By Rebecca Rudell republished from At Buffalo.
Published September 18, 2017
“It was bizarre,” says Mara Huber, associate dean of undergraduate research and experiential learning at UB, describing how the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) was born. “My name is Mara. They were from the Mara Region. I was working on school partnerships. They were looking for a partner to help build a school for girls.”
“They” are Sister Janepha and Sister Agnes from the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa, whom Huber met while having Christmas dinner at her in-laws’ house in 2007. The school they wished to build opened in January of this year, with help from UB, Buffalo community groups and the Girls Education Collaborative, a local nonprofit that started as an offshoot of BTEP.
Huber started BTEP in 2009 to unite students, faculty and Buffalo groups in an informal partnership that emphasizes relationships over one-off projects. Its goal: improving opportunities for women and families in Tanzania’s Mara Region. “I have learned that the best partnerships are built on strong relationships that represent mutual respect and trust,” Huber explains. “This vision for collaboration continues to drive me.” She calls UB’s Tanzania course — which also evolved out of BTEP, becoming an official study abroad offering in 2014 — a “shining example of all that is possible.”
Indeed it is. Matt Falcone, a senior double-majoring in environmental and civil engineering, took the trip in 2015. He is now working on a parabolic solar trough that will provide clean water to people in developing countries, and could also find use in the U.S. in places like Flint, Mich., where clean-water issues continue to make headlines. His passion for this issue crystallized after he witnessed the need for clean water in Tanzania.
Tyler Choi (BA ’17), also touched by the people and places he encountered during his 2014 and 2015 visits, created Hugs for Tanzania, a crowdfunding initiative that raised money for school supplies for children at Kotwo Primary School. Choi also co-founded the UB Rotaract Club with Falcone to “empower local and global communities toward sustainable improvements in health, education and infrastructure across social and national boundaries.” Their mission, which happens to coincide with many of the ideas advanced by Huber and her partners, demonstrates just how strong the effects of experiential learning can be.
Huber has been making the 20-hour journey to Tanzania nearly every year since 2009. She and her colleagues started bringing students in 2011 because they felt that direct interaction with people, places and ideas would provide a powerful avenue for growth. Huber also wanted students to break free from the notion that aid consists solely of donating money.
This summer’s course, titled “Community Development in Context: Social Innovation in the Mara Region of Tanzania,” explored ideas and strategies for enabling social change through the medium of marketing. To prepare for the trip, students read up on the government, resources and culture of Tanzania while also getting an education in basic marketing from Debbie Grossman of the UB School of Management, who accompanied the students on the trip.
Huber, Grossman and Dan Nyaronga, an associate professor of psychology from Empire State College (who is originally from the Mara Region and has traveled with Huber numerous times), advised students to be active listeners. So often, First Worlders swoop into developing countries and tell the inhabitants how to improve their lives based on how problems are solved back home — which rarely works. But by listening to local voices, they explained, a visitor can understand different cultures’ needs and goals, collaborate more effectively and contribute to a sense of equality among partners.
Upon arrival in Tanzania, the faculty advisers guided the students through meetings with local villagers, community leaders and educators. Huber’s friends from the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa took the students to visit some of the projects run by the Sisters, including Baraki Sisters Farm, a health center, a primary school and the just-opened Kitenga School for Girls. But it wasn’t all business. They went on safari in Serengeti National Park and on their last day relaxed at a beach in Dar es Salaam.
Once they returned to the U.S., however, it was back to work to complete their final projects and transform their learning experiences into social innovation. Among other projects, there were proposals to modernize a dairy farm and improve Wi-Fi access in rural villages. Another project is already connecting partners in Mara with a U.S.-based foundation that teaches young Tanzanian women to sew reusable sanitary pads (an initiative that builds income for the women while helping to keep girls in school during menstruation). But whether a project comes to fruition or ends up being an exercise in formulating ideas, this is the aspect of experiential learning that can change educational and career paths.