In the summer of 2005, 19 senior-level managers from mine action programs worldwide descended on James Madison University in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to develop and improve their toolbox of management skills at a course sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme. Five weeks later, they left with a wealth of new knowledge, new friends and fond memories of their learning experience.
At first glance, it looks like your average classroom at any American university. A professor is at the front of the room, loading a PowerPoint presentation for viewing on a projector screen. A few notes are scribbled on the blackboard visible on either side of the screen. Several tables occupy the center of the room, with 20 or so empty chairs awaiting their occupants, who are in the hallway for a short break between sessions. But once the room begins to fill again, it is quickly apparent these are not your average college students.
The first tip-off is the sounds that fill the room. Several languages are intermingling all at once—English, Arabic, French, Portuguese—giving a vibrant air to the classroom. And the sight of this diverse crowd makes it more apparent that this class is unique. They represent 15 countries from all over the world—Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans—and for most of them this is the first time in years they've been in a classroom as well as their first time in the United States.
Yet for five weeks during the summer of 2005, these 19 managers of mine action programs left their homes and families to hit the books again, attending the Mine Action Senior Managers Course—given by James Madison University's Mine Action Information Center and sponsored by UNDP—to hone their management skills. They studied everything from identifying organizational strengths and weaknesses to budget oversight and risk-management techniques, learning from JMU faculty members whose expertise includes economics, international law, media relations and ethics. Guest lecturers also taught modules on mine action-related topics such as data management, U.S. government assistance, mine surveys and international standards. UNDP representatives Sayed Aqa and Mohammad Younus facilitated the participation of the students and greeted them personally at the opening and closing of the course.
Valuable Lessons Learned
Participants in the managers' course agreed that they learned valuable information during the course that they will put to use at home. Col. Antoine Nimbesha, assistant chief of operation of the Mine Action Coordination Centre in Onu, Burundi, said that before he came here, he didn't possess many solid skills for management. "Previously, I worked based on logical skills, not scientific ones," but while here, he "gained scientific skills to justify how to run our program," which he finds "very useful, very informative."1
Others had more prior experience and took something different away from the course:
"Most subjects I already had some basic knowledge in. This course shaped what I already had in mind," said Dr. Adriano Francisco Gonçalves, mine victim assistance coordinator for the National Inter-Sectoral Commission for Demining and Humanitarian Assistance in Angola. He found the strategic planning exercise that was the culmination of the course to be "one of the most important"2 aspects. Additionally, he benefited from learning about "project management and all the steps involved."2
Their stay wasn't all classes and homework, though. The course participants also took field trips during their stay to see local sights, including a day trip to Washington, D.C., and a demonstration at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, at which they saw numerous state-of-the-art demining machines and tools in action. Many of the participants were impressed by what they saw there and considered it one of the highlights of their stay. Nimbesha said, "The demo visit was very useful as it is directly related to our work."1 (See related article for more information on the demonstration trip.)
Javed Habib-ul-Haq, area manager of the Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan in Kabul, agreed. "I am glad I did not miss out on the opportunity to come here," he confided during the A.P. Hill trip. "My main focus for the past five years has been mechanical demining. In fact, there is one machine I have seen here that I will strongly recommend for my program when I go back."3
Some beneficial learning experiences didn't occur in lectures or on field trips, but rather during the participants' down time. They learned from each other daily about the different cultures and experiences of those around them. One of the most important things Nimbesha took away from this experience was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness. "I changed from an ‘I' thinking to ‘we.' Mine action is a question of all the workers working as a team, giving them a vision and strategy, mission, goals and techniques," he said.1
Spending five weeks in a foreign country can be a big adjustment, especially if it is your first time in that country, as it was for many of the course participants. Even everyday tasks like communicating with others and eating can turn out to be more difficult than they may seem.
Being from such different backgrounds, the students' levels of proficiency in English varied, and the language barrier was difficult for most at some point. Although he seemed very comfortable speaking in English, Nimbesha confessed he sometimes had trouble. "It may [have been] better to have some more English skills beforehand," he said.1 In particular, Nimbesha sometimes found it difficult to understand the professors, especially those with an accent. He did feel that his skills improved while here, though, and Gonçalves agreed that although he was a bit out of practice with his English, "at the end you start to go quicker, things come to you faster."2 To accommodate those who needed some assistance with English, professors made an effort to slow their speech and articulate their words more clearly. Also, the MAIC provided a weekly English class in the evenings for interested students.
Food was an even bigger issue than language for many of the visitors. Their taste buds were not accustomed to the taste of American food, and some even marveled at foods they don't have in their countries. Still, most found something from the variety of foods in the campus dining hall that suited their taste. It was a bit more difficult, though, for those with specific dietary needs, such as those participants who are Muslim. "It was hard being a Muslim to find halal meat," Habib-ul-Haq explains.3 Eating fish was one option, but the selection in the dining facilities does not usually include fish. Javed and some of the other participants found a way around this, though, by befriending the dining service staff. "One of the servers in the dining hall would save some fish just for those people so we could have some meat," he said.3 MAIC staff also provided transportation to the Halal Food Market in Harrisonburg for Muslim participants.
One of the participants' favorite pastimes during their stay was shopping. Often the prices in America were much cheaper than they could find at home, and they took advantage of this as often as possible, frequenting the local Wal-mart and shopping mall. Participants were impressed by how "you can find everything."3 Some, however, were expecting more to meet their shopping needs. "I expected to have more choice of stores. Wal-Mart is good—they have everything you need—but more variety would be nice," said Gonçalves.2
Personal Connections Erase Stereotypes
At home they are military officials, politicians and high-ranking government workers, but here they were students, and while they hold positions of considerable power and importance, they were incredibly gracious and humble, especially when speaking of their hosts. "I want to thank all the JMU/MAIC staff greatly for everything they've done," said Gonçalves.2 "The MAIC staff was very supportive," agreed Habib-ul-Haq.3
Some participants admitted, though, that they'd originally had some reservations coming to America, partially because of pervasive stereotypes about Americans. Director of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority's Regulation and Legislation Department Thor Chetha, in America for the first time, explained his misconceptions. "I first thought the people are very proud. I thought before they were very controlling and wanted power. ... I felt scared at first; I came alone and thought people would not accept me," he said. "But in contrast, the people I met provided help with my problems. I'm very happy for all of this."4 One example of this support, he recalls, was when his computer electrical adapter didn't work; staff from MAIC found a replacement adapter and took him to the store where he could buy it.
Participants and staff from the summer 2005 session of the UNDP-sponsored Senior Managers Course. The course was implemented by the Mine Action Information Center at James Madison University.
Photo by MAIC
Habib-ul-Haq agreed, saying the people he met were "friendly, supportive, helpful, honest, clear—opposite to what people often think of them abroad."3 Gonçalves' words were even stronger. "I have been to over 30 countries. American people may be the best in the world—the way they are, the way they interact. That was made more clear by coming here. ... I did expect to see some attention from people, but not as much as we did. We were all surprised with the way you have arranged this and been so supportive. You've been so kind and so supportive that we won't forget."2
The participants were also eager to share their cultures and traditions with their fellow students as well as the staff running the course. Many brought gifts representing their home countries to present to their colleagues and the JMU staff. Many discussions were had during and outside of classes on differences in culture and religion, and in that respect, the students were teachers, too.
Jennifer Schraw, a student employee of the MAIC, shared an experience she had that had a profound impact on her. The Muslim participants invited her to attend one of the prayer services at the mosque they went to once a week during the course. "I was surprised at how closely the message resembled what I grew up hearing in a Methodist church. It was amazing to experience another culture, yet find so many similarities," she explained. "Throughout the entire course I was pleasantly surprised by the participants' basic morals and desires, and how they reflected mine."
Indeed, what was intended to be a chance for mine action practitioners to study management tools and techniques turned out to be a learning experience for everyone involved.
Nicole Neitzey is the managing editor and online editor for the Journal of Mine Action and has been working at the Mine Action Information Center since 2001. She graduated from James Madison University in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in technical and scientific communication and an online publications specialization. She and her new husband reside in Harrisonburg, Va.
- Personal interview with Col. Antoine Nimbesha, assistant chief of operation of the Mine Action Coordination Centre (Onu, Burundi). July 21, 2005.
- Personal interview with Dr. Adriano Francisco Gonçalves of the National Inter-Sectoral Commission for Demining and Humanitarian Assistance (Angola). July 22, 2005.
- Personal interview with Javed Habib-ul-Haq of the Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan. July 21, 2005.
- Personal interview with Thor Chetha of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority. July 22, 2005.
Managing Editor, MAIC
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