Gaining real-world, international experience
February 16, 2018
The School of Urban and Regional Planning’s International Planning Project course (SURP 827) is a learning experience like no other.
Each year, Ajay Agarwal has taken a group of planning students from Queen’s to the Indian city of Auroville, where, in a period of just two weeks, they are tasked with creating a project report of professional quality that can be used by the community.
For the students who take part in the course, it is an opportunity to be part of a consulting team while gaining real-world and international experience at the same time.
It is also an exercise in resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness, all vital tools for future planners, Dr. Agarwal points out.
This year the team was tasked with creating a growth management framework for the greenbelt surrounding the intentionally-planned community. There are a number of villages within the protected area and their population growth and development has placed increasing pressures on the greenbelt.
“The concern is that if that development is left unchecked the very purpose of the greenbelt will be lost,” Dr. Agarwal says. “So the people of Auroville wanted us to suggest ways to ensure that any development that takes place inside the greenbelt is in harmony – and harmony being the key word – with Auroville’s vision for the future.”
Starting the course in September, the student team has three months to conduct research, collect information and make initial contacts before heading to India in early December.
Once the 12-member team was assembled in Auroville, Dr. Agarwal quickly put them to work. Several students only had time to take a shower before taking part in the initial presentation.
It was a tough schedule for sure but a realistic one when it comes to consulting and planning for an international client. Time, as the students learned, is at a premium.
The first week was mostly dedicated to conducting interviews with stakeholders and gathering information, points out Meghan Robidoux, who acted as the project manager for the team. With data gathered from 19 interviews and two focus groups, they quickly learned that much of the earlier research was not really applicable. Nothing can substitute for direct engagement and interaction, they found out. Thankfully they were prepared for such an outcome.
“At the end of our first week we sat down and kind of redefined the scope of our project based on all the information we collected and the feedback from that initial presentation,” she says. “So much changes once you get there. We knew that from the beginning that would be the case. Ajay prepared us very well. We knew that was going to happen and that was okay.”
The team also quickly learned that working in India is very different from Canada. The culture is very different and communicating can be difficult. Internet connectivity is spotty and they initially had no working cellphones.
Yet they were able to find solutions – resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness.
“We went old school,” Dr. Agarwal says. “We had a giant poster on the wall with a timetable and Post-Its with everybody’s name on it. So everybody, including me, was supposed to keep checking the schedule throughout the day. It kept changing every hour.”
The team quickly determined that working together was the only way to succeed.
“This was a large group, so that was a challenge at times, trying to make sure that we were using everyone to the best of their ability and taking advantage of so many people’s assets and skill sets,” Ms. Robidoux says. “In so many ways it was great because we had such a talented team. I feel strongly that every member really contributed in important ways to the project. So managing the team wasn’t a problem in that sense, it was more of making sure that everyone had the opportunity to share their opinion and group meetings took a long time.”
As a member of that team Jennifer Smyth found the international course to be the experience she was looking for and she is certain that it will help her now and in the future.
“One of the major planning lessons that I’ve taken away from this is learning in a foreign context. I know for some team members it was a challenge to go to this place where they have beliefs that we couldn’t necessarily understand or agree with. But as a planner acknowledging those beliefs was so important,” she says. “Just planning for a project with so many unknowns was a huge learning experience, maintaining an objective stance among so many varying perspectives and finding balance. I think this experience really helped us learn how
Now in its sixth year, Dr. Agarwal has seen the course grow in popularity and become one of SURP’s key learning experiences. Both Ms. Smyth and Ms. Robidoux were drawn to Queen’s specifically because of the international opportunity offered through SURP 827. With 12 participants, this year’s group was the largest to travel to India.
For his work in creating and continuing the course Dr. Agarwal received the 2016 International Education Innovation Award, which recognizes excellence in the internationalization of curriculum in programs or courses. It is one of the six Principal’s Teaching and Learning Awards.
For more information about the course or to obtain a copy of the full project report, contact Dr. Agarwal.