The University of Iowa

International Encounters, Future Endeavors

July 30th, 2009

After concluding 9 months studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain I wanted to find an organization on campus with ample international reach – I was looking to get involved with important international issues in a meaningful way, while simultaneously connecting to new people and countries abroad. The Council for International Visitors to the Iowa Cities (CIVIC) does just this; they host international visitors and develop programs for each visit. I joined CIVIC this summer as a student intern.

On June 30-July 3, 2009, CIVIC hosted a U.S. State Department-sponsored delegation on the International Visitors Leadership Program, my first such visit. The group included six visitors from countries ranging from Australia to Brazil. The visitors, all of whom had been identified by the State Department as emerging leaders in their respective fields, came to Iowa to further their knowledge of climate change and renewable energy.

As an intern, I was one of the individuals charged with developing a suitable program. More specifically, my responsibilities lay in programming their first day in Iowa City. After some deliberation, we decided to begin the day with an interactive seminar and then send the group “into the field” for a tour of the UI Power Plant to learn about the oat hull burning process in which the University partners up with Quaker Oats to burn leftover biomass in conjunction with coal; in effect, burning less coal.

The most striking aspect of the visit for me was the seminar. It was designed to bring together our international visitors and their University and community counterparts – academic, non-profit, and business leaders – via structured speeches followed by open dialogue. Individual speeches were designed to inform our visitors of the speakers’ own research and/or related work in the broad topic theme.

It proved a unique experience to sit among the group and listen in to their ensuing discourse. In particular I was struck by Nilakrisna James, a lawyer, environmental activist, and writer from Malaysia. Nila shared with the audience her struggles in her attempts to create more sanitary and humane living conditions for people within her country. She spoke of children drinking water contaminated with human waste, and expressed deep frustration at corruption, denial, and sheer ignorance of environmental issues while her countrymen and women perpetually live in such deplorable conditions. I was dumbfounded, yet I could not help but admire her courage and willingness to dedicate herself to such a fundamental cause.

As we left the seminar and walked toward the UI Power Plant, I was overcome with a sense of humility. The world and we as a people undoubtedly face many great challenges, many of which are often unseen within our own borders. The exchanges at the seminar underscored this point, as well as the necessity to open our eyes to the great humanitarian and environmental challenges throughout the world. But the passion I saw there also showed me that individuals, like Nila, hold the power to make a difference. After my short encounter with her I am left certain that she can and will change life for the better for many Malaysians.

All things considered, the mere opportunity to have listened to these visitors from around the world and hear their struggles was an important event for me. Interacting with our visitors, listening to their stories and hearing about their labors further motivates me to dedicate myself to international work. As I approach my final year at the University I imagine my work through CIVIC and my experiences abroad will profoundly affect the ultimate shape of my yet-to-be career.

Brett Larson is a senior at the University of Iowa, pursuing a degree in both International Studies and Spanish. In his extracurricular activities he was the founding father and chartering president of the fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. Last year Brett also studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain for an academic year.

This entry was postedon Friday, July 31st, 2009 at 5:13 pm