UTEP Team to Travel to Indonesia

By Jenn O’Hanlon

UTEP News Service

Four faculty and staff members and 13 students from The University of Texas at El Paso will depart July 4 for a one-month research trip to Indonesia.

The trip is part of a collaboration between UTEP and Universitas Mulawarman on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at UTEP, was awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to coordinate the program titled, “Enhancing Behavior Change through Conservation Programs.”Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., leads a conservation collaboration between faculty and students from UTEP and Universitas Mulawarman in Indonesia beginning with a trip to Indonesia in July.Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., leads a conservation collaboration between faculty and students from UTEP and Universitas Mulawarman in Indonesia beginning with a trip to Indonesia in July.

“The idea is to work with the university in Indonesia in terms of higher education and community development in relation to conservation issues,” Sowards said. “We’re working to build the Indonesians’ capacity for teaching and completing their own independent research.”

As part of the nearly $1 million USAID grant, Sowards and a research team of UTEP faculty and students will travel to Indonesia for four weeks to complete the first phase of the grant.

“Dr. Sowards’ trip to Indonesia is a wonderful opportunity for our students to conduct research, learn about international environmental issues and experience other cultures,” said Pat Witherspoon, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “The work they do, the friendships they forge and the elements of culture they will encounter will make the trip a life-changing journey.”

Sowards first became interested in Indonesia in 1994 when her parents moved there. Subsequently, she was fascinated by intercultural communication and research and wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas on environmental organizations in Indonesia. Thereafter, Sowards was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to live and study in Indonesia for one year.

“I have spent a lot of time in Indonesia,” Sowards said. “There are different challenges the society faces: environmental problems, political and economic issues. The landscape is interesting and diverse due to the environmental aspects of the country. The hospitality of the Indonesians is incredible and they are generally a giving people.”

This summer, the trip participants will engage in relationship building with counterparts in Indonesia as part of the first phase of the project. The first objective, according to Sowards, is to build relationships that can lead to more long-term connections for research and shared opportunities to exchange faculty and students from both universities. Ultimately, those involved will seek to lay foundations for the research program.

“We will be studying environmental campaigns and how to create behavior change for local communities who face environmental issues,” Sowards said. “The grant itself focuses on teaching and practicing research, so there is a strong connection of academic research and how that applies in the field. We will be visiting sites that have been working with communities for environmental protection.”

Students have been studying Indonesian, reading about forestry issues and community development to prepare for their departure in July. During six orientation sessions, they discussed what to bring, safety abroad, and what to expect from the food and climate of the region.

“Students were selected competitively by recruiters from the study abroad office and by faculty involved in the grant,” Sowards said. “All students involved in the trip this summer have earned a 3.5 grade point average or higher at UTEP.”

Sowards expects that students will work on projects such as newspaper articles and research reports that can turn in to conference papers. She said the trip is an experience that will open the world for students.

“I want students to get exposure to a new place, a new land,” Sowards said. “El Paso and UTEP are important entities and I love living here, but I think what is really important is being able to understand the global environment. To think about the city of El Paso and how it contributes to that environment is a key element to the bigger picture.”

Sowards said the grant is particularly noteworthy because many humanities and social sciences do not receive large grants. The fact that USAID is providing three years of funding raises the visibility of UTEP’s Department of Communication.

“It’s a very unique opportunity for UTEP to pursue a partnership in a different part of the world,” said William Robertson, Ph.D., UTEP associate provost and member of the interdisciplinary team that will travel to Indonesia. “It expands our global reach.”

Conference deadlines in September ensure students will be busy preparing and submitting their work upon their return. In the fall, Sowards plans to recruit new students to travel to Indonesia during the summer of 2013. She plans to take faculty to Indonesia in December if they were unable to attend this summer.