems, and we want UB students and faculty to be involved in collaborative efforts to engage those problems with others around the world.”
Study abroad — when done right — fits perfectly and powerfully with this global citizen idea, according to Poag. It prepares students to address problems of global impact and to see them through a lens broader than just the mainstream, conventional, American view. It provides students with the tools to, in short, join others in advancing the common good.
“I think study abroad represents a vehicle to begin developing those intercultural and collaborative competencies, regardless of your discipline,” he says. “And most disciplines, in essence, aim to solve a problem. Whether we’re talking health sciences. Whether we’re talking social work. Whether we’re talking engineering, the arts or business management.”
And learning how to be collaborative problem-solvers fits in very well with UB’s strategic vision.
“At UB, we aim to prepare students to live and lead in a global world,” he says. “So in the Office of International Education, we’re working collaboratively with our colleagues across the university to align UB’s study abroad portfolio with curricular needs.”
Poag’s explanation sounds administrative. But its resolution makes a big difference in study abroad.
“We want to prioritize learning abroad models that are relevant to UB students’ academic and professional pursuits,” he says, “rather than models that achieve loose curricular integration and leave students saying , ‘You know, my time in Costa Rica was so cool. I saw lots of monkeys, ate weird tropical fruits … and the people were so friendly.’
“We have to go deeper,” he says. “And the new UB Curriculum provides a means to do just this.”
UB students can use study abroad to fulfill the curriculum’s Global Pathways component. This presents an exciting opportunity to accompany faculty in designing new study abroad programs that achieve alignment among the UB Curriculum requirements, curricular needs within departments and student interest, Poag says.
And then there is Buffalo’s identity as a border town and UB’s role in shaping its international character, both past and present.
“Buffalo is an intercultural city,” Poag says. “It’s home to many international groups. In its own right, it’s a global place and UB has played a big part in that reality. Historically, UB has an exemplary record of attracting many thousands of international students to this region. So UB’s comprehensive international programming is certainly part of Buffalo’s character and potential.”
Early in this interview with UBNow, Poag said his own experiences studying abroad “transformed” the way he understood the world and “transformed” the way he saw himself in relation to the world. While outlining his administrative priorities, he was thinking of a real-life example to illustrate this deeper dimension of studying abroad. Eventually, a compelling example came to mind.
Poag was in his mid-20s, working with an organization in Colombia serving displaced communities. Thousands were in makeshift settlements after fleeing violence from rebels who were fighting the Colombian government.
“I went with a kind of do-gooder spirit,” Poag says. “We’ll-intentioned, the right heart and spirit. It was a volunteer experience. Then, a couple of weeks into my work, one of the women in my work team pulled me aside and told me, ‘You know, Trevor, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.’
“I was fluent in Spanish at the time. I had lived a number of years in Latin America. And the woman told me, ‘Just the fact you are a U.S. citizen and you stand out as such,’ — because of my physical appearance — ‘you’re putting us at risk as a group.’
Kidnapping, Poag explains, was a common way to finance the campaigns of these “revolutionary groups.”
“So I was calling attention to our group because of my nationality,” Poag says. “The woman was Colombian and she was telling me this. That’s right. I was a liability, a liability with misplaced and misinformed intentions.
“She was so kind about it. She wasn’t saying ‘Get out of here, you gringo.’ She was saying, ‘Look man, there is a layer you’re not seeing here.’
“It invited me, it forced me, to think even further than I already had about economic inequality, international power dynamics and what it means to represent a country like the United States in a region like Latin America in the light of our history with that region,” Poag says. “That was a structural thing. But at a personal level, it forced me to dig deeper — soaking in that marinade of global power — to understand how being from the United States influences the way I engage the world and the way the world engages me.”
The point of Poag’s story is clear: That experience did transform his consciousness of how he and his country fit into the world.
“Why did I think I could go to Columbia, volunteer and be a relevant contributor to that culture, to that complex conflict, just because I had the money to buy that airline ticket, jump of the plane and globetrot?” Poag says, his voice getting softer to reflect the intensity. “Are we just globe-trotting or are we really talking about global citizenship? Can I be a global citizen after soaking in the marinade of the U.S. empire my entire life? I was not even aware of what that means to other people until I put them in danger by trying to go there and save them with some notion of volunteerism and service.
“It woke me up to the complexities of inequality and global power dynamics,” he says. “And to relate this story back to our conversation about study abroad, the people in Colombia who taught me to view myself and their reality through a clearer lens are the very people with whom we must collaborate to solve critical global problems — people who reside at the periphery of influence and power.
“It blew me away,” he says. “I stopped volunteering with that group a few days later.”
And therein lies the real synergy of studying abroad, Poag notes. That’s how students can engage in a reality far more complex than that “mainstream narrative.”
“And I am back to this collaborative problem-solving thing,” he says. “We need a deeper level of skill set, we need a critical framework from which to engage the world. That’s why study abroad is so important. It gets us thinking more seriously about how we’re perceived.
“Do we want a place at the table where problems are solved? Or do we want to be kept in silence, that no one’s telling us, me, that I’m actually a problem, rather than a help because of my own blindness? You know? It was such a beautiful experience,” he says, again turning up the understated intensity, “and it could have ended very badly, it could have been incredibly unsafe for those colleagues.
“It’s such a rich experience,” he says. “And I have become convinced we do need to transcend that mainstream narrative. It really is about something far more important.
“At its core, it’s about collaborative problem-solving and everybody can get involved in it at some level, regardless of their field of study.”
Well-written article here that speaks to the true value of study abroad. When done right, it changes your perspective on the world and yourself. It can change your life. There are two results from a study abroad experience: You either resent the culture you spent the study abroad in or your respect for that culture, and all others across the world, grows, which changes your perspective. I'm excited for Mr. Poag to be apart of our team.
I appreciate very much this article. It shows also the tension between being a global citizen and foreign outreach as a projection of universal liberal-democratic values and American exceptionalism. Even Europeans, who are portrayed as having a comparable mindset, do not embrace Americans wholeheartedly. European values like universal health care, personal privacy and social welfare are negatively labeled as "socialist" or "communist" and considered alien to America. For a global citizen, it is good to be sensitive to these differences that set America and Europe apart.