Gunjan Dhakal, a student in the Master of Public Policy at OSU, has been hearing the words “sustainable development” for years, but until recently the concept was simply that – a concept – not a living, breathing reality. During the past month attending the 2010 International Comparative Rural Policy Studies Summer Institute, though, Dhakal finally experienced and learned about the elements that make development truly sustainable.
“It is not just about economic growth or about the environment,” she says. “It refers to several social, cultural, political and environmental aspects of development.”
It was a lesson Dhakal and 30 graduate students and professors from as far as Nepal, Bolivia, Uzbekistan learned during the recent month-long Institute, which was sponsored by Oregon State and Portland State University. Oregon State professors Brent Steel and Denise Lach organized the institute.
The idea, according to Steel, who directs the Master of Public Policy program at OSU, was to give students a breadth of practical experience around issues of the rural/urban divide and public policy. They could take these experiences back to their home countries and have an impact there.
Dhakal, for example, is from Nepal and is attending OSU as part of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Women’s Leadership Training in Economics scholarship. She is studying rural development and will take what she has learned in Oregon back to Nepal, a country going through growing pains in its rapidly industrializing rural areas.
“In some ways, I am still a newcomer to Oregon, so learning more and seeing other parts of the state is part of the fun,” she said. “Beyond that, I am studying rural policy and development issues because I will be going back to Nepal very soon, and I know that my knowledge is needed there.”
Smit Vasquez Caballero, a graduate student in OSU’s Agricultural & Resource Economics program who also attended the institute, is research the effects that migration to the U.S. is having on agricultural communities in his native home of Oaxaca, Mexico. “I am hoping to use this experience to learn more about research, and how to develop a research plan,” he says.
Already, he is making connections and finding that the issues he studies are not unique to Mexico. “I’ve heard so many different perspectives from different countries,” he says. For instance, Vasquez Caballero befriended a Tanzanian student whose country is experiencing the same issues as Mexico; people are leaving to find work, which is changing their communities.
The students spent much of their time in Oregon engrossed in classroom work, learning from a diverse array of researchers, including OSU rural policy expert Bruce Weber; Kate MacTavish, a professor in human development and family sciences at OSU; and Lach, a sociologist who studies the decision-making process of natural resource policy making.
The group also participated in several field experiences, learning about critical issues pertaining to sustainable rural development. They toured wine fields in Yamhill County, wind energy plants in Hood River, a migrant camp in Woodburn, wave energy development sites in Newport, and learned about greener agricultural practices at Stahlbush Island Farms in Corvallis and casinos and tribal rural development in Grande Ronde.
“Being welcomed by the warm hospitality of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde was the most exciting part of our field trips for me,” Gunjan says. “Getting to know about their history, culture, their lifestyle and work, and their openness in answering our questions was very impressive. The cohesiveness among tribal members seems to have helped them work together for the common goal of sustainable development.”
She added that spending a month with students and faculty from countries around the world was a key part of the educational experience.
“We represented 15 or more different countries all around the world,” she says. “Each of us shared a different background and culture, and for most of us English was not the first language. The group was diverse and very active. The take-home message from this program and other participants would be- be open, widen your perspective, respect each other and develop a friendship that can sustain for longer term.”