Let's talk to Penn State University!
Penn State University in U.S. is one of the newest members of GCUA 2030. It is a university based in Pennsylvania with a main focus on agriculture. Ruth Mendum is one of the coordinators and represent Penn State University in the GCUA 2030 network.
Please tell us about you and your role in representing Penn State in GCUA 2030.
I got involved with the GCUA almost by accident. Penn State has had a long and fruitful relationship with SLU and I happened to be traveling to Sweden at a point where we needed to renew the formal paperwork between our two organizations. While I was there, Ylva Hillbur mentioned that the GCUA 2030 network existed and was in the process of reinvigorating itself. From that conversation, it was clear that the match between the GCUA 2030 and Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences was very close so I took that information back to Penn State and we were very excited to join. I see my primary role to recruit as many other researchers, educators, and staff to become involved in GCUA projects as possible. We have a graduate student representative and two of my colleagues are currently serving on working groups.
I'm part of the working group that is creating a course in intercultural collaboration which is something I am personally, deeply committed to. Universities around the world train our graduate students in disciplinary and methodological issues but if we are to solve the key issues of our time, things like food insecurity and climate change, researchers will have to work with international colleagues. That process is challenging on so many levels because funding agencies have different criteria, career expectations are not the same and, in truth, we researchers bring our own cultural and social backgrounds with us into the research process. Young researchers deserve to have these issues addressed in their training process and the GCUA is in a unique position to provide both instruction and exposure. My own work on climate change, refugees, food insecurity, gender, and energy poverty in Eastern and Southern Africa fits into the GCUA agenda. My chief collaborators are based at various CGIAR centers in East Africa as well as Sweden and Germany.
What is Penn State University and what are your main focuses?
Penn State is a land grant university which means that we were founded as an agricultural research and education institution in 1850. Since that time we have grown and expanded to be a comprehensive institution serving the state, the region, and the world. We educate our students through PhD level in fields ranging across the disciplines from the Liberal Arts to Engineering and, of course, the College of Agricultural Sciences. We face the same challenges as all universities the world over in my view: how to deliver education and outreach in the most effective and affordable manner while supporting cutting-edge research.
From my perspective as someone who works in international programs, the post-covid challenge is to reintegrate with the rest of the world after a long period of isolation. As an optimist, I see this as a chance to reconsider our past engagement and improve how we connect across time zones and cultural differences. In particular, I hope the pandemic has led us to understand fully abandon the colonialist view of the world that undervalued the talents of people living in the Global South. Climate change and pandemics should be making clear that we need every drop of human talent and effort to keep the planet habitable for our species and I see the work of groups like GCUA as a means to achieve that goal.
What are the main challenges your country is facing seen to the SDGs?
Personally, I think the United States has engaged in the delusion of American exceptionalism for far too long to the detriment of ourselves and the rest of the world. The SDGs are an excellent framework for understanding human and planetary needs outside of conventional economic analysis. What is challenging is to shift our priorities from a focus on material production to a human-well-being-centered approach. Unfettered capitalism has yielded a politically unstable and economically inequitable country and changing that is our biggest challenge.
How can the GCUA 2030 network help your university to develop your work towards the SDGs?
In the US, international networks have for too long failed to include agricultural and natural resource management disciplines. The GCUA 2030 network fills that need in creative and collaborative ways. What also sets the GCUA 2030 apart from other networks is that under the leadership of SLU, there exists consistent, meaningful, and targeted activities. For example, the working groups currently developing coursework for advanced graduate students or mentoring opportunities, bring representatives of participating universities together on a regular basis to think through mutual, SDG-related issues.
That kind of regular and useful collaboration builds the kind of mutual understanding that makes bigger projects possible. I know this may sound odd in the age of all things digital but from my view, the most important element of effective international working relationships is building trust and knowledge of each other's strengths. That sounds very abstract but in my experience, regular, rewarding contact is what builds the kinds of solid connections that make quality collaborations possible.
How can your university contribute to GCUA 2030?
We are new but we have jumped in with enthusiasm. We have a designated graduate student representative, Deanna Behring, Melanie Miller Foster and I are participating, and in Deanna's case, heading, working groups. At this point, it is hard to predict how international relationships will unfold for the next year or so due to Covid-19. What I can say is that we are laying the groundwork here at PSU such that as soon as the world re-opens we are ready to engage at the highest possible level. I hope that this involves both intensive digital and in-person collaboration. I also think that transdisciplinary research will be the hallmark of future international collaboration!