B ringing together SPEA students, faculty members, and the School’s Office of Overseas Studies, Perfetti (formed a team that created the pioneering Advancing Community, Collaboration, and Training (ACCT) International course that begins this summer (2012) in Kenya. Designed collaboratively by students, faculty, and Kenyan partner organizations, this service-learning program will offer SPEA graduate students the culturally immersive international development opportunity Perfetti couldn’t find on her own.
“During my internship in Brazil, I realized the cultural differences were greater than I’d anticipated,” she says, “and because I only had a rough sketch of what I was going to be doing, I didn’t gain as much as I wanted to professionally. I thought it would be great if there were something at SPEA that would guide students who wanted to go abroad.”
What started as a business proposal in a 2009 social entrepreneurship class with SPEA Professor Leslie Lenkowsky soon gained momentum as Perfetti connected with Adjunct Assistant Professor Ann Marie Thomson. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Giving Back to Africa, Thomson had also been dreaming about starting a service-related study abroad program.
“I have always wanted to create an international service-learning course at SPEA, but the timing was never quite right until Sarah Perfetti approached me,” she says. “My philosophy is rooted in participative learning, so I told her, ‘What you need to do is put together a student leadership team.’ I knew that students and faculty could work collaboratively to make this happen.”
In addition to Perfetti and Thomson, the team that assembled in 2010 included second-year MPA student Ruth Pollak, first-year MPA students Sara Reeves and Sarah Jene Hollis, and SPEA Senior Lecturer Henry Wakhungu. Over the span of more than a year, they designed a summer course that will take a group of students to Wakhungu’s native Kenya, where they will work closely with a set of local NGOs to design and complete service–learning internships.
One of the unique features of ACCT is that the NGOs themselves have been closely involved in creating the program, thanks to a SPEA grant that allowed Perfetti and Wakhungu to travel to Kenya in 2011. The ability to connect on the ground has not only allowed the NGOs to better establish what they are looking for in student interns, but has also enabled ACCT to team up with smaller, more localized organizations that might not be visible from the United States.
“The regular internships that students usually find are only the larger international organizations that have well-developed websites,” explains Wakhungu, who has also helped students establish internships in Kenya in conjunction with SPEA’s Kenya Today course and the Kenya-based Environmental Impact Assessment course that is jointly run by SPEA and Kenya’s Moi University. “Some of the NGOs involved with ACCT don’t even have websites, but they are making a huge impact on their local areas,” he says.
The seven NGOs involved with ACCT range from an animal welfare network to a water-sanitation initiative to the for-profit Mumias Sugar Company, where ACCT will host the coursework portion of its curriculum. Thomson and Wakhungu will teach the four-week class on International Development and Project Design with assistance from Reeves.
During that first month, students will plan their internships in conjunction with representatives from their partner agencies. This period also allows students to engage in what Wakhungu calls “cultural orientation” – beginning their acclimation to Kenyan culture before staying with host families near their internship sites. The internships, which each involve a pair of students, will last six weeks, during which Wakhungu and Reeves will visit students and host a midterm reunion weekend at Mumias. Once the students return to Bloomington, the group will spend another two weeks debriefing.
For Perfetti, who has since graduated but continues to volunteer her time on the project, ACCT captures precisely what she felt was lacking in her unstructured internship. “I really hope this idea spreads and becomes a model that’s used other places,” she says. “Actually, I wish someone had created ACCT even sooner so I could have done it myself.”