From information to transformation: entering out from the conference experience.
Article Type:
Conference news
Universities and colleges (Botswana)
Universities and colleges (United States)
Universities and colleges (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Whitecar, Michael
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Research Administration Publisher: Society of Research Administrators, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, general Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society of Research Administrators, Inc. ISSN: 1539-1590
Date: April, 2010 Source Volume: 41 Source Issue: 2
Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Organization: University of Botswana
Geographic Scope: United States; Botswana Geographic Code: 1USA United States; 6BOTS Botswana

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There is a saying that one needs to go out onto the balcony to look inward from outward to reflect on their lives and surroundings. I am one for going out to my own balcony, but I did not realize that it would take a balcony over 8,000 miles away to appreciate truly and be thankful for who I am and what I have.

Upon accepting an invitation to attend and present at the University of Botswana, I did not realize that my one-week journey would have such an impact on my own life. When returning from Botswana, I stood on yet another balcony reflecting on the previous week. The feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and acceptance of diversity continually resonate in my mind as I think about my own reflections, the people of Botswana, and the children who make their country smile.

With that said, I am reassured that my family and friends know their place in my heart. Yet I feel the need to recognize publicly the people of The Chief Information Group (TCIG) who have been with my business partner Mike Green and me, for over four years. I am appreciative of their loyalty, character, and commitment to serve our clients.

Reflection is very important in life if we want to understand who we are, where we are, and where we want to be. One might think reflection is relatively easy; yet traveling halfway around the world to a far off continent causes a different and deeper experience of reflection. First, I obviously knew that I was no longer in a customary environment. Different types of people, their behaviors, their native languages: these all surrounded me. I was enveloped by a terrain of nature that is one of the most spectacular one can see. For a brief yet important week, I was jarred out of my regular life and catapulted into something vastly different. This moved my native ways of reflecting on life into new territory of its own. This altered my view on life and thrust me into a different perspective.

My first step to authentic and meaningful reflection is to be open and welcome all the things different around me. Living in America, I like to believe that I have the perfect life, but by widening my lenses during the conference, I was able to see different angles of the world. Seeing far better places does not mean that I wish to alter my life, but instead it changes me. Everything we do in life starts with a single thought and I am in control of the path to which the thought leads. It is with this thought that I was able to be open to this new-found awareness and to digest my new surroundings; I was able to grasp the person that I am and accept the person that I was to become.

I reflected in the hotel, as I walked a busy street en route to the University, and in the evenings as I attended dinners with some of the most interesting people I have ever met--some of whom only live but a few miles from me at home.

There was one particularly interesting moment. I was challenged with getting over jet lag when I was awakened by the most entertaining array of birds singing. I opened my hotel patio door and listened to a myriad of species of birds, feeling their melodies cascade over me. This was a beautiful indication of the start of a new day. They were an alarm clock that needed no introduction. I sometimes wonder if birds' daybreak singing can be translated to "It is time to enter not just another 24 hours, but the experience of another Day of Brilliance." Indeed, such moments move one to become lost in thought, pondering unknown desired futures for one's life.

Locating the birds in the early morning hours was an interesting metaphor as to how picturesque and comfortable I believe my life has become. It seems like nothing is wrong where I come from, I have everything I need, and I have many things of beauty and convenience. Yet the truly important things in life steal into our awareness sometimes only with a slow and evolving dawn. The elemental things that people need are love of others, love of one's self, friendship, and the ability to accept diversity. Reflecting on diversity is not a matter of race, religion or color, but the deep and abiding appreciation of our rich and unique differences. In this light, I reflect on a popular Setswana Proverb that I learned during the conference: Pelo e ntle ke leswalo la motho, translated as, A good heart is the medicine of a person. In the morning hours, the songs of birds led me to a different place. I began slowly with an internal dawn to explore the valuable parts of being human, of being a citizen of the world.

A few of us decided to take a tour of the city of Gaborone, the site of the university conference, with one of the local tour guides. To my surprise, the first visit was to the Museum of Botswana History. I come to visit a country, to digest a new culture, and my first point of entry was its museum! Our tour guide, who was also employed full-time as a prison guard, was very proud of the museum. Usually I quickly glance at museum exhibits in quick succession; however, with this experience we spent 5-10 minutes per exhibit as the tour guide passionately taught our group about life in Botswana. This was one of my first experiences with a local citizen. The rest of the day included stops at other historical landmarks of the city from a local's perspective.

During my journey, I came to focus on the people of Botswana, discovering who they are, what is important to them, and how they might understand me as an individual. The streets were lined with vendors selling their wares, including prepared food from their own homes. Women carried umbrellas to protect their skin from the overpowering sunlight on this hot summer day. I could hear laughter and see expressions of joy. Many times I would ask myself "Why are they all so happy?" Living in America I am too often accustomed to comparing my lifestyle with those of others and then judging them. What I learned from my city tour was that the people would look forward to gathering in the street malls and engaging in friendly conversation with one another. As I would approach a vendor he or she would look at me as if I was the only thing that mattered at that time. Another lesson learned: The people focused on the "now" in life, not the past and not the future. I was inspired by this level of living, by what seemed in hindsight to be a deeper level of human maturity ... something I feel I have been lacking.

As there were over 250 attendees at the conference I was able to watch many of them as I became the unofficial, yet official photographer. Using my new camera, I was eager to take candid shots of the attendees. In America many people would shy away from a camera lens. At the conference, the delegates would pause, look at me, smile in anticipation of a flash, and return afterward to whatever they were doing. After looking at over 500 pictures that I so proudly took, I realized that the delegates were very proud and happy. Not once did I hear anyone complain about government, politics, or the person next door. Given how life is in my own neighborhood, this was truly different--and refreshing!

My experiences at the hotel were equally powerful. I remember the night of my arrival. A gentleman took my luggage to my room. As he was doing this I was trying to figure out the exchange rate so that I could tip him appropriately. Unfortunately, I got the exchange rate backwards, and instead of giving him the equivalent of the equivalent of a few American dollars I only gave him about five pennies. Instead of staring at me in disappointment or anger, he simply looked and said "Thank you, is there anything else I can do for you?" I said "No," proudly thinking that I met the standard. After I figured out what had actually taken place, I quickly left my room in search of the man to tip him correctly, but he was nowhere to be found. I told one of my conference peers about the situation and he stated, "No problem! The people of the hotel are not worried about such minute issues." Amazing! People in America get very indignant if they do not receive a 20% gratuity even though the service might be substandard. This experience taught me something valuable. Many times in life what is valuable is not the business transaction, but the act of human interaction and care. Such moments remind us of the real virtue of gratitude, and the problems we have with greed and power.

Visiting outside the city limits of Gaborone many of us embarked upon a journey similar to Dr. Livingston's along the Mirko Raner River. We encountered local villagers who were less fortunate than others, yet appeared happier and were more engaging. Many were walking the flank of the river in anticipation of gathering potable water to take back to their families. In one area we came across preparations for a baptism. Whether it was the priest preparing for the baptism or villagers seeking water, they all stopped to engage us in conversation. Like everyone we met during the entire week, they shared their knowledge of their great lands. When asked if we could take a picture, they instantly posed proudly for our souvenir snapshot; a healthy human pride in the act of meeting another. In a world too caught up in competition and greed, this was another gift on which to reflect deeply.

Another enlightening experience I encountered was visiting the Botswana Children's Clinic and a children's site known as SOS. The lobby of the clinic was filled with parents and many children. The majority of the patients were being treated for HIV/AIDS. It was deeply saddening but also equally encouraging, as many healthcare clinicians from around the world were eagerly providing assistance. I was surprised at the number of HIV/AIDS cases, not only in Botswana but all over the world. Education is critical to prevention, and this was a theme that was stressed in our conversations. The facility itself was fairly new; it was decorated with art that was created by many of the children. It made an impact; it moved me to want to do more--much more--not just for those close to me in my own neighborhoods, but also in lands far away. Something again moved deep within me. Looking into the faces of those who were ill made a difference. Realizing how much their parents looked at me with longing--something struck strings deep inside me and created some measure of music that will take much time to hear with sense and logic.

The SOS children's site contained approximately 300 children, many with HIV/ AIDS. The arrangements are similar to our foster homes in America. However, adoption is not an immediate priority. The priority for these children is healthcare, family and friends, education, and love. We toured the village, finding children playing in the field, working on computers, and producing musical sounds from instruments. Many of them quickly came to us and wanted to play.

I came across a young child who had a remote control car but no batteries. I took two double AA batteries from my camera and placed them into his car. The smile on this young child's face was breathtaking. He quickly gathered his friends and most likely spent the remainder of the day playing with his remote control car. It was amazing to see how such a small gift, just two little AA batteries, could brighten someone's day. Somehow this is making a huge difference in my life. I am not sure how, but it is. Coming to this conference has opened up dormant feelings I never could have expressed or anticipated. Hearing a new language, not just from lips but from hearts, made me hear sounds and speech in new and different ways. Seeing into the eyes of those who suffer is making me look differently at others, in fact very differently at myself and the comforts of life that I enjoy.

From this opportunity to journey to an international ethics conference, I gained new friendships both with individuals from home and from Botswana. Today these friends and I continue to talk. In fact, we talk a lot. Sometimes in emails. Other times, for those here in my neighborhood, over a meal. But we no longer talk just about the latest in sports, world affairs, American politics, or the latest minor disturbances. Rather, we talk about things that mean something. We talk about life, about helping others, and about holding close those things that matter most to us--our families, our friends, and those we work with. We talk now, amid laughter and closeness, about our desires and hopes. We talk about those in need. We talk about how we want to make a difference. And all this because, for a week too brief yet seemingly without time, we came to a conference and entered into something so much more.

Another Setswana Proverb--O se tshege o oleng, mareledi a sale pele. It translates as Do not laugh at the fallen; there are slippery places ahead. This is what I saw in the people of Botswana. I did not see judgment. I did not see color. I certainly did not see fear. What I saw were some of the most beautiful and happy people in the world. As an American I may have access to much. After my visit to Botswana, I have much more to offer those I now touch, because I myself was touched by an unexpected but most welcome experience.

Editor's Note

Michael Whitecar of The Chief Information Group wrote this closing essay. Mr. Whitecar directed the International Conference Educational Technology Demonstration Exhibit. His expertise as a computer scientist was instrumental in recording various sessions. His perspectives in this closing essay are an important reminder that what can occur educationally in a given moment only achieves its fullest potential when it is no longer just the transfer of information. Educational depth occurs only when one realizes that a given experience affords one with that gift of wisdom that makes for personal and professional transformation.

Michael Whitecar, MIS

Lt Commander (ret), Medical Service Corps, United States Navy

President & CEO, The Chief Information Group, Inc.

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