Study Abroad…But Get Off the Veranda

When a student studies abroad, there is an assumption that interaction with their new community and cultural immersion will just…happen. While every student who studies abroad does experience some type of immersion, true cultural immersion requires that students ‘get off the veranda.’ For a great definition of what true cultural immersion can be, see this article by Karen Rodriguez from

This phrase, ‘getting off the veranda’, comes from an article written by Anthony C. Ogden comparing today’s study abroad student with colonials from history. Ogden points out that many colonials maintained their distance from their colonized communities “interacting only as needed and often in an objective and disassociated manner” (The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student). Many travelers, whether vacationers, business travelers or study abroad students, don’t leave the Sheraton or Four Seasons enough or at all, says David Livermore in his article The Right Sort of Travel Can Boost your Career. Even worse, some travelers can’t turn off Facebook or stop texting Mom and boyfriend/girlfriend long enough to truly immerse themselves and build intercultural skills. I am hesitant to compare study abroad with colonialism, but there are certainly similar attitudes and experiences that students can have if they aren’t careful to step off the veranda. (And if program administrators aren’t careful to design programming that allows for true immersion.)

Ogden explains that while he is supportive of the growth of programs and students abroad, students can not be allowed to “observe their host community from a safe and unchallenging distance”. This safe and unchallenging distance is called the veranda. One reason that students are prone to staying on the veranda is that study abroad programs have become increasingly personalized to the student’s wants and needs (just like higher education in general, perhaps). Students have become the customer, study abroad is the product they’re buying, and study abroad educators and program administrators and advisors are expected to provide them with excellent customer service. Students are used to picking and choosing exactly what they want to participate in and study abroad is no different. Students pick which courses they take, if they want an internship or not (how many days a week they want to work), will they perform research or not, will they travel or not, do they want classwork in the the local language or not….And lost in all of those choices is the real reason for why they are abroad: not to control or customize an experience based on what they like, but to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own (different from their normal wants and likes). Students are used to choosing which parts of education they want to participate in, and whether or not they engage in experiences that promote true cultural immersion (or not) becomes yet another choice over their 4-year college experience. This customization and control allows for the experience to stay student-centered, rather than location-centered.

Study abroad experiences can then turn into a glorified vacation if the experience lacks true cultural immersion. I have seen this with friends’ study abroad experiences and I have also witnessed this when speaking with study abroad returners about their experiences. Some students can even identify certain study abroad programs and locations that can act as ‘vacation centers’ and pass that information onto prospective students looking for programs. Program locations then become attractive to students looking for an experience that is heavy on fun and travel, and light on true cultural immersion. There is even a satire going around social media right now that captures these students and experiences in a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa. This site essentially trolls the Internet for and accepts submissions of photos, videos, and blogs from white study abroad students’ experiences in Africa. And while the students who have taken the photos or written the blogs believe their photos really capture a deep immersive experience, Gurl Goes to Africa points out that their day trip to a that idyllic village in Africa only provided the student with a photo and nothing else. Another excellent explanation of this can be found in The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).

This is dangerous for the obvious reason that the study abroad student leaves their experience with the same level of understanding of their host location and culture as they did when arrived. But Sasha Gronsdahl explains other harmful effects of these experiences in her blog “White Girl Goes to Africa: Am I anything more than a cliche?” She points out that some abroad experiences, especially in developing countries, are not about anything other than ourselves. We gain the resume-building experiences and never reflect on why mostly Westerners are in the financial and ‘knowledge’ position to travel to developing communities. Most importantly, Sasha writes:

“The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.”

Now, I am a study abroad and travel advocate. I believe a day trip across town and a year-long study abroad experience can hold similar values. However, study abroad programs must push students off of that veranda so that students can get to know their locations and host communities deeper than a tourist would. Students must be open to experiences that will get them into their host communities and program leaders must design activities and lessons that allow students to think critically not only about their host communities, but also think critically about their home cultures and why they studied abroad.

The effects of privatization of education on teacher professionalism: evidence from the UK

If universities continue to heed the call of corporatisation, the role of the academic will become extinct.’

Recently I read an interesting blog post on By comparing oneself with a ‘precious bird’ who is struggling among the ‘bustling sale of cheap, plastic imitation bird-objects around it’, the anonymous author sadly predicts that this bird may face extinction, leaving only its exotic feathers as relics of rapidly fading ideals. The post argues how a ‘wholesale corporatisation’ of the British higher education sector creates inequalities and adversely affects teacher professionalism. In addition to the increases in tuition fees due to the marketisation of higher education, the author argues that unfair pay between senior representatives and junior academics, particularly university support staff, will inevitably lead to more inequality. In an environment where private sector ideals are thriving, the author also feels that students are drawn more to the issues of ‘customer satisfaction’ rather than their commitment to study and academic aspirations. The blog points to the fact that as academics are being asked to undertake more administrative tasks, they have less time to undertake scholarship. Most importantly, academics find the private sector-style environments unsupportive to sustain their professionalism, being treated simply as information providers or sellers of their expertise.

I believe that the author is not the only ‘bird’ who has such a gloomy feeling. In fact, 2013 was seen as the year of marketisation of UK higher education with the government’s complete removal of student number controls. Although the sector is still far from a fully functioning market, a great number of academics in the UK have been expressing their increasing concerns about the consequences of extending market competition in universities’ activities of teaching and research.

In a large-scale strike, which broke out across the UK last year and early this year (2014), many interviewed academics held that education should not be seen as a commodity and be left to the fluctuations of the market. It is true that when education is increasingly viewed in instrumental terms, serving the ultimate for-profit goal of the private sector, the universities are trying hard to squeeze all the costs including the salaries of academics and staff. Meanwhile, the academics are required to work more and more, leading to their overall low morale and satisfaction with their jobs.

Indeed, privatisation of education is a growing worldwide trend, which continues to spread in the context of globalization. The problems it creates remain unaddressed, even in the countries like the UK where marketisation was originally traced back in the 1980s. In the eye of many academics, private, for-profit education in the UK seem to become a big business, causing public universities to reduce the value of a higher education to the laws of supply and demand to compete in the marketplace. As a result, British academics feel a growing sense of frustration and demoralization in a career that they might choose because of their interest instead of the pay it offers.

The impact of privatization of education on teacher morale has also long been documented in different contexts. For example, teachers in New Zealand with the rising administrative functions reported high levels of stress, declining job satisfaction and the desire to leave the profession [1]. In Australia, teachers were found demoralized and deprofessionalized by crude performance indicators such as research output and teaching performance in neoliberal education reforms [2]. In the same vein, the expansion of market principles in education also has negative effects on Chinese professionals in terms of their workload, payment, wellbeing, social status and teaching and living conditions [3].

In addition, it is no surprise that in many for-profit higher institutions, the professionals are not required to engage in advanced research. This is simply because the institutions only hire the faculty on the part-time basis, which can help them drive down the cost and better deal with the changes in the market’s demand. Without doubt, academics in these private, for-profit universities also do not have many opportunities for professional development offered by universities. This is most evident in newly marketised higher education systems in many Asian countries like China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Where is my professionalism?

I believe that privatization of public services has certain advantage of injecting competition into a market-based playing field. But when it is seen as the primary approach to education reform without proper supervision and outcome evaluation, this playing field turns out to be not at all level and equal, causing great many problems, including adverse impact on teacher morale and professionalism. To me, teaching academics hold a very important and special position in maintaining the goals and values of education as a public good in their communities. When market position places more pressure on them to pursue and construct academic identities in line with corporate identities, education has more negative consequences than positive outcomes.


[1] Power, S. 1997. “Managing the State and the Market: ‘New’ education management in five

countries.” British Journal of Educational Studies 45 (4): 342-362.

[2] WELCH, A. (1996) Australian Education: reform or crisis? (Sydney, Allen & Unwin), cited in Chan, D., & Mok, K. H. (2001). Educational reforms and coping strategies under the tidal wave of marketisation: A comparative study of Hong Kong and the mainland. Comparative Education, 37(1), 21-41.

[3] Guo, S., Guo, Y., Beckett, G., Li, Q., & Guo, L. (2013). Changes in Chinese education under globalisation and market economy: emerging issues and debates.Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 43(2), 244-264


“Merit Pay” in Education

Recent blogs by Alyssa and Hang on teacher salaries made me think of the merit pay system, a term which appears frequently in the context of education reform. Originally, merit pay was defined as “an approach to compensation that rewards the higher performing employees with additional pay or incentive pay” in business. [1] Since the mid-1980s, merit pay has been used to connect teachers’ performance with salaries in the United States schools. [2] Currently, it has been in use in some other countries such as United Kingdom and China.

First, merit pay is performance-related pay which means a bonus for a good teachers’ performance. And teachers’ performance is measured by “students test scores”. [3] It is understandable that people may be motivated by higher salaries, and teachers are not an exception. In other words, merit pay system aims to motivate teachers to improve themselves and put more efforts into teaching. At the same time, merit pay system can create a competitive environment among teachers, whereby teachers compete with each other through students’ grades. With this system, the most ideal outcome would for students to have good grades and for teachers to teach efficiently.

However, while merit pay is increasingly used in schools in different countries, it also receives some criticism. Joe Bower, a teacher from Canada, explains why he thinks merit pay is a bad idea for education systems. One of his main arguments is that merit pay requires the education systems to pursue measurements such as standardized testing, and additionally encourages teachers who have chosen a career of public-service to focus on extra rewards such as pay. [4] Meanwhile, he thinks that merit pay will change teachers’ attitudes towards students, which means teachers will regard students as test scores increasers instead of real students. [4]


Merit pay transforms education into business and it is difficult to imagine how teachers work in a business environment.Schools are not like companies which can make much profit to support the merit pay plan; on the contrary, the financial budget is a problem for the education system. In some Texas school districts, the merit pay system disappeared because of the financial budget. It is not difficult for teachers to increase students’ test scores because of the motivation of rewards, meaning that plenty of money is necessary to continue. At the same time, Angeles Davis, president of NEA-Dallas, thinks “Some teachers wind up being punished for reasons beyond their control because not all students are good test takers.” [6] The Texas example illustrates that completely putting merit pay system into education is still questionable and needs more consideration.

I agree with these criticisms to some degree. I am from China, I have seen a lot about how students fight for their continuous examinations. Chinese students receive too much pressure from the standardized tests, although it is true that the tests are necessary in current Chinese education system to select excellent students from a large population.

The research shows that merit pay was first introduced into Chinese educational system in 2009, which only has a five-year history. [5] For a Lehigh graduate level class Self and Groupswhich I took in 2013 fall semester, I was required to do a research project related to education change. I chose a Chinese middle school where my mother teaches as my focus, and did some research on changes in the last decade. During that research, I found out that merit pay is closely related to teachers’ salaries, which interested and surprised me much. The situation of merit pay system in China is quite different from other countries. In the middle school which I researched, the merit pay system was not based on teachers’ performance or students’ grades too much. The main determinant of merit pay is the longer the teacher has taught, the more pay he or she will receive.

In the Chinese case, the merit pay is not a “real” merit pay. Rather, it has been modified to fit the particular Chinese education environment. According to the exam-oriented education system, Chinese students and teachers are always facing intense this contest, students care much about their grades and rankings, and teachers care much about the class rankings. For both students and teachers, there is so much pressure that additional (financial) stimulation is perhaps not needed.

I also think that merit pay has become an excuse in order to attract public attention to education, motivating more people to become teachers. Gradually, teacher is becoming a desired job in China. Nevertheless, I also think it will cause some conflicts among old teachers and new teachers in the future if no changes happen to the merit pay system. Currently, teachers receive merit pay according to their teaching experience, which means older teachers would receive more money than new teachers, although new teachers may have good teaching performances. It seems unfair to those new teachers who perform well in their teaching, which is a potential threat for the merit pay plan in China.

While introducing merit pay into education system may have some benefits. We have to admit that it creates many problems, such as the increasing pressure on teachers and students and the financial burden on the educational system. Whether the merit pay in China will continue or disappear (like in Texas) in the future remains unknown.



[1] Healthfield, M. S. Merit pay rewards performance. Revived from

[2] Morrison, N. (2013). Merit pay for teachers is only fair. Revived from






Blossoming Demand of International Schools in Hong Kong


internationalization in education


The blossoming of international schools in Hong Kong is an interesting topic to discuss within the context of privatization of education. Although parents need to pay a fortune to secure a seat, they are still very much willing to do so. There is a long list of international schools ranging from preschools all the way to upper secondary level where they adopt the British, American, Canadian, and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs accordingly.[1] Recently, Harrow International School, an elite boarding school that originated in Britain, has opened in Hong Kong.  While fees are high, long waiting lists still exist for international schools.[2] Why is there such a huge demand in this city? I have some insights about it after working in an international school for some time.

First of all, parents who send their children to international schools are highly educated and better off financially. They have realized the uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong’s local education system, which has undergone a series of reforms since the handover in 1997. The major ones included changing the medium of instruction from English to our mother-tongue language, introducing community colleges, transiting from the British to American model, and introducing civic education. So, what will be the next one? Parents may be afraid that their kids are only the experiments of the HKSAR government. Many parents believe that studying at international schools will ensure more stable growth and development of their children without interruptions by constant policy changes. Paradoxically, senior education officials often praise the excellence of Hong Kong local public education. In reality, only a few of them let their own children matriculate locally while most of them would like to send their children to study abroad or in international schools.

Second, the curriculum of international schools can provide a lot more than that of local schools. For example, the core of an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program comprises of “The Extended Essay”, “Theory of Knowledge”, and “Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS)”. The first one gives students a chance to examine topics of global significance through their independent research and in-depth study. The second one allows students to develop their critical thinking and coherent approach to unify and articulate various academic disciplines. The third one encourages students to engage in art for creativity, physical activity for healthy lifestyle, and service to community for having universal values. [3] The main focus of IB Program is to cultivate the global mindedness and international competence of the next generation to become all-rounded individuals who are prepared to tackle emerging unknown worldwide problems in the 21st century. These elements are what the local education system lacks.

IB learner profile

Third, with the considerable amount of money that parents invest in their children, international schools are able to offer more resources than local public schools. Most importantly, there are at least full-time university guidance counselors for mentoring senior high school students to make the right decision about choosing the most suitable university according to their ability, character, and interest. In addition, international school students have more exposure to universities worldwide as many of them would visit their schools to set up booths for giving out brochures and answering queries. It could have an overarching effect on their career paths as well. In addition, there are numerous enrichment programs for students to select, like intensive English programs in America or England, short-term overseas trips to different continents, or musical performances, which also enhance their capacity of multicultural communication with classmates from various backgrounds.

Fourth, the growing numbers of expatriate communities increase the demand for international schools to accommodate their children.  The laissez faire economic market of Hong Kong attracts many foreign investors to come for business in this free-port metropolis with low taxation. Some of them move there as senior management executives in multi-national corporations or scholars in well-known tertiary education intuitions. According to the survey conducted by Employment Conditions Abroad Limited, expatriates in Hong Kong obtain the fourth highest compensation packages in Asia. [4] In order to attract more of them to move to Hong Kong, the companies usually pay the expatriates rewarding salaries, housing allowances, plus tuition fees for international schools for their kids.

internationalization in edu

After taking the course of “International Education Policy” this semester, I see the different sides of privatization of education clearly by having more profound knowledge about its advantages and disadvantages. What’s your opinion about the international schools then? Do they distort the original meaning of education? At the very least, international schools have given the “consumers” more choice in the education “market”. At the end of the day, however, who can afford it? Obviously, international schools will keep marginalizing students from lower socio-economic status. The gap between rich and poor will just be more visualized in the field of education. People generally have a stereotype that those who can receive “quality education” are from rich backgrounds. If this kind of “privileged education” can be enjoyed by all of the children, what will our future society be like? This leaves us a lot of room to rethink the above questions and strike a balance in the global context.


[1] Yan, C. (2014). Guide to Hong Kong Schools and Education. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on       April 19, 2014, from

[2] Hunt, K. (2012, September 3). Elite Schools head east as Asia’s education market booms. Cable News Network. Retrieved on April 19, 2014, from

[3] International Baccalaureate Organization (2014). The IB Diploma Program. Retrieved on April 19, 2014, from

[4] Employment Conditions Abroad Limited (2012). Expatriates in Hong Kong enjoy Asia’s fourth-highest pay packages. Retrieved on April 19, 2014, from 


Gap Year Series, Part 3: Global Citizen Year

In the first two posts of this series I discussed how gap years are beneficial to students and how universities are putting programs in place to encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities. In this post I will focus on an outside organization that is aiming to make gap years universal in the US.

Global Citizen Year (GCY) does not consider itself a gap year program. Gap years have the stigma I have already discussed, so they call themselves a Bridge Year. This way, it is framed not as falling into a gap, but as crossing a bridge that will transport students from the life stage of high school to the life stage of college. GCY prides itself on preparing kids for success in college, careers, and our global economy. They see the American education system as failing to prepare students to succeed in facing global challenges—“High school graduates are entering college underprepared, families are questioning their return on investment, and colleges are facing growing concerns about relevance and retention.”

Why join GCY? Their arguments are convincing. They say being a Fellow helps develop leadership in the form of undergoing training in the US and abroad, becoming fluent in a new language and culture, and learning alongside global experts. They also market themselves as helping students uncover their passions on their own time and terms as well as finding meaningful ways to have an impact through their work. It also allows those who participate to be at the forefront of a movement that GCY sees as reimagining education and leadership in America.

They see themselves as being a step apart from other bridge year programs in several main ways: total immersion, personalized apprenticeships, a diverse cohort, intensive training, and a lifelong network. The Fellows work in community apprenticeships alongside local people where they can learn a language, form lasting relationships, and gain firsthand insight into the issues that shape their hosts’ lives. Fellows come together with staff to participate in monthly training seminars to amplify their learning and to come together as a country cohort to process their experience.

Many people question how a bridge year can more adequately prepare students for college. GCY addresses these concerns by saying that their program is uniquely designed to bridge the high school and college experience through a combination of immersive learning and world-class training in areas directly relevant to the higher education environment. They focus on three main learning spheres: entrepreneurial leadership, global skills, and college and career readiness. Their curriculum is unique, rigorous, and involves two-week departure training, ongoing training blocks, and a one-week re-entry training to tie together the year’s learning. They actually train the Fellows before they leave on Stanford’s campus, which exposes them to the college setting. They also ensure that all Fellows develop intentional learning plans for their year abroad and for their college experience after which allows them to test their interests and define their passions.

They also have a Capstone phase to their year in which Fellows must reflect, analyze, and express their learning and growth. There is a final presentation in their country about the work they’ve done and the lessons they learned over the year as an apprentice and member of the community. Once they are back home they deliver a product of presentation that encapsulates their experience to “instill the power of global citizenship in their friends, family, and home community.” They leave the way they can do this wide open, so Fellows can choose how they want to present their experience.

This all sounds too good to be true, right? Well it is unless you can come up with the money to pay for it. According to their website, all fees for GCY are determined on a sliding scale based on the Fellow’s family’s ability to pay. Over 80% of Fellows have taken advantage of their financial aid packages, including a third whom who have had their year fully funded. Aside from tuition, each Fellow is responsible for any passport and visas, vaccinations, or early withdrawals from the program, but airfare is provided by GCY. Students submit the FAFSA for aid like they would for any college and their aid is determined based on that. Fellows are admitted without looking at their financial situation and any aid awarded is determined after acceptance. If a family was getting no aid the full tuition price would be $30,950, which is roughly around the same average price of tuition and fees for a private university in the US for the 2013-2014 school year.

Fellows are also required to raise $2,500 in the summer before they leave for the fund that supplies their financial aid as well as sign on 50 blog subscribers to follow their year. The website is very vague about how students are supposed to succeed in this summer campaign besides that staff will provide them with guidance and tools to do so. This is something students need to consider before applying for this program as it will require extra time and effort on their part. They also don’t mention anything about what happens if they don’t raise the money. Do students then have to make up the difference themselves?

Despite this, GCY seems like a good option for students who want an organized program to follow on their gap year that gives them tangible results, like a Capstone project. Currently GCY only has programs in Brazil, Ecuador, and Senegal, but they are looking to expand. Programs like this, along with the university initiatives mentioned in my last post, have the potential to change the views on gap years in the US, but there is a long way to go with reversing the negative stigma associated.

“Opportunities to Reinvent and Redesign”: The Druk White Lotus School

“Design at its best is not only sustainable, it is holistic.  It considers future needs as well and supports ancient traditions.”

            –The Druk White Lotus School

After watching another documentary for the final meeting of my graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I wanted to write a follow-up piece in response to an original blog post of mine: “‘Schooling the World’: The Myth of Progress?” This original posting grappled with many difficult questions and some subsequent feelings of turmoil and sadness regarding the way in which the ever greater spread of a formal, mass, and an essentially western style education system is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures all over the world.  The second documentary assigned to my class was a short piece on The Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India.  As a graduate student in the field of education, and more specifically Comparative and International Education, it was incredible to watch this piece and see an example of how tradition and modernity can co-exist in harmony, and an education system can contribute to supporting an indigenous community to thrive.

As stated in the documentary, the vision of The Druk White Lotus School is that it will serve as a model of “appropriate modernization.”  What this means more concretely is that the founders of this school and those who have designed and developed it believe it is critical to educate youth in Ladakh about the modern, but also about the merits of their own culture. Underlying the establishment of this school is the belief that one must know their foundation, their past and traditions, to responsibly move forward into a more modern future. [1]

Wonderfully stated by one of the environmental engineers on the project, Francesca Galeazzi, “the school is a product of merging the traditions and the culture of the society with the needs of modern education,” and this is done in a number of ways. [1] Tashi Tsering, the principal of the school and also a teacher, on one hand acknowledges that there is “no option other than providing a modern education” for these children.  They prepare the youth in this school for a challenging future locally or abroad by providing a curriculum based in the English language from kindergarten.  On the other hand, however, there is also a passionate commitment to the premise that these children do not forget where they came from and what their roots are.  They also learn their own language and once every week an instructor visits the school to teach the students moral education and to give them Buddhist mantras to recite. [1]

Buddhist traditions are widespread and strong throughout this culture and this is further reflected in the design of the school buildings and their layout.  It is noted both on the school website and in the film that the vision for the school was inspired by a spiritual leader in the community, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa. [1][2] For example, the school assembly courtyard is designed after a dharma wheel in its cylindrical shape with eight pavilions organized out and around a central space and this represents Buddhist teachings.  The way in which these spiritual elements are incorporated into the design of the buildings is remarkable. [1] As noted by Jonathan Rose, one of the architects of the project, the school is a “project planned around a scarcity of resources and the desire to do as little harm to the earth as possible.  Both are Buddhist principles but also, not coincidentally, basic tenants of sustainable design.” [1]

It is this loss of a sustainable relationship with the Earth due to Western education that was emphasized in the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.  In contrast, to see the sustainable practices used to develop modern education in this rural area was encouraging.  All of the building for this school is done by hand with little tools and little power.  Importing materials from outside Ladakh puts a tremendous strain on the surrounding Himalayan Mountains, so a commitment was made to using materials locally available.  This would ultimately mean that what was built would be appropriate for the community, would support the local economy, and would utilize the knowledge and labor of local people who knew how to work with the materials being used with techniques developed in India for centuries.  The buildings themselves are designed to capitalize on the use of daylight and ventilation so that they don’t rely on electricity at all for lighting or heating, and in the context of a high altitude desert scare of water, water conservation was essential as was the incorporation of ventilated improved pit latrines. [1]

It was interesting to watch and listen about how, about 25 years ago, the addition of an airfield to the area opened this environment and culture up to tourism.  This was a huge draw for people in the rural communities to come and work serving the tourists and in turn making money, but this also put a tremendous amount of pressure on a traditionally subsistence economy.  The even bigger question from an educational standpoint was about the pressure this put on the youth in the area about how they should learn and develop. [1]

Arup Corporation, the company involved in designing the school buildings, is a large consultancy that is involved in projects all over the world.  While this does mean that there is some foreign influence on this community and their vision for education, both parties talked about the process as one of mutual collaboration, exchange, and learning.  On one hand, Arup was committed to linking very closely with the local community to obtain an intimate understanding of their needs and expectations, rather than just coming in and imposing some fancy Western design.  On the other hand, those from the local community in no way wanted to shut out modern education or ways of life, but rather, wanted to embrace the best of the old as well as the new. [1]

Hopefully, the total of ten awards that have been given to this school thus far is an indication of recognition that this is the type of model that we need to be paying more attention to and replicating. [2] Not just in “developing” communities that are grappling with questions of how to modernize responsibly, but also in “modern” communities all over the world that undoubtedly need to exist more harmoniously with our environment.





Art Education

10-Expressionism-Marc-Stables (1913)
Recently while having lunch with a friend, she showed me a painting that her daughter had done. I asked her if she were studying art and my friend laughed and said something like, “No she knows that won’t get her anywhere, she’s studying engineering.” This statement hit a nerve with me, someone who feels saved by art. But my friend is not the only one with this sentiment. The neoliberal philosophy of education being for the market has been transformed into policy leading to cuts in the art programs all over the country. And these cuts in funds, which result in diminishing value of the arts, have left many students who would want to pursue the arts feeling “less than” the ones who are studying science and math.
With cuts in the school budgets at the federal level, and with education reform emphasizing core subjects and meeting the pressures of high-stakes testing, schools often make the decision to cut the arts out of the curriculum. These cuts may not affect affluent families who are able to compensate with private lessons, but according to a report by National Center for Education Statistics (2012), “economically disadvantaged students, many of whom do not have access to arts education anywhere but in public schools, have suffered a 20 percent reduction in arts education offerings, from 100 percent of schools offering such programs in 1999-2000 to only 80 percent in 2009-2010.”
But the main question that remains is why is art not considered valuable by the education reformers who promote a neoliberal agenda, while art continues to be a necessity for humans.
As Herbert Marcuse (1977), a German-American philosopher, states:
The radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence.

This quality of the arts that cannot be quantified in tests and measured by standards is the same quality that allows humans to use it as an intangible expression of the innate self. More and more education is geared towards the needs of the market and people are seen as human capital to produce economic value. As a consequence, art educators and art schools scramble to make themselves relevant by arguing for “STEAM not STEM.” Placing the arts in that mix, they hope, will guarantee continual survival. But that comes with a price. Art must transform itself into the image of the mechanistic marketplace. It exists, as STEAM boosters argue, to foster “creativity” and lead to “innovation.” What’s lost in the process, of course, is anything that makes art worthwhile. STEAM turns art into design.
The idea of focusing art education specifically on design is nothing new, of course. Since the Bauhaus seeded American universities like Yale in the middle of the twentieth century, the concept of art as industrial design has permeated art education at all levels. While there is nothing inherently wrong with learning principals of good design, art teachers inadvertently lose track of what art really is. Art and design are not synonymous. Every good work of art exhibits good design, but not every good design can be called art. A pizza box and a Picasso painting are both designed. One of them expresses the human heart. The other one simply leads to heartburn.
As it stands now in American art education, students are often taught the principles of design but not given any particular skill in a medium—traditionally the sign of being a “good” artist. One of the pitfalls of the Bauhaus conception of art was its focus on mechanical reproduction and the alienation of those who made the products from those who designed them. Thus, students are encouraged to learn principles that can enrich their employers. They are not educated to use those same principles to enrich their inner lives. Many, many art students are thus channeled into design programs that function as adjuncts of the advertising industry. But art education in the public schools need not be tailored to the market, since the public system itself is not–despite neoliberals’ best efforts–a market institution. Art education, like the schools themselves as a whole, has a schizoid tendency to cater to the whims of capitalism while at the same time catering to the intellectual, emotional, and creative growth of individuals.
And so it’s up to art teachers themselves to recover and reclaim art for self-expression and meaning-making. Since all that administrators care about is skills, art teachers should see to it that those skills are used in the service of discovering truths about the self and one’s relationship to society and world as a whole. They need to join in the struggle not only against neoliberal education reform but also neoliberalism itself and see themselves and what they teach as the path to emancipation from it.

Emma, L. Budget Cuts to Art Programs in Schools
Marcuse, H.(1977) Aesthetic Dimension.

Click to access aesthetic-dimension-_-marcuse.pdf

Gap Year Series, Part 2: How Universities are helping

In the first post of this series, I talked about how gap years are not commonplace in the US, but can be very beneficial for students as well as American society as a whole. In this post I will talk about what universities are doing to encourage students to take a gap year before entering college and in the next post I will look at one specific example of an organization whose goal is to make gap years universal.

As mentioned in the previous post, gap years have negative associations in the US, but some colleges are taking strides to reverse this stigma. University of North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and others have instituted programs to encourage students to take a gap year for travelling and volunteering around the world before they come to college. Even though the program at Princeton covers almost all costs, American students still “struggle with the idea of separating from the education fast track that parents and educators expect.” It is the norm to go straight into college from high school and it’s hard for students who have worked their whole lives to get into a good school to see a gap year as a viable option. There are many benefits of doing so, as already explained, but combating the negative view of not going straight to college will take a lot of effort on the part of universities.

Princeton’s program aims to start small and then eventually send a tenth or more of its incoming students to a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. They see this program as giving students a more international perspective, adding to their maturity and giving them a break from academic pressures. The president of Princeton called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school and giving them a year to regroup.” They plan not to charge tuition for the year abroad and offer financial assistance to those who need it. Proponents of the program say it allows students to discover themselves and the world before they enter college. Some say they enter college too young and immature and this would be a way to combat that while doing something constructive for the world.

Even college counselors, whose job it is to get high school students into good colleges, tell their clients to take a year off before they go back to school. One such counselor said she had previously only recommended gap years to students who needed to mature, but now is telling most of her students to follow this path. She says she sees students never slow down and breathe and think about the person they want to become before going to college. A psychiatrist at Duke says that freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because their brain continues to develop over this time period. He says taking a gap year is beneficial as long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth, and a commitment to do public service. When they finally come to campus the next fall they will be better prepared to succeed at the college level after living free from parents and the school environment for a while. They will also have a unique perspective on themselves and the world we live in that they would not have gained had they not taken a gap year.

Students who take gap years also have more real-world experience which gives them a leg-up on applying for internships and jobs while in college as well as after. With the job market as competitive as it is, it is important to stand out and this is a perfect way to do that. “Personal growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose” is something most students get from a gap year that they would not otherwise receive.

Many of these types of programs have aims of helping students in any financial situation still be able to take advantage of them. The program at Princeton uses need-based financial aid and nearly 100 students have participated thus far. UNC offers their students $7,500 for a gap year and Tufts’ program will cover housing, airfare, and visa fees which can add up to $30,000 or more.

These incentives seem to be working at least somewhat because in 2013, 40,000 American students took a gap year, which is a 20% increase compared to past years. But there is still a long way to go. Businesses catering to gap year programs have been booming because of this increased interest. One specifically, called Where There Be Dragons, has had its revenue doubled in the last year to almost $1 million.

Can outside organizations along with universities help students gain this international experience? Stay tuned for my last post in this series about one organization that is trying to do just that!

Nomadic Schools in Yakutia (Russia)

Being simultaneously an Asian, Sakha (Yakut), and a citizen of Russia, I face unhidden interest about my homeland and my origin. Influenced by centuries-long stereotypes about Russia, many people do not know how diverse Russia is. It’s almost my daily, unpaid duty to reveal the diversity of Russia to others. When my international friends talk about my country, they use terms “Russia”, “Russians”, “Russian language”, “Russian culture”, imagining one notion instead of many. For instance, not many people use the country’s official name – the Russian Federation. However, only Federation embraces multinational, multicultural, and multilingual Russia. The Russian Constitution starts with: “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation, united by a common fate on our land, establishing human rights and freedoms, civic peace and accord, preserving the historically established state unity…” However, this diversity often remain invisible.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is a unique and special in every way. First of all, Yakutia is the largest federal subject of Russia by its territory and covers three time zones (1/5 of Russian territory, the Sakha Republic territory equal to five times of France territory). Yakutia is a home to several indigenous ethnic groups of Siberian north with their traditional lifestyle, culture, and education.



According to 2010 Census results, 403 nomadic families with 782 children live in the Sakha Republic. Reindeer husbandry is the main occupancy of nomadic families. In addition to traditional family education, there are 13 nomadic schools covering 180 children.

In extreme conditions of the Russian north, nomadic schools are designed to follow reindeer migration routes and provide access to education for children of native Siberians. For reindeer winter routes nomadic schools have buildings, for summer routes they use tents. These schools are supplied with compact computer, chemistry, physics, and biology labs. The curriculum includes classes of native language, Russian, national history, national culture, traditional ways of hunting, fishing, reindeer husbandry, environment protection, etc. Learning of the native language is one of the important goals since all languages of northern peoples are included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. UNESCO and local government play key roles in nomadic schools development.



A teacher of the nomadic school is required to speak a native language, to be able to teach several subjects for children of various ages, to know traditional nomadic way of life, and be ready to face severe life of the Arctic. In 2006, the Yakutia Teacher Training Institute has introduced a special two-year program (with an option of distant education) to train teachers of natural sciences and mathematics.

Some northern children of Russia attend boarding schools in towns away from their families and traditional way of life. Children have access to the radio, television, and, in some places, to Internet. Not all of these children would like to return and continue traditions. Some of them dream to live in town, to get a university degree, to travel, etc.

Today, an International Arctic School project is being developed by a group of experts from Yakutia and it is undergoing a process of discussion. The international arctic school is expected to provide a university level degree with international standards to students of arctic regions. It is proposed to build an environment-friendly school in close proximity to the native populations.

Notwithstanding many positive outcomes, Russia’s indigenous people continue to face serious issues, including transport, healthcare, etc. I believe that all native indigenous people of the north should be granted a special status; laws and programs shaping this status should be designed together with representatives of Evenk, Even, Chukchi, Dolgan, Yukagir and others to ensure their survival and development in the future.



Gap Year Series, Part 1: Why?

In my last post I talked about Study Abroad and how crucial it is for students to gain international experience in the world we live in today. In this and the following posts in this series, I will talk about another kind of international experience for students—Gap Years. This post will focus on Gap Years in general and why they’re beneficial to American students. The next posts will focus on what universities are doing to encourage more students to take advantage of these opportunities and a specific example of an organization devoted to this cause.

I always found the idea of a gap year fascinating, probably because I have always loved to travel. When I heard of my cousins in England taking a year off before University, I was intrigued and also a bit jealous that they got to go off on worldly adventures for a year while I was applying for four (or more) years of sitting in classrooms directly out of high school. Gap years are not common in the US like they are in many countries abroad, although I wish they were. They are typically seen as something only the very rich can afford or an alternative option for an off-track student who is not ready to attend college yet. It’s pretty standard in the US to fast track kids straight to college and not let them take a breath until after that’s taken care of. In doing so, students shut themselves off from the world and only focus on their studies in order to get into a good college.

Gap years allow students to see the world outside of the classroom where they will have to live after they graduate from college. Not only do students “return to school more focused, self-reliant, aware and confident, but they also become part of the global movement to improve the world through their volunteering throughout the gap year.” After college, students rush to get jobs so travelling and learning about the world is not seen as important. Taking advantage of these programs between high school and college is really the best idea for most students. It would benefit them personally and also the greater population, by producing more worldly educated young adults.

Many see the year abroad as a release from the pressures of getting into a good college. Some high schools now hold gap year fairs to inform students about this option, and the number of companies that place students in gap year programs is increasing as well. Some of the growing interest in gap years might be because of the rising cost of higher education. Parents are less willing to pay for their kids to go to school and not know their purpose in life. Around 50% of students who begin four-year colleges don’t graduate within five years, and only 54% will graduate in six years. It’s important for kids and parents alike to make sure that where they go to school is the right place for them and they want to learn.

Since the pressure to get into college is so great, some students need to take a breath when they finally do get accepted. One recent graduate put it well when he said he needed time to “create a person rather than a college student” where he would get to recover from schoolwork and find himself. This also reflects the changing attitude about going away to college as a rite of passage. Some see college as merely a continuation of their very difficult high school experience. The gap between high school and college has shrunk in comparison with previous generations.

I’m of the strong opinion that gap years would be extremely beneficial to both students personally as a way for them to grow and learn about themselves and the world, as well as for American society as whole. These students will come back from their year abroad with a better understanding of the world around them and how they can be a productive part of it. As with Study Abroad, this kind of international experience is vital in today’s globalized world and if it were to become more commonplace in the US I think it could only have positive consequences.

Stay tuned for my next post about what colleges and universities are doing in order to encourage their students to take advantage of gap year opportunities and reverse the negative stigma associated with them!