The Forest for the Trees: A Personal Reflection on Transformative Learning and Study Abroad

photo of Charles Gosset

Written by Charles Gosset, ACC; Associate Certified Coach; Full Integration Coaching, LLC. — 

Long before I had ever heard the term “transformative learning,” I was being exposed to educational opportunities that developed my beyond-disciplinary skills and expanded my relationship with self, others, community and environment (https://sites.uco.edu/central/tl/). Looking back, one of the clearest examples was an international studies class I took as part of my Forestry undergraduate degree program at a nearby university.

The course was called International Forestry and Natural Resources (pp. 22-23) and was designed to be a non-traditional course offering within a largely traditional field of study. It involved highly experiential, on campus learning, as well as a 10-day trip to Honduras where we examined the relationship of the people to the use of natural resources.

Class assignments included preparatory research around a specific chosen focus area, along with a student portfolio comprised of four elements: a research paper, an oral presentation, a creative component and a journal. Initial research was conducted on my campus and the rest was completed through direct interactions with the people we met in Honduras.

A photo of a family of 11 in the Honduran forest

A family of rural Honduran farmers demonstrating the results of improved agricultural practices.

While I was well prepared to encounter an entirely new culture with ample classroom knowledge, academic research, and practical tips for traveling abroad, what I wasn’t prepared for is the way that the experience was going to fundamentally change the way I understood my degree program and my relationship to it.

The trip to Honduras took place in the spring of 1999. Just six months earlier, Hurricane Mitch had roared through the country causing widespread devastation and loss. It was the worst flooding Honduras had seen in the 20th century and an estimated 1.5 million people were left homeless.

By the time we arrived, reconstruction was underway but there was also plenty of evidence of wreckage and ruin. My assignment was to research the attitude of the people, especially that of the rural farmers, in terms of their prospects for the future and their way of life through the implementation of both traditional and improved farming practices. Based on my own preconceived ideas, I expected to hear stories of defeat, uncertainty, and even hopelessness given the extent of the damage that resulted from Hurricane Mitch. I remember feeling guilty for what I perceived as being more fortunate than they were, and it created a strong sense of mental and emotional conflict in me.

However, my assumptions were proven to be incorrect by multiple individuals and families who were actually filled with hope, gratitude, and enthusiasm for the future. I was shocked at first. It just didn’t add up to me. How could these people possibly be hopeful about their future based on their present circumstances? I was experiencing then what today I would call a “disorienting dilemma.”

I was being confronted by the cognitive dissonance of two very different beliefs in my conscious awareness – my own, and those of the people that were engaging in conversations with me. The perspectives I heard over and over again were unquestionably optimistic. Reflecting on my experiences with the professor of the course, Dr. Thomas Kuzmic, and through informal conversations with classmates, I had to concede that my previously held beliefs about these people were simply no longer valid or useful. This meant finding new ways of relating to what I now saw as a resilient, hopeful people. But how?

Photo of a class of OSU students in the Honduran forest

Some of my UNACIFOR classmates during a forestry field exercise

For me, it was a matter of shifting my own point of view from one of guilt and pity to one of empathy and compassion. When I began to adopt the point of view of the Hondurans I was interviewing, I noticed that I could relate to them more directly through a shared humanity. They had found ways of remaining resilient and hopeful that I simply hadn’t found in my own life. I remember being deeply moved at that realization, knowing that I had been encouraged by a people who had seemingly lost so much. It inspires me to this day and has profoundly shaped how I view the world and my role in it.

In fact, this course affected me so greatly that I decided I wanted to return to Honduras in order to study and learn more about the people and their relationship to natural resources. Incredibly, in the spring of 2001, I became the first North American student to study at an international forestry school located in Siguatepeque, Honduras. I spent a semester in the forests of a people who would go on to transform my life at increasingly deeper, world-changing levels. And although I’m no longer directly involved in the field of forestry, the lessons learned continue to impact me and my transformational work with those I serve.

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” – John Muir

 

 

References:

“Assignment Honduras,” OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Cowboy Journal, Spring 2000, pp. 22-23. Extracted from https://issuu.com/cowboy.journal/docs/v2n1

The DEAL Model for Critical Reflection – Describe, Examine, and Articulate Learning, as included in the UCO STLR Training Guide, Summer 2018, pp. 127-128

Following Mezirow: A Roadmap through Transformative Learning | Graduate Program in Training and Development @ Roosevelt University, as included in the UCO STLR Training Guide, Summer 2018, pp. 120-123

Leave a Reply