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ULSF | Association of University Leaders For A Sustainable Future

Volume 3, Number 1 : March 1999

Partnerships: An International Exchange for the Environment

by Wynn Calder

Northern Arizona University's School of Communication initiated an exchange program which in 1998 became known as International Students Together for Environmental Protection (ISTEP). Conceived on the assumption that all countries need to work together for a sustainable future, ISTEP engages international students in designing environmental communication campaigns for client organizations. The campaigns are intended to increase public awareness and promote individual, community and corporate solutions to global problems.

The first ISTEP project involved an exchange between faculty and students of Hanzehogeschool, Hogeschool van Groningen in Groningen, The Netherlands, and the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in the spring of 1998. The project took place at Hanzehogeschool and included students from The Netherlands, England, Spain, France, Finland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. Global warming was chosen as the first public awareness/action campaign topic and Greenpeace agreed to be the client organization.

Conception

The first inquiry about exchange possibilities came from Iekje Smit, a member of the Faculty of Economics at Hanzehogeschool, who contacted the School of Communication in early 1997. Paul Helford, director of the Office for Teaching and Learning Effectiveness at NAU, visited Hanzehogeschool in June to give a presentation and further explore the issue. Professor Smit then came to NAU to teach for a year in the fall of 1997.

Dr. Smit's visit prompted a return exchange by several School of Communication faculty. Kyle Majors, a service professional at the School of Communication with expertise in technology and telecommunications, went to Hanzehogeschool for the fall semester in '97, and three professors traveled to Groningen, each for three weeks, during spring semester 1998. These included: Lea Parker, specializing in environmental communication; Richard Parker, specializing in communication theory and research; and Richard Lei, specializing in advertising.

Lea Parker and Smit chose global warming as the theme for student campaigns. This topic, including its constituent issues, was especially timely following the Kyoto conference, and is equally relevant to students from different countries. In addition, thought Parker and Smit, The Netherlands was an ideal location to study the effects of a rise in sea level due to warming.

With their international office located in Amsterdam, Greenpeace seemed to be a suitable client for the global warming campaigns. Martina Krueger, public relations director for Greenpeace, readily agreed to partner with NAU and Hanzehogeschool. She also consented to allow students access to the organization's film and photo archives and provided briefings and other information as needed. In return, it was understood that Greenpeace could use any of the final projects and other materials produced by the students. Early in the semester Krueger gave an in-depth presentation to students at Hanzehogeschool that included an overview of the global warming problem and explained how Greenpeace communicates the issue to the public.

Given the complexity of global warming, Parker and her colleagues asked students initially to assess environmental problems in their home communities and then share their findings with their fellow students from other countries. Most of these environmental problems related to the issue of global warming in some way - problems such as pollution from industry or auto exhaust, energy consumption etc. Students were then asked to examine contributing factors to global warming and relate them to individual, community and corporate behavior for the purposes of targeting audiences for campaign messages. Prior to the final project for Greenpeace, students studied communication techniques, research techniques, audience analysis and many other necessary components of successful communication campaigns.

Outcomes

For their final projects students worked in groups, each of which produced a brochure, poster and video. Each communication tool focused on particular aspects of global warming and aimed at specific target audiences. Parker says she was "very impressed with how well students from different countries worked together."

A campaign entitled "Turn Down the Heat" was produced by one student group at Hanzehogeschool. The target audience comprised students at polytechnic schools in The Netherlands. The goal of the campaign was to increase student awareness about global warming so that they would take more responsibility for the problem and engage in environmentally friendly behavior. Specific goals included: increase awareness of energy saving light bulbs and get students to begin using them; instill behavior of closing windows and turning off electrical devices when leaving a room; and have the students become communicators themselves by hosting awareness events. A logo was created for the campaign, to be used in posters and other campaign materials, and an information packet was designed for the target student group.

Feedback from students who took part in the ISTEP program was uniformly positive. One German student, Katja Hauser, from the University of Applied Studies and Research at Furtwangen, offers the following: "The most exciting experience I had was working with other nationalities, other cultures, other points of view," or, as another student put it, "different values and different prejudices." Hauser continues, "I had to change my attitudes concerning studying completely…. I liked the way the professors and students worked together. Also, I've never had a study group before but I appreciated it a lot." Furthermore, "we were asked to think about everything in detail, not just listen to what the professors told us…. Now I understand better what [global warming] is about and how it developed." Hauser, like many others, finished the program with a strong sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, she feels that for most students the communication campaign was "a project for their studies that had to be done, but now it's over and forgotten."

NAU professor Richard Lei found the international experience at Hanzehogeschool to be particularly rewarding. "I found the faculty contacts to be very responsive, the students were interested in an American perspective and I learned a great deal about the limitations of my own 'Americentric' opinions," he says. "Even though we talk about a global economy and the global nature of marketing and advertising, we tend to see issues and opportunities through our own narrow perspective. The students came from a variety of countries and their diversity added a great deal to the process. When we stripped away national origins and perspectives and began looking at commonalties we learned that many core issues transcend national origin and broad-based solutions could be achieved."

Parker notes that students consistently produced high quality material; "Students can now use these skills to create communication materials as they enter into their various careers and become part of the global community…. These students, who will be future leaders in the sustainability effort, have also become close friends through their group efforts, and will most likely keep in contact via email after they return to their respective countries."

Obstacles

Paul Helford, Lea Parker and their colleagues encountered several challenges in administering the NAU/Hanzehogeschool exchange. For example, faculty from the two schools had somewhat different approaches to teaching and assigning work. At NAU, classes meet regularly and are structured for presentation by faculty and discussion groups among students, and students typically have individual assignments. At Hanzehogeschool, the procedure is more student-driven, with students assigned to work groups that meet regularly. Although there is a class meeting time, students at Hanzehogeschool often work on their own with the professor acting as a mentor. These differences were primarily resolved through video teleconferences which made communication easier and allowed faculty from both schools to get to know one another prior to the visit to Hanzehogeschool.

Another obstacle involved conflicting semester schedules. While NAU operates on a semester running from January through the first half of May, Hanzehogeschool's semester runs from mid-February through early July. "We did our best to compromise and make it work," notes Dr. Lei, "but in the future, with additional planning, we can make it better." Smit thinks the program would be improved if the faculty exchange, like the student exchange, lasted a full semester. This would have "a real impact on the curriculum and maximize what the individual faculty member can gain from the exchange." A final challenge was determining what credits NAU students would receive for their work at Hanzehogeschool and how these credits would transfer to coursework at home. Students have received equivalent credits to date, but more standardized approaches are being considered.

"I would strongly endorse the continuation of the partnership," says School of Communication Dean Sharon Porter, "although much clearer planning is needed. On numerous issues there was not enough agreement on how things would proceed…. If these issues can be resolved and the curricular equivalencies established to the agreement of both schools, I think there are some very interesting items we could explore." Similarly, Dr. Lei says he believes that "we need to critically review the partnership, determine how we can make it stronger and find the resources to keep it growing."

The Future

At the time of this writing, NAU and Hanzehogeschool are still in the process of negotiating the next exchange. "We have identified one NAU professor from the School of Communication who will be exchanging with one lecturer from Hanzehogeschool, but the details are still being worked out," says Parker. Another Hanzehogeschool faculty member hopes to come to Flagstaff next fall. "So far, no [client organization] has been selected for the spring '99 campaign projects."

Unsure about the future, Paul Helford remarks, "Unfortunately we have not been able to figure out how to continue the program. We are still working this out." Karl Doerry, Director of the International Studies Office, who has worked on the exchange with faculty and administrators, is more optimistic: "The academic and personal experiences of the students and faculty have been uniformly positive, so that we will not let the administrative obstacles stand in the way of the success of the exchange."

Lea Parker's enthusiasm for ISTEP is unequivocal: "This is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my teaching career. The students were among the best I have ever had, and every one of them was excited about the prospect of contributing to solving environmental problems." It will be unfortunate if ISTEP does not become a regular fixture of NAU's School of Communication. With the strong support of Parker and her colleagues, however, the future looks good.

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