A Learning Journey
By Cheryl Dorschner Article published September 30, 2003
A young man with a strong wanderlust, Dan Baker’s travels in the 1980s took him across the country in a Volkswagen bus, to the Caribbean where he worked captaining sailboats for tourists, and to West Virginia where he made his living as a river guide. A sail around the world was on the future itinerary, as well. That all changed, somewhat, when Baker attended a talk by John Deep Ford, UVM associate professor in Community Development and Applied Economics.
“He totally changed the direction of my life,” says Baker, who was motivated to enroll in graduate studies in international development at UVM, earning his master’s degree in 1995. Now Baker is inspiring students as Ford inspired him. The lecturer in CDAE is among those selected for the 2003 Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award.
Both happy wanderer and committed teacher inform Baker’s work in CDAE International Program classes in which he teaches three courses and travels to Honduras with lecturer Ken Becker, doctoral student Eduardo Gallo and about 18 students.
“I think what’s different about our (study-abroad course is that) we actually spend a whole semester in a prep course getting ready,” says Baker. “By the time the students get to Honduras, they’re totally pumped.”
Another difference is that students work directly with local people, community leaders and government officials. And thirdly, based on their skills and interests, students are matched with an existing community project arranged between UVM and the Honduran community. For instance, Baker leads students to work with Hondurans in global positioning system (GPS) mapping, agriculture classes, water quality issues and a sugar-cane project. The breadth of these topics might be daunting to some.
“Because his course work touches a variety of fields that are each rapidly evolving – agricultural economics, sustainable development, demographics, public administration and others – Baker is a master at revising his materials and staying abreast in a variety of core areas,” says Associate Professor Fred Schmidt. “For example, an agricultural economist practicing in developing countries needs to know some of the rudiments of plant genetics as well to understand the implications of the application of genetic modified organisms,” he adds. “Dan is adept at pulling these loose ends together.”
“Precisely because the Honduras course is an international living, learning and work experience, students confront, face-to-face, the realities of poverty, environmental degradation, health concerns and shocking economic disparities,” says Ken Becker, one of Baker’s partners in the Honduran project. “Dan’s instruction consists of engaging students in observation, reflection and dialogue, maintaining a perspective as outsiders with responsibilities to participate with counterparts rather than preach.”
Becker says that Baker approaches international development with humility and a do-no-harm approach. “Above all, Dan has high expectations for students to perform and act like professionals throughout this life-changing experience,” Becker says.
“I view the students as a young community,” Baker says. “I ask them, what we can do as a community. I try to encourage discussion. There aren’t black-and-white answers or easy solutions in social and environmental problems. My tendency is toward optimism perennially – the alternative is too dark. When we’re talking about the world and the serious challenges we face, I always try to think of a positive direction we can go. Otherwise, the problems seem overwhelming. We look for positive things that will make a difference for the community and healthy or us to do. What we do in Latin America is practical."