Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series featuring two West Virginia University professors' experiences abroad. Next week will feature the details of Jennifer Douglas's United Kingdom experience.
For many, traveling beyond the usual horizons means an expanded knowledge database — learning new cultures, new customs and traditions, new history and the heterogeneous mix of people whom the culture itself needs to exist.
And with the increase in knowledge also comes the realization that while the location might vary, the similarities among people of different cultures are ever-present.
Through their travel abroad, two West Virginia University professors experienced both the differences in varying cultures as well as the commonalities that bind the people of those cultures, and West Virginians, together.
Sharing environmental expertise
After applying and being accepted for the Fulbright Specialist program, Gerard D'Souza, professor and chairman of the Agricultural and Resource Economics program, was notified by email that an opportunity in Paraguay was available.
The Fulbright Specialist program matches the request of the host country for the expertise that's available in the Fulbright database. In this case, the host country was Paraguay.
"Doing a Fulbright experience is always a prestigious experience for academics, so I was able to find someone to take over my classes, went down to Paraguay for two weeks and I was very well received," D'Souza said. "I proceeded to deliver a series of nine PowerPoint lectures in combination of English and Spanish."
Topics of the lectures included environmental economics, sustainability, water quality and agribusiness, which is what most of D'Souza's research encompasses.
While he was there, D'Souza had a team assigned to him that consisted of six students and young professionals from Paraguay.
"They served as my chauffeur in one case, translator in another case, IT person in another case," he said. "I had a team of people helping me out, and I was able to put together all these PowerPoints, sometimes on the fly because the topics tended to evolve as my stay progressed."
D'Souza and his team of six, which he calls Team ParagUSA, have stayed in touch via Facebook and Skype since his return to the United States.
As a way to inform Paraguayans on how to improve the water quality of Lake Epicuri, or the Blue Lake, D'Souza discussed ways the United States has dealt with cleanup in the Chesapeake.
"They have this large lake, which used to be known as the Blue Lake. It's huge, much like the Chesapeake," he said. "What used to be a blue lake is now green because of algae and pollution."
Because cleaning up the Chesapeake has been ongoing for years, D'Souza said it would make a good case study, with the thesis topic looking at what worked well with the Chesapeake and adapting those same clean-up procedures to the Blue Lake.
The goal would be to make the Blue Lake cleaner and more amiable to recreation and economic development, he said.
One of the most impressive things, D'Souza said, was Paraguay's ability to cooperate and share resources with its neighbors, particularly Argentina and Brazil.
"Paraguay ranks No. 1 in terms of being a net producer of energy and all the energy comes from hydroelectric," he said. "It's a very green source of energy and they export it to other countries."
Their source of energy comes from the natural resources and the fast-flowing rivers.
In an agreement with Brazil, the two countries share the hydroelectric power produced by the ITAIPU Dam, the world's largest generator of hydroelectricity. The control room consists of one side being Brazil and the other side being Paraguay. A screen shows how much hydroelectricity is being generated on the Brazilian side and how much is being generated on the Paraguayan side, with everything being shared.
"This is a really great way of nations coming together to share natural resources and expertise and so on," D'Souza said. "It's a win-win situation."
An environmental mindset
While D'Souza said the Paraguayan curriculum is traditional, there is also an all-encompassing emphasis on the economy and environment, with the top commitment being environmental quality.
"I was involved mainly with the business school, but I think that what is different is that for even traditional accountants and marketing people, they want them to get a strong awareness of environmental quality and they want them to develop in a sustainable way," he said. "Even if you're an accountant, the overall umbrella in which they want those accountants and lawyers to develop is somebody who also pays attention to the economy and the environment. It's very obvious."
Contributing to the environmental mindset is students' curiosity, D'Souza said.
"(The students) seem very hungry for knowledge, particularly from someone who comes from overseas and lives in a first-world country," he said.
Because Paraguay is a land-locked country, D'Souza said it is referred to as "the heart of South America." In a similar fashion, he referred to West Virginia as having the potential to be the heart of the United States.
"Both areas kind of represent a very strategic position," he said.
Another similarity is the natural resources.
"In West Virginia, there's a lot of potential for recreation-related kinds of economic development. I think the same could apply to Paraguay," D'Souza said. "As a matter of fact, Paraguay is relatively well-known as a destination for extreme sports. West Virginia has whitewater rafting, skiing and so on."
While the Mountain State depends heavily on coal and natural gas, Paraguay depends on its rivers.
Not only do the Mountain State and Paraguay share similar strengths, but also similar problems, including a relatively high unemployment rate and corruption, D'Souza said.
Bonding with the people
What was one of D'Souza's favorite things about his two-week stint in the very well-kept secret that is Paraguay?
"The people are very vibrant, very friendly people," he said. "I think I bonded with the faculty and students."
While D'Souza has been to Central America and the Caribbean, Paraguay was his first taste of South America.
"I have some expertise in the Latin American and Caribbean region, and that's one of the reasons why my expertise matched up," he said.
In addition to Spanish, the language of the native Indians is Guarani. After picking up a few words in Guarani and using them, D'Souza said the crowd burst into applause.
In addition to ranking very high in terms of happiness, D'Souza also was struck by the young population.
"Seventy percent of the population is under 40," he said. "I've been (in West Virginia) for 30 years. You see a lot of old people here and not a lot of young people. We have an hour-glass type of distribution in the streets, everywhere. Over there, I went to the malls and restaurants and was struck and thought, ‘There's no old people here. What happened to all the old people?'
"It's a very young crowd, very vibrant, very hungry and thirsty for knowledge," he added.
Bonding through ideas
While D'Souza said all his ideas were well-received, the restoration of the Blue Lake and the development of a new undergraduate curriculum, similar to WVU's EQuad, were of particular interest.
Through the EQuad curriculum, energy, environment, entrepreneurship and economics are combined to develop the future workforce.
"While we have one or more of these, we don't have these in the combination that can look at the broad picture when it comes to energy development in the state," D'Souza said.
Building academic partnerships
In addition to wanting to develop a similar curriculum, Paraguay is also looking for an academic exchange program with WVU.
"I'm trying to go through our office of international programs to make that possible," D'Souza said. "We would be Paraguay's first ever academic exchange with the United States. That is an interest to both countries by virtue of the fact that Paraguay has a presence in the U.S. and the U.S. would have first presence in that part of South America."
Currently, WVU has only one exchange program with South America and that's in Brazil.
Not only would forming an academic partnership benefit Paraguay, but also the students at WVU, D'Souza said.
"Our own students need more study-abroad programs, particularly in the ag school, the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resource and Design," he said. "Our students come from more traditional backgrounds … likely from West Virginia small towns in Pennsylvania, Maryland. They don't think of study-abroad and yet the world has become our oyster."
Making study-abroad an option for capstone requirements is another way to encourage students to take advantage of expanding their horizons.
D'Souza said students have specifically asked for Paraguay to be a destination option, which has advantages in terms of tuition and the benefits a reciprocity agreement affords.
Study-abroad programs in general also make for diverse economies and institutions, he said.
In Argentina, D'Souza also was able to see Foz Iguacu, a waterfall and one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
"It's called ‘The Throat of the Devil' in Spanish because it's a very evocative kind of waterfall," he said. "It deserves to be one of the seven natural wonders.
"It would be nice for my students and faculty to go down there and see a little bit of the culture and surroundings and for their students to come here and visit and experience our seasons," he continued. "We have well-defined seasons. That's one of our assets to many people."
What does D'Souza see as Paraguay's potential future?
"My vision for Paraguay is that it could be the renewable energy capital of the world or the America's by 2020," he said.