July 20, 2018
Do you consider yourself a citizen exclusively of the place you were born, or a citizen of the world? Do your civic responsibilities and rights stop outside of your city limits, or do they have a global reach? These are some of the important questions that Alex Latta’s students are faced with in the classroom and thousands of miles from campus.
Since 2006, Latta has shown a steadfast commitment to building community as an associate professor in Global Studies and Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus. As the current chair of the Department of Global Studies, Latta believes he has an increased responsibility to move the university forward in the growing area of international learning experiences.
“We have heard from current students and alumni that they would like to see more professional development and international education embedded into the curriculum to help connect courses to career pathways,” says Latta. “There are many ways we can do this.”
“There is still an important role for more traditional forms of university teaching, but different kinds of learning opportunities opened up when I let go of the full-class lecture in this course.”
Latta looks at these changes and improvements holistically by considering the direction of the department alongside the student experience.
His influence can be seen in the development of the social entrepreneurship option in Global Studies. He also led Global Studies in the co-development of the International Education Studies program – a unique program to be offered through Laurier’s Faculty of Education and Faculty of Arts, pending approval from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
The first of its kind in Canada, this collaborative program will allow students to pursue education-related careers in international settings. The program will combine education and Global Studies courses to build global awareness and cultivate intercultural competencies and teaching approaches.
In the classroom, Latta facilitates experiences that are equal parts collaborative and performative.
“Having students write and express themselves through performance and role-playing helps them to see and understand the skills they are building in a non-academic light,” says Latta.
Latta dispensed with traditional lectures for his Nature, Culture, and Development course to allow for this type of active learning during the dedicated course time. Latta supports student engagement with course texts by recording short YouTube reading orientations. In the classroom, he cultivates collaborative learning that builds toward debates and case simulations.
“In the simulations, students are split into teams and each team personifies a different actor in a current global issue,” says Latta. “The engagement and commitment from students is great as they critically debate other ‘actors.’”
Most recently, students in this class were assigned key stakeholder groups in the Trans Mountain Pipeline debate, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Indigenous organizations, government agencies, and the project proponent. The students worked in their teams to research the positions of their group, find compelling rationale, and prepare for an active debate.
“There is still an important role for more traditional forms of university teaching,” says Latta. “But different kinds of learning opportunities opened up when I let go of the full-class lecture in this course.”
“We’ve always insisted that global studies is not just about studying the world ‘out there’ but also the lived experiences of our local communities.”
Latta’s intentional community-building is shared by his colleagues, and also extends outside classrooms and into local and global learning environments.
The Global Studies Experience (GSE), available to eligible students studying in any department in Arts, provides a well-rounded educational experience connecting local service-learning to experiential learning abroad.
“We’ve always insisted that global studies is not just about studying the world ‘out there’ but also the lived experiences of our local communities,” says Latta.
Students taking the GSE complete a pre-course in the winter semester before heading out to their international placements, and then a post-course in the fall that includes a placement with local non-profits. Connecting the international and local service learning helps students to reflect on their privilege, their preconceived notions of other cultures, and the ethical dilemmas they face as global citizens.
Looking to build on this successful model, global studies is in the process of a major update. The new approach will build more concrete reflection into the learning process through supervised academic work during the time students are abroad.
This summer in Ghana, two GSE students are testing the redesigned model with Latta as their supervisor.
“It’s about creating layers of learning and reflection in the experiential learning cycle,” says Latta.
Latta, the 2018 Donald F. Morgenson Award for Teaching Excellence recipient in the Hoffman-Little category, has also provided meaningful and culturally sensitive experiences for his students through a study-abroad course in Chile.
“While abroad in Chile, I formed lifelong connections to the country and to all of the people that we encountered,” says Noreen Khimji (BA ’17). “It was undoubtedly the most memorable and practical experience of my university career.”
The Chile field course began to take shape in 2011, when Latta led the development of a student exchange relationship with the University of Concepción. In addition to facilitating a field course for Laurier students, it also provides an exchange opportunity for students from the Chilean university.
Latta and his family host the Chilean students, who are funded by Global Affairs through the Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program, helping them find housing and get settled into the community. They complete a full semester at Laurier, with Latta acting as faculty sponsor and mentor. When the field course travels to Chile, the same students help deepen opportunities for cross-cultural learning and friendships.
“While abroad in Chile, I formed lifelong connections to the country and to all of the people that we encountered. It was undoubtedly the most memorable and practical experience of my university career.”
While in Chile, Laurier students also visit rural and Indigenous communities, including a home stay with Mapuche families in the Elicura Valley.
Students in Latta’s Chile field course are provided with risk management training and required academic reading and research about the region prior to departure. The course is framed around environmental justice issues, highlighting the historical and current injustices facing small farmers and Indigenous communities.
With support from the University of Concepción and NGOs promoting community development and human rights, students hear directly from the farmers who are facing rapid changes in food systems due to globalization.
“These welcoming communities are so open to sharing their fears, challenges and triumphs related to creating a sustainable life,” says Latta.
Latta notes that these first-hand experiences abroad give students a new perspective on their academic studies and produce a desire to learn more about these issues in a local context.
“One of the biggest outcomes I’ve seen is students returning to campus and realizing they have not engaged with Canada’s own Indigenous history,” says Latta.
“A common paradox among students involves our desire to study in a discipline that will allow us to make a difference in the world, coupled with the fear that this goal may never be achieved,” says Khimji. “Fortunately, Dr. Latta serves as a clear demonstration of the positive difference that one can make to individual lives across the globe and at home through experiences provided right here at Laurier.”
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