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Get Those Public Affairs Students Out of Class

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
April 7, 2023

If you want to offer quality education to public affairs students, you have to take them out from confines of the classroom as often as you can. We learn a lot in class, and we engage in active and interactive learning; however, there is nothing like physically moving out of the classroom to enhance and enrich the learning process. The benefits are compounded when you make not only local visits, but also international study tours. This article clearly advocates for organizing more international study tours for public affairs students.

One way to advocate for more international study tours is to showcase some of the unique insights and lessons learned through personally being involved over the years in organizing international study tours for public affairs students, along with a recap of some of the exciting insights captured. First, the study tours I am referring to usually involved traveling to another country, with a select group of around twenty students, for an average of 8-10 days, during which an intensive lineup of visits to government agencies, academic institutions, civil society organizations, research centers and think tanks was scheduled. Over the years, I led ten different such study tours from Egypt. We visited the United States a couple of times, plus France, South Africa, Singapore, China, Lebanon, Qatar, Morocco and Turkey. Each time the study tour provided a great learning experience for the participants.

To maximize the benefits from the study tours, we carried out a lot of preparatory work. We start by making sure that the participants were keen on benefiting and learning from the experience by asking them to draft motivational letters elaborating on how they envisioned they would benefit from the study tour. Some emphasized how the visit would help them with their thesis writing if they were doing comparative studies, such as delving into the experience of the AK political party in Turkey for a thesis about governance of political parties, checking the management of burn treatment hospitals in China, reflecting on the experience of South Africa following the end of the Apartheid era and the Truth and Reconciliation efforts or figuring out the role of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Next, after we were done recruiting participants, a lot of effort went into developing the visit schedule, capitalizing on our network of contacts and acquaintances and links to embassies in Egypt that could help with the scheduling. A third crucial preparatory step was organizing an Orientation Session to all participants to give them some overall guidance regarding the ‘values’ to be adhered to throughout the trip. The list of values always covered flexibility, compromise, punctuality and collegiality. Topping the list, the value that was emphasized more than anything else was always ‘resilience’. We informed participants that when traveling as a group, there will always be challenges and that the most important thing is to be able to overcome these challenges and bounce back with more power. In all our study tours over the years, hurdles always required us to remember the ‘resilience’ value. From a bus that broke down for three hours on a desert road in Morocco, to a participant who got lost in the Water City in Shanghai, China, to graduate students finding it difficult to climb onto bunk beds in the dorms in Singapore; the list goes on. All those hurdles metamorphosed later into fond memories.

There is no space to collate all the lessons and insights graduate students came back with from these diverse study tours. What is listed are some captured eye-openers worthy of further contemplation:

  • No wrong door policy in Singapore: where citizens can get information about requested public services, if they approach any public organization, even if it is not the concerned organization;
  • Role of the Government Accountability Office in the United States in not only checking the financial performance of government organizations, but also in giving feedback on how to enhance performance;
  • Open prisons in Turkey where criminals are trained on culinary skills and serve the highest quality five-course meals, including the best hot Turkish dessert, ‘konafa’;
  • High level power difference between students and professors in China and how the Peking University Arabic Literature department speaks proper classical Arabic better than any native speaker;
  • Moroccan government’s proactive measures implemented in the wake of the Arab Spring that helped them avoid any potential citizens’ dissidence;
  • The Crisis management unit at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs with colored global maps depicting levels of perceived safety;
  • The South African Constitutional Court with transparent glass windows to enable maximum transparency.

These were but a few insights that you cannot easily get inside the classroom, and if you do, you will most likely forget, but if you see them for yourself, the memory and the knowledge stays. More importantly, they make for excellent conversation starters and research options.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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