Sitting on the edge of the bed of a pickup truck with a driver “maniacally navigating” the chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Associate Professor Jude Fernando is relaxed and smiling, with his hair and long beard blowing in the wind. He’s explaining what connections the five Clark University graduate students accompanying him should be making en route from one fieldwork location to the next.
“He was talking about economic development, the disparity between social classes, political instability … relating it to what we saw that day and also what we need to pay attention to wherever we were headed next,” relates Christopher Owens, M.A. ’17, who described the journey from earlier this year. “He was teaching amidst the chaos.”
It’s that kind of teaching — and emphasis on learning from others — in difficult situations where Fernando and his students excel.
Fernando’s research in the International Development, Community and Environment department focuses on post-disaster response and humanitarian assistance in relation to livelihoods and governance. In addition to studying the after effects in Haiti of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010 and Hurricane Sandy’s impact in October 2012, he has traveled with students to Nepal, which suffered a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April 2015. This summer, he’s working with two students in Sri Lanka, his native country, to study the effects of gender inequality in tea production.
It’s his goal for every student to learn about themselves in addition to what they’re researching while doing fieldwork: To learn if they don’t like being in the field, if they like it enough to pursue it — or if they love it enough to make it their life’s work.
This story is part of our 7 Continents, 1 Summer series, which highlights the interesting work that Clark students, faculty, alumni and staff are doing all over the world. Have a great story of your own to share? Let us know and we’ll be in touch.
Fieldwork — which includes collecting data and interviewing individuals, among other tasks — often forces students to adapt to unfamiliar and changing situations and collaborate with people from a variety of disciplines.
For example, Fernando has for years taken both undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in International Development and Social Change, Community Development and Planning and Geographic Information Sciences for Development and Environment to Haiti. While there, the groups work with Clark alumni — whom Fernando credits for helping the field school work — employed by programs funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other nonprofits.
“The students think it’s an opportunity, opening possibilities for acquiring knowledge and making connections between what they study and what they want to do in the future,” Fernando says. “The common thread is to give them the experience of combining theory and practice.”
There are meetings to prepare the students for what they’ll encounter prior to traveling, but not everything can be planned. Fernando said upon arriving in Haitian refugee displacement camps, for example, some students started questioning their own education while others felt guilty and upset at what they saw. One camp to which Fernando took his students had an estimated 100,000 people living there.
“They’ll say ‘we shouldn’t be here’ or ‘this isn’t what we planned,'” he says. “I tell them it’s a learning experience.”
Despite the difficult conditions, Fernando says, most students adjust and no one has left before a scheduled departure date. Once they get comfortable, the students take care of one another and, each night, the group reflects on its work and engages in interesting discussions.
The students “see there are two narratives — frustration, but also happiness and pride in the country,” he says.
Owens, who’s pursuing a degree in International Development and Social Change, said he couldn’t “overstate how important” the nightly group meetings were.
“It was subtle some days and very overt on other days, but this time allowed us to process our thoughts and emotions with him,” he said. “He guided us through our individual mental processes so we could create our own meaning of what we witnessed. He is exceptionally patient and always providing his insight.”
Out of the dozens of students from a variety of disciplines he has brought to difficult areas, many have decided to pursue careers that will change the lives of countless others.
“Some of the most scared are the ones who want to go back again,” he says. “One scared student is now applying for the Peace Corps.”
Another student, Lelani Williams, M.B.A./M.A. (CDP) ’16, created her own company, Sun Top Solar Cookers, after doing field work in Haiti in May 2015 and seeing the enthusiastic response from residents when Fernando used one to cook a meal. After additional business development, she plans to take her company back to Haiti to help “empower Haitians to build a better country,” she said.
Biology major Maya Hodgson-Dottin ’17, is traveling with Fernando to Sri Lanka this summer to study the socioeconomic impact of tea production. She’ll return to Clark with a LEEP project and further spread her knowledge and first-hand experience to the community.
Owens, who already completed a career in the Coast Guard, came to Clark “to connect previous humanitarian and overseas experiences with academic perspectives and research.” He said the Haiti trip provided experience he can build on in the future.
Fernando’s students aren’t the only ones learning on these trips. Like any good teacher, he learns alongside them.
“It’s a good learning experience for me,” Fernando explains. “It makes me aware of the gap between what we teach and the skills demanded by the job market.”
But it means more to his students.
“He’s always teaching,” Owens says. “He’s great in the classroom and he’s brilliant at it in the field.”
Here’s a glimpse of Fernando and his students’ life-changing fieldwork from the most recent trips to Haiti (an 11-day trip in March 2016 and a 12-day trip in May 2015).