Broadening the mind, exploring new places: Sustainable Policy-Making and Planning in Europe Study abroad affords fantastic opportunities

2018-04-02T17:30:13+00:00October 9th, 2017|

Advancing environmental, social and economic sustainability is one of the most important challenges, and opportunities, of our time. Given the complex nature of the ‘wicked’ problems we face, persistent uncertainties and competing interests and priorities, there is much that future policy-makers and planners have to grapple with. SPIA’s Sustainable Policy-Making and Planning in Europe study abroad summer course, which is run jointly with the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia (UVA), exposes students to a variety of challenges in Europe, and how they are being tackled to facilitate more sustainable societies.

Students learn about environmental issues in the Moravian Silesian Region of the Czech Republic from the head of the Environment Department, Jan Filgas, and his colleagues
Students learn about environmental issues in the Moravian Silesian Region of the Czech Republic from the head of the Environment Department, Jan Filgas, and his colleagues

The program is holistic in nature, examining a variety of issues facing Europe today – ranging from sustainable transportation systems to the recent influx of refugees – through the environmental, social and economic lenses. For example, “in Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and Strasbourg, students experience how smart transport and land-use policies have helped boost the sustainability of urban transport systems and overall livability by increasing the share of trips by foot, bicycle, and public transport while reducing car use”, explains UAP faculty member and co-instructor Ralph Buehler. In Ostrava, Czech Republic, students tour heavy industries, visit an old industrial site that has been transformed into a cultural destination, meet government officials, visit an NGO working with the Roma community, and tour various neighborhoods that reflect different periods in the region’s development. “This wide range of visits exposes students to the complex web of social, environmental and economic challenges the region faces, and how the public, private and non-profit sectors are working to address them” says UAP faculty member and co-instructor Todd Schenk.

Students visit the Dolní Vítkovice national site of industrial heritage in Ostrava, Czech Republic
Students visit the Dolní Vítkovice national site of industrial heritage in Ostrava, Czech Republic

One of the key strengths of the Sustainable Europe study abroad program is that it provides comparative exposure to what is happening in Europe vis-à-vis here in the United States. “While on the trip, I spent a lot of time looking at specific problems and determining how the issues are handled in America and in Europe; I was then able to determine the positives and negatives of both approaches and determine which approach, if any, was the strongest and most resilient”, says Kendra Hale, a 2017 participant and rising junior in SPIA’s Environmental Policy and Planning program. “Now, when issues arise, I will always do my research and determine how it is handled and the impact in other countries – I will use this knowledge to determine possible solutions”, adds Hale. Rising junior in Political Science and fellow 2017 participant, Calvin Tran, reflects that “seeing policies overcome difficult obstacles in other parts of the world gave me a sense of hope as to what can be accomplished here in the United States”. An important goal of the program is to equip students with fresh ideas and approaches. “Every module of the program addressed issues that challenge communities across the world, including right here in the Commonwealth”, says UVA faculty member and course co-instructor Suzanne Moomaw.

Students visit the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France
Students visit the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

While sustainability is often thought of as an environmental or ecological concept in the United States, this program emphasizes the more holistic understanding common in Europe, which seeks to concurrently address the social, economic and environmental dimensions of any issue. “I have learned to approach ‘problems’ from different angles with a multi-faceted approach, much like is done around Europe”, says Hale. Moomaw adds that “students saw and experienced how economies, natural systems, and transport can make communities more resilient and sustainable for all”.

Another important feature of the study abroad program is that it affords a level of vivid, direct exposure to interesting places and people not possible in the classroom. “The emphasis is not on cases in text books, but rather on complex situations right before our students’ eyes”, says Schenk. In Venice, for example, participants go out in the Venice Lagoon on a boat to see how the ecology is changing, the massive MOSE flood control infrastructure currently under construction, and the layers of history in this environmentally, culturally and economically rich environment. “I have witnessed and learned about many different policy and planning challenges and issues”, says Hale, adding: “When I went abroad, I took these questions with me, [and] while I was there, I was able to see how other countries deal with these challenges; this opportunity was priceless and will influence my ability to critically think in my career in the future. It was important to be reminded that there is more than one way to solve problems.”

Group at the Szabadság (Liberty) Bridge in Budapest, Hungary
Group at the Szabadság (Liberty) Bridge in Budapest, Hungary

The Sustainable Policy-Making and Planning in Europe study abroad is also special in that it brings VT and UVA students and faculty together. The program has been a true partnership between the two institutions since its inception seven years ago, capitalizing on the unique strengths of the faculty involved. “We were paired with students with similar interests from UVA, and though we didn’t know each other at the beginning of the trip, we became lifelong friends by the end of it”, reflects Tran. “The study abroad granted us an opportunity to collaborate across majors, disciplines, years, and schools… We combined our different skill sets and experiences from our classes and universities to work together across (traditionally rival) lines”, adds Hale. “Sustainable Europe gives students from both VT and UVA the opportunity to travel together, but also to tackle some the of world’s wicked problems”, says Moomaw, adding that “these students are poised and ready to be valuable resources in finding solutions for our collective future”.

Of course, the program is also a great deal of fun. From the famous baths of Budapest to the cutting-edge ‘sustainable model district’ of Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, participants literally and figuratively use all of their senses to soak in a range of cultures and cuisines. Tran reflects that the study abroad was “the greatest thing I’ve done in college so far”, adding that “we were trying new foods, seeing new countries, and creating new memories together, all while pursuing our independent interests in sustainable policy and planning… The opportunity to see and experience all the various countries in Europe in such a well-guided and academic tour was truly a once in a lifetime experience”.

For more information on the Sustainable Policy-Making and Planning in Europe study abroad, please visit http://europestudies.wordpress.com.