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Connecting Au Sable with International Development and Missions Departments

Jan 06, 2012

Last February, our interim director Martin Price urged me to participate in Calvin College’s Faith and International Development Conference.  As an International Development Studies minor at Calvin myself, and with a graduate degree in International Environmental Policy in tow, it wasn’t a hard sell.  I went with the hope of connecting with students passionate about hunger and sustainable development issues and potentially interested in our ‘Tropical Agriculture and Missions’ course.  However, during my time at the conference, it became apparent that Au Sable could fill a wider niche in the international development and higher education spheres by equipping students interested in serving developing countries with skills and techniques that alleviate poverty and prevent environmental degradation.

Understanding ecosystems, and the people that rely on them, may be the most crucial knowledge international studies students acquire in college.  Rural communities in developing countries draw almost all their resources for daily life from within a few kilometers of their home.  They grow their own food, collect firewood and fodder from the nearby forest, graze livestock in local fields, collect water from the local stream, and construct houses from timber and earth.  In sum, they are natural resource-dependent in the strictest sense.  To serve these communities and provide for their basic needs is to know how to sustainably make use of the natural resources around them.  And to be truly faithful to God’s mandate for us as Christians is to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan while also being a steward of God’s creation.

These environmental issues also extend to urban areas.  Air pollution, tainted water supplies, heat island effects, and rapid desertification all plague urban communities.  A sizeable piece of solving these problems is understanding urban watersheds, air quality, and land use planning.  

But ecology is only one piece of the puzzle.  To steward well, one must understand the people that make up these places.  If humans truly impact the Earth like our scientific analyses suggest, then students need to understand sociology, psychology, economics -- in sum, the human-ities.

Perusing international programs at Christian colleges one quickly grasps that they understand the human side of the equation well.  Programs are often housed within the Economics, Sociology, or Religious Studies Departments.  In turn, most of these programs reflect the strengths and focus of the department they’re housed within.  But an international program is inherently interdisciplinary.  Despite the diverse array of titles -- Intercultural Studies, International Studies, International Development Studies, Global Studies, Missions, just to name a few – you can approach each of these topics from any disciplinary angle.  This is where Au Sable can play a role for these schools.

This year, when I visit colleges to meet with students and faculty about Au Sable courses, I make an added stop at the international programs department to talk with their faculty chair.  These visits build relationships and encourage them to tell their students about seven Au Sable courses that would broaden and deepen their knowledge and training in international development.  These courses are Tropical Agriculture and Missions, International Development and Environmental Sustainability, Watershed Stewardship, Environmental Health, Ecological Agriculture, Land Resources, and Ecology of the Indian Tropics.  Each course develops skill sets that students in international programs often are unable to receive at their home colleges.

Attending the Faith and International Development Conference again this year confirmed this need.  Our two breakout sessions (on urban gardening and community forestry) filled up the room; professors talked about how important our courses were for their students; and students eagerly explored course options.  The opportunity to make an impact on the education of future development practitioners is there.

Au Sable is not new to this work.  It has been a leader in Missionary Earthkeeping since we held our ‘Missionary Earthkeeping’ conference in 1985.  We pioneered a course on 'Tropical Agriculture and Missions' to focus on skill-building for agricultural development.  We have a course devoted entirely to environmentally sustainable development.  Our Watershed Stewardship professor leads Global Water Watch.  It is my hope that Au Sable can offer courses that make international program curricula the truly interdisciplinary academic experience it can, and should, be.