Changing Narratives — [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on Aug 21, 2015During an academic advising meeting while I was in graduate school here in the US, the program director asked me what it was about Nepali university education that made all the students from there “so good.” Since I wasn’t sure if that praise applied to me (because I was still struggling in some areas), I told her that the four or five Nepali students she had seen were from the top of the list. I added that very few of us finished our MA’s in first division, we didn’t do much research or any publication, and cramming information from textbooks for exams was almost all we did to receive our degrees.

If I were to have the same conversation today, almost a decade later, I would take that question more seriously, not focus on just negative things, and perhaps request some time to answer it substantively. I would learn more about the variety, quality, and complexity of higher education in Nepal before answering that question more fully.

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I remembered the above incident when I went to o receive a group of Nepali university officials from a New York City airport recently. The delegation of four scholars whom my wife and I were hosting at our home, sixty miles east of the city, were Midwestern University’s Vice Chancellor, Kali Prasad Pandey, Registrar, Dr. Mahendra Kumar Malla, an academic program director, Mr. Prakash Sharma, and the director of International Relations, Uttam Gaulee (who is currently pursuing a doctorate in higher education in Florida).

I was honored to give a ride to officials from a public university from home, but, quite honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed. I didn’t think that high level officials from Nepal, and a public university at that, would be so inquisitive, so willing to explore new possibilities, so respectful of a younger Nepali scholar’s ideas and perspectives. From the moment the purpose of their visit was first brought up in the conversation, I found myself answering questions about how Nepali scholars abroad could be engaged in the service of academe back home, what I could personally contribute distantly and by visiting home, how my teaching here was different, how universities here motivate students and faculty, and a whole host of other topics.

I often thought that my responses were superficial, simply based on personal experience or opinion, though I had some knowledge about certain topics. But I was always encouraged by the interest and respect from the Nepalese scholars. And I learned a lot from them about the vision and mission of the new university back home. I was positively surprised there as well.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if our guests seemed to treat their trip as a trip, a personal visit with little on the professional agenda. I have seen that. But what I saw in this case was very different. Members of the delegation wanted to learn about a wide range of general to specific issues from whoever they met: curriculum and course design, classroom teaching and student engagement, evaluation and technology use, administration and incentives, research and scholarship, academic support and professional development, new developments in online education, and so on.

The next, full day that the visitors were with us, I took them for a visit to my university. Being on a weekend, we had limited access to places and people, but the conversations were extremely rich, with the guests’ questions frequently giving me pause. Every structure and space we observed was a subject of enthusiastic discussions, every sign we noticed a topic of interest. We had a substantive discussion about integrating professional development in graduate education, my ongoing explorations in online education, and possibilities for virtual collaboration with teachers and scholars in Surkhet.

Even more significantly, our Nepali colleagues were eager to share solid ideas about the strengths of Nepali educational culture, research and scholarship opportunities they were creating for students and scholars from abroad, and initiatives for internationalization of education at Midwestern University.

The purpose of the trip was to explore opportunities for exchanging students, faculty, and resources with institutions here. The plan was to sign formal memoranda of understanding at four universities; two informal visits were on the way, my place being one of them. As such, an informal gathering was organized at my place where the guests could talk to a group of local scholars from my university and some Nepali scholars from the area. This event turned into a multidimensional discussion of possibilities until late in the evening. New ideas about academic conferences in and publication from Nepal, plans for international educational exchange, and insights from different administrative cultures were generated.

There are different ways of treating “internationalization” of education. Traditionally, universities from less “advanced” societies try to imitate or emulate practices from those that are considered more advanced. Foreign scholars are invited to help start new programs, and funding and other support are sought from foreign institutions. Expectations for a one-way traffic of support often build skepticism, ideas don’t translate well between vastly different contexts, and communication easily breaks down between the two sides.

What I observed in the current case was striking because, while resources were limited, creative ideas and visionary thinking greatly compensated for that challenge. The most striking of these ideas was, as it was reported in Republica a few days ago, that American students might now come to study in Nepal. The ideas were simple but powerful. They helped to flip the old narrative.

By offering credit-bearing programs for students, and additionally inviting teachers and scholars for working in Nepal, Midwestern University officials were creating win-win opportunities through internationalization on both sides. They wanted to capitalize on the interest for internationalization in countries like the US: Nepal was an affordable destination for study abroad students.

The economics and cultural dynamics are simply right and ready. Nepal is a popular destination, and if meaningful educational opportunities are created, American and European students will find a very attractive and very inexpensive option for international travel and learning. If the ideas are pursued and programs created and continuously improved, I can envision international students from the US and Europe having intense competition for admission into Nepali universities.

As a new university, MU seems to have the advantage of integrating a vision for internationalizing education as part of its emerging policies and also its identity. The university seems to be developing a research-oriented model that could help enhance the overall quality of Nepali higher education. Given that Nepal is being pushed into the new global village where massive global migration may not cease any time soon, the exchange programs could not only provide opportunities for globally mobile Nepali intelligentsia of the future but also turn the tide of brain drain in our favor in the long run.

When I returned home from dropping the guests off to a ferry crossing the stretch of the Atlantic into Connecticut where hosts from the second university would pick them up, I was still slightly incredulous about the progress that I sensed was starting to happen from outside Kathmandu. I hope I am right.

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