• MSU Sustainable Development

Ethics of Tourism and Sustainable Development, Michigan State University

The question about mission and goals for the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University needs to be answered in layers. The program must be seen in the context of the mission of the college, which is to “weave together the passion, imagination, humor, and candor of the arts and humanities to promote individual well being and the common good.”  To accomplish this mission we have included civic engagement, not as an option, but as central element of the RCAH core curriculum.

The RCAH Model of Civic Engagement identifies the four following components:

  1. Insight – increasing an awareness of ourselves, communities, and the world;
  2. Practice – developing our relationships to communities and the world;
  3. Action – effecting positive social change in the community; and
  4. Passion – cultivating a sense of wonder and joy in our relationships with others (see attachment).

While this reflects a developmental model, it is not linear. For instance, while the civic engagement curriculum begins with an emphasis on Insight as preparation for Practice and Action, the process of engaging with communities further deepens insight, which in turn leads to still deeper forms of engagement. The process is thus both developmental and recursive. The overall goal of this study abroad program is to assist students in synthesizing multiple learning resources and reflection in engaging generatively in rural communities in Costa Rica. To do this we have established objectives relating to tourism and sustainable development in Costa Rica on the one hand, and civic engagement in a global context on the other. We list them below as separate objectives. However, in reality, the program is designed to address these objectives simultaneously in an integrated fashion. The objectives related to tourism and sustainable development are to help students

  • explore the concepts of ecotourism and community tourism and the different ways in which they are understood.
  • explore ecotourism and community tourism as strategies of sustainable development.
  • develop an understanding of the ways in which ecotourism and community tourism have been implemented in Costa Rica and the impact they have had at the national and local levels.

The objectives related to civic engagement are to help students

  • gain a better understanding of civic engagement as it connects to the broader context of the arts and humanities.
  • understand the roles that self-reflection, inner growth, and personal commitment play in civic engagement.
  • develop the skills and passion necessary for engaging in community partnerships, including co-learning, building trust, capacity building, forming partnerships and networks.
  • apply the RCAH generative model of civic engagement in a specific community context. This requires that students must understand how the model fits within the larger context of community partners’ goals, needs, and knowledge bases. It also requires them to understand how communities and community collaborations are situated within a larger social, historical, and global context.
  • synthesize academic, community-based, and other methods/sources of knowledge and expertise in defining problems, researching issues, and proposing projects.
  • understand civic responsibility as driven by a sense of personal commitment.

Overview of the Program

In this program, students combine the study and practice of Spanish language with the ethics of tourism and sustainable development and civic engagement. During the initial four weeks, students live with Costa Rican host families in the small central valley town of Santa Ana, attend classes at CONVERSA, a Spanish school overlooking Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, and visit several tourism sites around the country. While in class, they improve language skills and learn about various forms of tourism, sustainable development, and civic engagement. During the next three and a half weeks, students gain a more intimate knowledge of these issues as they live with host families in rural areas across the country and work with communities on small, rural community tourism and development projects. The class convenes for the final few days in a small village on the Pacific Coast. Once there, the class will build a learning community to debrief and connect their civic engagement work with their studies of the ethics of tourism and sustainable development.

Relation of Program to Character Development

There are many ways that the program facilitates character development. Three ways are presented below: First, the experience of being immersed in another culture promotes personal insight and reflection, an important tool for character development. Spending eight weeks out of their comfort zone forces students to examine their strengths and weaknesses. However, just as important, the process of learning to navigate a new culture makes them much more aware of their own culture and their place in it. They begin to see things as contingent that they earlier accepted as given. Learning how others live forces them to examine their own lifestyle. On many occasions this is the first time that students really begin to understand their own power and privilege. We believe that our program helps to build personal responsibility as well. There are many ways in which this takes place. In the broadest sense, students realize that they are responsible for their own education. On a study abroad program learning opportunities come at many unexpected times and in unexpected places. Students who embrace this and take advantage of opportunities gain much more from the experience. Learning a language is a good example. Students who strike up conversations with native speakers learn much more quickly than those who are afraid to engage. If they are not making mistakes, they probably are not learning. Nowhere is the responsibility for one’s own education more apparent than during the weeks students work in rural communities. They go to these communities prepared for one form of engaged practice—teaching English as a foreign language—and the partners discuss with us what they have in mind for that teaching. However, the students are expected to negotiate the ultimate form this work will take—what days each week, the location, the curriculum, the content, etc. We briefly visit each community in which students are placed at least two times during this period. Otherwise, the students are on their own to work with the communities. Students understand that they are representing themselves, the program, and the university, and they take personal responsibility for how things go. They want to contribute and realize that it is largely up to them to make that happen. The intensity of the group experience and living in communities with host families also facilitates the development of personal responsibility. Students in the U.S. tend to be considerably independent, but such independence is not true to the same degree in Costa Rica culture. When students do not uphold their responsibilities to their host families, for example, they can often witness the anxiety that their irresponsibility may cause for others. Having a student-initiated discussion about accountability within the group—accountability to other members of the group and accountability to the host families—is an important learning experience. Finally, and this is connected with personal responsibility, students often develop a renewed sense of passion and personal commitment. As instructors we spend a lot of time talking about whether or not one can teach passion, and we have not come to a conclusion. However, what is clear is that the combination of cultural immersion and civic engagement can ignite passion in a profound way. Learning becomes concrete and personal. There is an opportunity for personal investment and commitment that goes well beyond what we can normally do in a classroom. Some students are resistant to this, but many students embrace it. At least three of the students (out of 22) who have participated in the program thus far have gone on to apply to the Peace Corps. One starts her assignment this fall; the other two are still in the application process.

Obstacles and Opportunities for Growth

The brevity of the program is an obstacle. An 8-week program is on the long side of a short-term study abroad program, but the short side of a long-term study abroad program. This shows up in two places. First, four weeks of intensive Spanish instruction is sufficient for more advanced students, but for many students it is insufficient to prepare them for the type of engagement we would like them to do. They can get by with daily business, but language barriers limit their depth of involvement. Second, three and a half weeks for community engagement limits the types of projects in which students can be engaged. A longer period of engagement would be beneficial to both the students and communities. However, a longer program would cost more, deprive students of the opportunity to work during part of the summer, and demand more time from faculty. Students come with different levels of maturity, personalities, skill sets, levels of experience, and expectations. As faculty we have little control over these factors. These things affect even the traditional classroom, but in a study abroad program that emphasizes civic engagement, the differences need to be understood and, to some extent managed by faculty. Issues that may not surface in a typical classroom setting become important when students are confronted with the stresses of experiencing a new culture, using a new language, living with host families and working with community partners. Some students (a minority) are resistant to this sort of engaged learning. They complain that the program “is not academic enough” and want to be held accountable only for what they can learn from the written course materials. Working with community partners is a rewarding, but time intensive process. Each summer we place students in at least three different communities, each of which has its own set of characteristics and needs. It takes significant time to find appropriate communities, to build the type of trust and rapport that is needed, and to maintain these relationships. This is not a one-time investment as communities are constantly changing. People move, new projects develop, new leadership emerges, etc. In addition, each community has different capacities. Some communities are well prepared organizationally and administratively to handle students. Others struggle either with having the personnel to work effectively with students, or with having the basic administrative capabilities to work with a U.S. institution of higher education. In order to be able to meet the financial and staffing needs we are changing the program from an annual to a bi-annual basis. This will keep cost down for students, but it will also make it more difficult to sustain relationships with our community partners.

Future Goals for Ongoing Improvement

There are two areas where we are looking for improvement. The first is the area of partnership development. Up to this point (after three years) we have worked with each community independently. In part this is because the communities are distant geographically, but also because they are at very different points when it comes to their involvement with tourism. Some communities have established tourism projects organized by non-profit community organizations.  Others are just exploring tourism as a means of economic and community development. However, we believe that there is much that they could learn from one another, not only about tourism, but also about how to work effectively with MSU, our program, and our students.  For this reason we are exploring the possibility of bringing our communities partners together in one location for a workshop. We are currently in the process of trying to define the goals and content of the workshop, and of securing financial support. The second area where we would like to improve is in the area of program assessment. We have anecdotal evidence, but we would like to do more formal research on the impact of the program on both students and community partners.

Core Principles That Guide the Program

  • Do not transport the culture of MSU to Costa Rica. We want students to be immersed in Costa Rican culture. For this reason we want to keep the program small (no more than 15 students). It is also essential to make homestays a central element of the program.
  • Make the length of the trip longer than shorter. Eight weeks should be the minimum.
  • Consider ethical issues every step of the way. Ethics is one of the cornerstones of the RCAH curriculum, and we want to keep it in the forefront of everything we do in the program. At the most basic level, the content of the course is about the ethics of tourism and sustainable development. However, we also encourage students to reflect on the ethics of our engagement with Costa Rican communities and on our role as tourists in the country. Volunteer and educational tourism are forms of tourism that need to be considered ethically. Finally, ethics is a central component of our community partnerships.
  • Focus on tools. To help our students engage we need to focus on providing them with certain basic skills. This includes, but is not limited to Spanish language skills, collaboration skills, self assessment tools (e.g., see Readiness to Engage Inventory), basic skills in teaching English as a foreign language.
  • Make experience the text. The temptation is to treat the study abroad program as an on-campus course with learning objectives focused on certain content areas. However, when we do this we load students down with a heavy “academic” load and leave little space to incorporate learning that emerges from the immersion experience itself. By thinking of the experience as text—as material to reflect on and learn from—we bring this sort of learning to the forefront.
  • Keep the program partner-driven. Our community partners are absolutely key to the success of the program. Our program will only be successful if we collaborate with our partners to develop a program that is co-generative and mutually beneficial. We have learned the following things from our partners:
  • We need to be clear on what we need and what we can provide.
  • We need to be realistic about what our goals are and what is achievable.
  • We cannot do this cheaply—costs in time and investments are high.
  • Finally, we should continually define and redefine the principles of the partnerships.

Contact Information

Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Michigan State University C210 Snyder Hall East Lansing, MI 48825-1106 Contact Persons Information Scot Yoder Assistant Professor yodersco@msu.edu Vincent Delgado Academic Specialist for Civic Engagement delgado1@msu.edu