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Exploring Sustainable Management on AUP's India Practicum

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The Sustainable Development Practicum in Auroville, India, which has been taking place for over a decade, is one of AUP’s flagship Cultural Program study trips. The practicum pairs an academic understanding of sustainable development with hands-on experience working with NGOs and sustainable enterprises in an eco-community located in the Tamil Nadu region of southeast India. It is most commonly associated with the MA in Global Communications, but in recent years the trip has also been attended by students taking the MSc in International Management (MSIM).

The MSIM program offers a strong practical and theoretical grounding in contemporary management practices along with a critical evaluation of the economic, social and political environments in which managers work today. Students choose between the course’s general track or one of two track-specific specialisms: Sustainability Systems Management or NGO and Mission-Based Management. Practical experience, such as that which is offered by the Sustainable Development Practicum, is a vital component of all three tracks. AUP faculty work to incorporate experiential learning elements into their classes at every opportunity, pushing students to embrace varied worldviews and cultural contexts that add real-world relevance to the academic theory with which they engage.

Auroville is part city, part social experiment. Established in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, who is known by Aurovilians as “The Mother,” the “City of Dawn” is governed by a charter that draws on the teachings of Indian philosopher and spiritual reformer Sri Aurobindo. The charter espouses “human unity” and “unending education,” while stating that the city wants to be a “bridge between the past and the future.” There is an emphasis on traversing cultural borders; Auroville has been a multicultural community since its founding. Nowadays, Auroville is a hub of sustainable living practices and grassroots initiatives. It has ongoing links to UNESCO; in 2017, a fifth resolution of support was enacted by the UN body ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of the township.

The trip resulted in much more than a beautiful cultural experience...I learned lots about sustainability in practice, especially concerning plastic waste and the textile industry.

Shannon Kaylia Henry Current student, MSIM

The Sustainable Development Practicum allows students to take an active role in development projects working in the Tamil Nadu region and using Auroville as a home base. The idea of the practicum is not to import development practices, but instead to learn from local projects and discover the ways in which grassroots initiatives can foster sustainable change. “Students gain both practical knowledge and direct experience with academic fieldwork,” explains Professor Robert Earhart, MSIM’s program director. “They return from the practicum inspired and more knowledgeable, thanks to having directly engaged with NGOs and sustainability-oriented business ventures.” It’s a winning combination of personal and professional development.

As well as attending daily talks and workshops throughout the month-long study trip, students choose an NGO to work with, using their expertise to make up shortfalls in that organization’s capabilities while getting a taste for what they can learn when working in an international environment. They develop an appreciation of cross-cultural working practices and the diverse ways of understanding and implementing development concepts, along with an immersion in the local Tamil Nadu culture. “Having encountered new models of economic, social and sustainable development in Auroville, our students develop innovative research projects and gain new insights into their career possibilities,” explains Earhart. “All with a truly global outlook.”

By working closely with the NGOs, students gain firsthand experience of how academic knowledge applies to real-world contexts. Tiffany Padilla is an MSIM student who attended the practicum. “Working for NGOs in sustainable development is like my two interests had a baby!” she explains. Padilla is taking the Sustainability Systems Management track: “Initially, I wanted to focus on NGO management, but I learned that I had more of an interest in sustainability after sustainability class.” She cites this practical experience as the main reason for her wanting to come to Auroville. Whereas global communications students focus on the messaging and marketing elements of the work of local NGOs, management students dig into the organizational structures of sustainable projects – laying important groundwork for their future careers.

“The trip resulted in much more than a beautiful cultural experience,” explains Shannon Kaylia Henry, another MSIM attendee. “I learned lots about sustainability in practice, especially concerning plastic waste and the textile industry.” As a student on the NGO and Mission-Based Management track, Henry was keen to gain firsthand experience of working for an NGO. She explains how her studies focused on analyzing management in the NGO sector in order to develop strategic solutions to management issues. Her experience in Auroville was, therefore, a great way to apply that theory beyond the classroom. She chose to work for a sustainable textile brand, helping develop the company’s communications plan.

A recurring theme in student responses to the trip has been the importance of exposing oneself to diverse perspectives and approaching such perspectives with respect. “Cultural diversity exists indefinitely and needs to be considered in management,” says Henry. An appreciation of other cultures can also help students better understand themselves; “I realized that, in order to be truly passionate and genuine about my intentions with my studies, I needed to work on understanding my inner self,” explains Padilla.

“The practicum is a transformative and expansive experience for our management students,” says Earhart. As with so many aspects of AUP, the international nature of the study trip, which helps break down the barriers that exist between nationalisms, also exposes students to a broader spectrum of theories and practices. Students have been known to maintain connections with the NGOs they encounter in Auroville long after the end of the practicum, and all attendees carry the experience forward into their professional lives. “It influenced and changed my life,” says Padilla.