Brent Ruter, Part Two
With his focus on international development and education, and with EXPLO at Yale’s international community making up 30% of the campus population, Brent Ruter feels that there really is no better place on Earth for him to be. In part two of our interview, we talk about Brent’s PhD dissertation, his passion for closing the educational gender gap, and his visions for EXPLO at Yale.
Along with your role as Head of Program at EXPLO at Yale, you’ve also been going to back to school for your PhD. What is your focus?
International development and education. Specifically, it’s comparative and international development in education, with an even more specific focus on education across different systems in the eight countries where there is the greatest disparity in educational attainment between girls and boys, and men and women. Our goal is to raise the retention rates of young girls in comparison to boys, and right now we’re in the process of collecting data from these eight countries, which include Mali, India, Tanzania, Guatemala, and the United Arab Emirates.
What I’m also involved with — and this has a special connection to the work we do here at EXPLO — is working to train professors at a teacher training college in Tanzania to teach future science teachers using a more proactive, hands-on approach in the classroom. Over my last two summers there (and the months in between), I’ve set up a team of researchers and professors from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Together, we set up a professional development program for the science teachers in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, and now it’s in its fourth year. The basic goal is to bring more labs and hands-on techniques into the teacher training classrooms so that once they graduate and become teachers themselves, they can then use and draw from those methods to teach their students in a much more active and engaging way. And that’s exactly what we work to attain here.
At EXPLO, each of our teachers goes through the PCA process, which is where they work with a pre-season curriculum advisor from January to June, finalizing a curriculum plan for the class and devising lesson plans that will infuse each class period with as much life and interest and fun learning as possible. This is before they ever step foot inside an EXPLO classroom. Once they arrive on campus, there’s an intensive orientation period where all the teacher go through their lessons and plans with their on-site Curriculum Advisors, to hone what could be a good lesson into a great one. Since training is an ongoing process, our teachers continue to get feedback from their advisors and have the opportunity to revise their plans from one day to the next. So as you can see, my research is a lot like working with the teachers at EXPLO, except these projects take place on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro instead of the campus of Yale.
What specific project are you focused on?
I’ve been working a lot with my advisor, Fran Maveris, who has been working in Tanzania for about 25 years. Together, we’ll work to track a set of boys and girls through their entire trajectory and path — basically through life — starting from when they are in about 5th grade. Back in 2000, Dr. Maveris met and taught all these girls and boys, and started collecting data. She continued to collect data in 2003, 2005, and 2007, and now, in 2011, she’s going to collect data again.
A lot of these students have young families now, and we want to see what impact their previous educational choices, limitations, and opportunities have had on their lives now. Our goal is to measure how education has impacted these now young men and young women over the course of approximately 10 years. We have data on their aspirations — what they wanted to do, what their parents wanted them to do — and how those changed over time. This includes which path they took in life, whether it be professional school, vocational school, dropping out of school, becoming a day laborer, on through to becoming a professor.
The best part about working there these past two summers is that I got to know the schools these individuals went to, the town they live in, and I got to know them, as well. I feel blessed because I’ve been able to work with someone who is so invested in the community and been in the community for such a long time. There’s so much in international development, and frankly in education, that are just fly-by-night consultancies where people will come in, offer recommendations, and then leave. I’m more interested in longer, more sustainable relationships…
Of what actually works on the ground.
Exactly! What actually works on the ground, and how implementing something on the ground actually looks years and years later. Oftentimes, in public policy and in education, we’re not patient enough. We rely on quick fixes and faith in silver bullets, but we don’t have the time or the patience to go back and see what the impact of our decisions or recommendations was, and if, really, the ideas that we thought would be helpful and useful actually turned out to be helpful and useful. So the reason I like this project so much — and the reason I like EXPLO so much — is that they both remedy what I see as a failure of people to take the long view. It’s not about a certain test or a certain course — and while a teacher can certainly be incredibly impactful — it’s not always about the teacher. It’s about the cumulative effect of education, as it impacts life as people actually live it, with all of its variations, imperfections, and inconsistencies.
I did want to ask you, which was part of my segue with the last question, was, with all of your work in Tanzania and the focus of your research, how has that all come to play here? In terms of how you envision EXPLO at Yale or want to see it in the future?
I think, over the years, the Senior Program especially has reflected this global education community with the sheer number of international students that we have, the number of places they’re coming from, and the number of places that they’re all going. It doesn’t matter if they’re international or domestic. The students who come here are coming from and going to very interesting places all over the world. You can see a microcosm of aspects of the globe in the EXPLO community. And so, in that sense, I really think my background in international development and education and in cross-cultural communication has really prepared me for being in a community as international as this one.
In terms of the research I’m doing, I’d say that my degree has really helped me in terms of the planning and strategic planning for EXPLO in the long view, looking at what students want and enjoy, and making projections forward.
Being so invested in your work in Tanzania, what was the impetus that brought you and Sarah back to EXPLO?
What brought us back to EXPLO after a few years away (Brent used to work in the Curriculum Office and Sarah was Dean of Students at EXPLO at St. Mark’s) was that this opportunity presented itself at a very interesting moment in our lives. We were at a crossroads — a wonderful crossroads with opportunities in every direction. We were looking at living in Tanzania so I could conduct research and teacher trainings at this teaching college, and Sarah could work at the International School next-door, in Moshi, Tanzania. We were also looking to do the same in the United Arab Emirates vs staying in Minnesota to work in school administration or working at a non-profit, also in Minnesota.
We were considering all of these options simultaneously. As we were deciding, I called Moira Kelly, EXPLO’s Executive Director, for a recommendation letter. She ended up asking me about the job I was interested in for about five minutes, and then started talking about everything EXPLO was doing and where it was going, for about an hour and a half. And at the end of that hour and a half, she said, “Sure I’ll write you a recommendation, but maybe you’d be interested in something else.” It turned out that the something else was coming on board here.
During our conversation, we talked about all the possibilities and plans she had regarding expanding the Focus programs to EXPLO at Yale, creating more educational partnerships with schools and institutions that share our philosophy, and expanding opportunities for students to experience EXPLO as a transformative experience. We also talked about the very real possibility of extending our organization’s reach beyond the summer programs. I was hooked, both by the notion that EXPLO has always had a great impact on students’ lives, but also that through our joint planning, it will continue to expand and deepen that impact on students and their communities.
I love working in, for, and in front of teams linked by a common purpose, endeavoring to do good in the world where that’s often not the driving force. EXPLO has always felt that way for me, so coming back to help lead EXPLO at Yale and start developing a number of special projects was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. There is absolutely no place we would rather be.
Interview + Photo by Lisa Merlini