The Haworth College of Business is the first college at Western Michigan University to require all students to have a course in sustainability. Through the school’s sustainability faculty learning community, faculty share best practices and pedagogical techniques to faculty who don’t teach sustainability to ensure that all students are learning about these important topics.
The school also offers additional experiential experiences to engage students in these discussions, in particular focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. One example is their Sustainability Study Abroad Programme in partnership with Christ University in Bangalore India. I spoke with Timothy B. Palmer, Professor of Strategic Management and Director Center for Sustainable Business Practices at Western Michigan University about this initiative.
What is the Sustainability Study Abroad Programme?
One of my deepest convictions is that business should be used to make society and communities better. I have therefore designed this study abroad to show students the great potential they have to use their professional skills to solve both business and social challenges. The two-week trip is interdisciplinary. We integrate social work students with business students because both disciplines study sustainability’s social pillar, however they do this from different vantage points. Social work students have keen insights into social challenges while business students understand scalable business models that might be leveraged to address these challenges. Indeed, India’s recent “CSR Mandate” essentially requires cooperation between business and social work professionals. By bringing both groups of students together in India, the trip’s rich context provides opportunities for significant student development.
What are the key features of the programme and how does it work?
The aim of this study abroad is to expose students to opportunities firms have to not only achieve lower costs of business in India, but to improve peoples’ lives while there. India has two very different sides: unbridled growth and prosperity alongside poverty. Our trip exposes students to both these sides. We visit firms such as Dell, Infosys, Toyota, Himalaya Drug Company, and the ITC Gardenia Hotel, Asia’s only LEED platinum hotel. Through these visits we hear about their sustainability initiatives including CSR programs. We also visit NGOs and women’s self-help groups; those organizations providing direct services to many of India’s most marginalized populations.
What impact has the program had on the students? The community?
The study abroad provides students an opportunity to experience the cultural delights of India. Students work with culinary arts students and make a five course meal. They take a yoga class. They tour temples and botanical gardens. However, they also obtain first-hand experiences with struggles faced by India’s poor. While it’s hard to know the long term impacts of these experiences, we collect data one year following the trip. Students report that their experiences in India have had a significant impact on “having conversations with colleagues about business’ role in addressing social issues,” “defending populations that have far less than others,” and “taking on a work responsibility related to a social issue that I might otherwise not have done.” It’s certain that sitting with a women’s self-help group hearing about members’ hopes for their children, or meeting with an NGO working to ensure the safety of children who are vulnerable to trafficking, impacts how students think about both their citizenship responsibilities as well as the responsibilities of leading firms.
What have been some of the challenges?
The primary challenge with a study abroad of this nature is ensuring you recruit students who are open to the experience. We’re not studying Shakespeare in England. Students are exposed to really tough challenges and it’s not for everyone. However, effective recruiting and doing your best to provide a realistic preview of the trip helps ensure students who are energized by a trip like this and are therefore most likely to get the most out of the unique experience.
When recruiting students, I always talk in depth about our visit to a rural Indian village. Organizing a tour of India isn’t terribly difficult. However, getting access to residents of small villages just couldn’t happen without being part of the connections through a study abroad.
I vividly remember one meeting in a cinderblock community center. Twenty of my students were sitting on rugs eating lunch with eight women in the village’s self-help group. The conversation meandered from community investments made by the women to the mechanics of running such a group. However, at one point questioning moved to more personal matters. A student asked, “What are your hopes for your children?” One by one, the women talked about career aspirations for their kids. Several wanted their children to become engineers. Others hoped their kids would become medical doctors. Others, teachers. Sadly, none hoped they’d become a professor! However, I could see the lightbulbs go off in my students’ heads. While we are worlds away, figuratively and literally, parents worldwide have very similar aspirations for the next generation.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
I personally believe that having a partnership institution in the location of the study abroad is extremely helpful. One option is putting the trip together entirely on your own. However, the partnership I have with Christ University is indispensable. They organize all our site visits, line up transportation, identify restaurants, provide our housing, and organize cultural activities. I give them plenty of input on what has worked from previous trips and what has been less effective. Having them do the legwork frees me up to focus on my students’ learning.
What’s next for the initiative?
The first trip in 2014 integrated business students from Western Michigan University with social service-human development students from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Future trips will cross-list the class at WMU as both a business class and a social work class co-led by faculty from each. Both disciples study CSR but from their own unique perspectives. Bringing students from both disciplines affords an opportunity to leverage learning for our students because they can learn from each other.