Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A bit of introspection about my study abroad trips

Since I'm on sabbatical, I am taking time to concentrate on things I can do to improve myself as a professor.  Since 2010, I have been unable to recruit enough students to make one of my study abroad trips work.  Several factors have contributed to this:

1. The poor economy.  The price is out of reach for many of my students.  However, someone who really wants to study abroad can find the scholarships, grants, and loans to make it happen.  I dislike loans, but sometimes they exist for things such as this.  Not everyone can afford even basic luxuries.  Many of our students come from poverty and threadbare existences.  Rather than trying to find wealthier students, I need to figure out ways to help students learn about financial aid opportunities available to them.
2. A large portion of Coker students are athletes.  They are often unwilling to consider anything that takes them away from their team, practices, or training regimen. The coaches turn over so often that I don't even really bother to learn their names anymore because they'll just be gone in a couple of years.  Working closely with them on recruiting bears no fruit.  If I couldn't even get the soccer coach to recruit a single player for a trip to Costa Rica that focused on the business side of soccer, I don't see how other efforts will be worthwhile.
3. A misinformed colleague told students that I didn't allow anyone to drink on my study abroad trips (not true).  SGA doesn't allow drinking on SGA-sponsored trips.  When I travel with the Coker College Culture Club (CCCC), all of our events are SGA-sponsored, so we have to keep their rules.  Study abroad trips are not SGA's balliwick, and as long as students' drinking doesn't affect their behavior or our schedule, I don't care at all if they drink.  I have gone to bars with colleagues and students on trips.  I don't drink, but I'm not a teetotaler who worries about what others imbibe.  This one still hurts me.  It was untrue and I only learned of it after someone asked me if it were true.
4. The Susan Coker Watson scholarship only works for travel to Europe.  The students most likely to study abroad are pulled that way by the allure of more available funds.  Coker needs more scholarships for study abroad anywhere in the world.  But, there are millions of things that Coker needs.  This is no one's priority beyond my own and maybe a few kindred spirits.  And, I agree that other things should have a higher priority than this.  
5.  I have only offered trips to Costa Rica and Panama.  Many students have the wrong impression of Latin America.  Their parents think it is as it was in their youth.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
6.  The postmodern symptom of late capitalism that sees parents ask their children how or why knowledge of what life is like in another country will benefit them/help them get a job/will look good on a résumé.  Knowing something just to know it is no longer accepted by parents.  Knowledge must have utility; it must do something or else it is pointless and might as well not exist at all (especially if it can't be googled or discussed in a job interview).
7.  The Center for Engaged Learning is focused largely on internships.  The promotion of my trips largely falls to me.  Outdated communication methods like pamphlets have no pull with today's students.  They are understaffed.  The dual missions of the office should be cleaved in two.  Study abroad is a minor part of what they do.  A faculty member with time release and secretarial support could easily handle the current workload.    
8.  Coker's public faculty webpages that we were allowed to edit are no longer available to us since the very-expensive-to-replace server crashed and was not able to be revived or swapped out.  When I had a public webpage, I was able to successfully recruit enough students to Mexico once and Costa Rica twice.  Since its demise, I cannot advertise it effectively.  Students don't read the emails I send.  They want to click on something.  I was able to tell a narrative and frame the idea in their heads.  It was detailed and showed the costs and why it cost what it did.  I think this is a major factor in my inability to recruit people.
9.  Perhaps it's me.  Introspection should be part of any thorough review.  Maybe I'm too eager, too insistent on the subject.  Maybe it's my personality.  Maybe it's the thought of someone depending on me and not finding me reliable enough to trust to take them abroad (often for the first time ever in the history of their family).  I don't really know how to find out this information, but I have to consider it.

So, what can I do to make things better?  I can focus on the nine things above.  I'd like a trip focused on business.  I could bring students here to Zarcero, have them work four days at the lechería, milking cows and making cheese, going to town with Don Édgar to sell his cheese to vendors.  I could take them to Finca Santa Lucía to learn about the coffee export business.

The owners of the highly successful Panadería Zarcereña could teach us about product development, reach, marketing, and supply chain issues.  We'd include a visit to Arenal, zip lining, hot springs, and the rain forest too.  But, I think the educational part is more important than the beaches.  But, if it's the beaches, if it's the beaches that they want then they shall have them.......only after they've dirtied their uncalloused hands.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Mistakes in My Planning

When I visualized our time in Costa Rica, I imagined us living here in Zarcero using public transportation like buses and taxis to go off on adventures.  My plan had some flaws.  Here are some reflections on planning a trip like this in the future.

1.  When five people travel on increasingly expensive buses, the cost approaches parity with traveling via taxi.  The hassle of bus travel means that taking a taxi is very tempting and always wins. 

2.  Taxis in Costa Rica used to be very affordable.  Now, they are ridiculously expensive and a simple trip that used to run $20 now costs $100.  No foolin'  This puts a serious damper on our plans to go places each weekend.  Just getting ourselves somewhere that's not close by will run $200.  

3.  Costa Rica has gone and gotten itself extremely expensive.  It costs more to live here now than it does in the USA.  Food is ridiculously expensive, even if you want to eat the local diet.  Rice is twice as expensive as back home.  Coke is 3-4 times the price.  Eggs, beans, milk, butter, sugar, flour, vegetables, fruit, and snacks all cost about 1.5x the price back home.  For five people here, cooking meals at home, we're spending $35-$45 per day.  I had budgeted $700 per month for food.  Someone is getting rich, very rich, here.  Wal-Mart owns over half of the grocery stores in the country (Wal-Mart, Mas x Menos, Palí, Hiper Más, and Maxi Palí).  I'm guessing that colones are flowing en masse to Bentonville, Arkansas. Thankfully, the dollar has risen 10% against the colón in the last month, which helps us some, but I feel bad for my tico brethren.  I maintain that they should switch to the dollar once and for all and be done with trying to let their central bank sell dollars in the marketplace in order to keep the exchange near 500 to 1.    

4.   Hotels here are exorbitant now.  I'm not talking chain hotels, I'm talking tico places.  You'll pull up to a completely empty hotel with 20 rooms and they'll tell you, straight-faced, that they want $150 per room per night.  Why are your rooms empty you wonder?  If I'm going to spend that kind of money, I'm going to a swanky place for $225 a night.  The days of $35-$50 hotel rooms are gone.  But, it doesn't make any sense.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is saying that gringos don't come here like before, and tourism is suffering greatly due to the drought of visitors. There is a massive excess in capacity without ANY decrease in price.  Call it greed, call it stupidity, call it a colossal national lack of business savvy, but I don't get it.  The fast-dime-is-better-than-a-slow-dollar mentality does not exist here. It's a shame.  If they slashed the prices of hotels in half, everywhere, more foreigners would come here.  I know how much they pay people an hour to work in and clean hotels.  They'd be making a fortune with 20 rooms full @ $45 a night vs 1 room @ $150.  Hotels that I've stayed at before for less than $50 a night now want over $125 per night for the same room...no remodeling.  Locura es.  

5.  Not having a car was a major mistake.  For the reasons mentioned above, but also for the sheer feeling of freedom that a car gives.  Our options for travel are severely hindered by our reliance on others for our transportation.  It costs us $50 a week to go to church.  I'm considering renting a car for the month of April to see if it makes things better, but I'm not sure if we can afford it.  :(

6.  Lamps.  Most buildings here are lit by overhead bulbs in the ceiling.  Lamps are a rarity, and what ones there are (that cost about $15 at Ikea or Wal-Mart back home) run about $100 here.  Indirect light is easier on the eyes and floods a room better than the options we have here.  

7.  Our kids.  The house we're in has no yard where the kids can play.  We get no break from them except when they're in school, which is different every single day and there's always one of them home at some time early one day for one reason or another.  We needed a yard.