For the past three years, Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) — an accelerated graduate degree program of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) designed for full-time working professionals in business, government, and non-profit organizations focused on leadership for sustainability — has sent a cohort of students on a 10-day international residency (IR) to Yunnan Province, China, to focus on sustainable development opportunities and challenges in the region.

“For each cohort, we planned a distinctive international residency that allowed the students to work with global partners and apply lessons learned during the program to develop multi-scale strategies for global sustainability,” said David Robertson, director of the XMNR program, located in the National Capital Region.

XMNR Leadership in Sustainability

The cohorts tackled a variety of challenges facing China including tourism and housing development, watershed management, and the creation of a sustainability network. Prior to the trip, students spent a couple of months organizing themselves in a cohesive team, or teams, and developed the necessary knowledge and techniques to get the most out of the trip.

“The pre-trip research was extremely important for preparing our teams to clearly identify our primary questions for key stakeholders in country, as well as to ensure that we had the necessary contextual background and cultural awareness to effectively operate in a region where only a handful of us had ever been before,” said Sara Mascola, alumna of the XMNR 2013-2014 cohort.

Once on the ground, students worked closely with local stakeholders to gain a better appreciation of the challenges being examined.

“It was an incredible experience to work with such a wide stakeholder base on our project, ranging from government representatives to community leaders and environmentalists. It really helped us form a balanced view of local perspectives and helped us make more informed decisions and recommendations,” said Adam Efird, alumna of the XMNR 2013-2014 cohort.

The inaugural cohort focused on the Linden Centre, recognized worldwide for its innovative approach to historic restoration and cultural preservation through educational tourism. Students drafted a strategy to help the Linden Centre grow while maintaining its goals of protecting and strengthening ecosystems and community relations, and being a leader in sustainability as a whole.

“It was a privilege for us to be asked by such a respected and impressive business to help examine and recommend ways in which its facilities and operations could have a more positive environmental impact,” said Jenn Truong, alumna of the inaugural XMNR 2011-2012 cohort and now staff at CLiGS.

XMNR students exploring China

The second cohort, in partnership with the University of Virginia (UVA) and the Stimson Center, investigated the feasibility of developing and deploying an agent-based participatory model for the Erhai Lake Basin that would simulate social, economic, and ecological impacts of various development decisions for the immediate and broader region. Here (PDF), the students put an emphasis on water quality and availability, along with transboundary partnerships. Although this project was originally presented as primarily dealing with water resources in the developing western regions of China, Jarrod Lichty, alumna of the XMNR 2012-2013 cohort, said they quickly realized that there were many other components involved.

“Cohort members were constantly challenged to think about the scientific, social, and cultural implications of natural resource management — an experience and exercise applicable to all natural resource and sustainability issues,” said Lichty.

This most recent 2013-2014 cohort split up into teams to explore four different strategies for sustainability: housing development, luxury tourism, heritage tourism, and networking best practices in China, including how to form partnerships and determining networking needs.

Teachers and students in China

The housing development team partnered with American Institute of Architects (AIA) to determine best practices for future development. According to Sally Parker, alumna of the XMNR 2013-2014 cohort and project manager for the housing development team, regional architecture is influenced by its geography, as well as cultural, economic, and spiritual surroundings. Thus, as her team worked to identify trends in sustainable housing, they kept these influences at the core of their analysis and recommendations.

“A group of visitors, no matter how well intentioned, cannot provide useful input without understanding the community as a whole and the motivating factors that drive the way a community forms and functions,” said Parker.

A lot of knowledge can be gained from research and data analysis, but some insight can only be attained by talking to people and making observations on location. One benefit of these recurring trips to Yunnan is that each cohort provided the next one with an extra layer of information with which to work from and build upon.

Students posed in front of a Chinese language sign

“The IR experience was a chance to put many of the new skills and knowledge that we’ve learned through the XMNR program into practice. Throughout the experience, my classmates and I developed a first-hand understanding of community based environmental management issues in China, effectively engaged with multiple stakeholders in a cross-cultural context, and created tangible products and recommendations for our clients to improve their sustainability practices. The IR gave us practical experience dealing with real world sustainability issues in China,” summarizes Mascola.

“To this day I believe the project pushed and extended our limits as a cohort. We left China as a stronger cohort with a different perspective on the scientific, social, and cultural implications of natural resource management.” concluded Lichty.