This article was originally written and published by Winrock International.
Dr. Usha Palaniswamy, an adjunct professor at Strayer University, has volunteered seven times with Winrock, in four different countries. Winrock staff talked with Usha about her volunteer experiences and the role that American university staff can play in strengthening food security, both in the U.S. and abroad.
What has drawn you to volunteer each time?
I want to help provide a similar experience to others who don’t have the same opportunities that I did in the U.S. I have a lot of training and passion for the work that I do, and a desire to reach out to countries that need help, to work with students, staff, community leaders. So I try to find time within my tight academic schedule. Volunteering gives me an opportunity to interact with different cultures. This is an element of excitement, and that is of value to me as a person. I get a lot of ideas from other countries and other people.
How have your volunteer experiences impacted your work at the University?
I try to integrate my international experiences into my teaching in the classroom. If you take a cross section of any class in the U.S., you will find there is a lot of diversity; students are from a lot of different countries. By talking about my experiences as an international volunteer, I make a good connection with students from different countries.
The volunteer experiences also often make good case studies for the students. They get to think about what they would do in these different environments/ scenarios. This is great, because it’s multidisciplinary. There are many different aspects to consider, many different cultural issues around a problem. We talk about all of this. Often I can also connect my international experiences with the research that the students are doing. Volunteering has played a very good role in my own career. It has helped me in many ways, for my personal growth and career development.
How is volunteering abroad beneficial for university staff?
Participating in international volunteering improves the quality of the faculty. It’s a high level activity. Students come to us to talk about these experiences. This brings great excitement to students in class. Professional societies and institutions are also encouraging members to be internationally known, to have international experience. These experiences are shared in professional working groups. I would strongly encourage anyone with specific skills to go out there, experience it, learn from it, give back, and be happy.
How have your university employers supported your efforts as an international volunteer?
Administrative support [at the university] is important. This type of activity must be given priority and made an expectation for faculty. Time is a major thing in the U.S. But Winrock offers the best proportion of time that we can be away from the campus and away from our work. We still need to teach, and we still need to do whatever is required in our job descriptions. But we do have the flexibility outside of this to do other things. The universities I’ve worked with have let me take the time to volunteer. They realize that this is a great opportunity for faculty. My courses get better, which attracts better students and leads to better student satisfaction, and then we get recognized for that.
How can volunteers from American universities play a role in promoting cross-continent learning, especially in agriculture?
Programs are constantly being revised to increase awareness of American students and to include newer international content, so that our students can understand the world outside. The U.S. has a great approach to education, but other countries also have things to offer. The learning is both ways. Agriculture is often neglected. But it can be exciting. Inviting faculty to teach abroad, or initiating exchange programs for agriculture, can help. I got a grant award to internationalize my curriculum. This promotes culture and enables the students to learn more about agriculture. Volunteering helped me get this award.
Other feedback to share with prospective volunteers?
Winrock staff are very responsive, timely, and professional. They give us whatever we need. I’ve received excellent support from Winrock staff in the field and U.S.