St. Edward's University's Tom Sechrest discusses recent trip to Tbilisi, Georgia
Over the Christmas holidays, I was asked by the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, a graduate program for aspiring public leaders in this former Soviet Republic, to teach a Human Resource Management/Leadership course in Tbilisi, Georgia. This was my second time teaching at GIPA.
Georgia sits at the nexus of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. On its western border is the Black Sea. Across the majestic Caucasus Mountains on the northern border lies Russia, and its Chechen, Ingushetian and Ossetian republics. Georgia’s southern border touches Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia is still involved in some very public squabbles with Russia over its separatist regions, but remains a proud country rich in history and heritage. Georgia has a very western orientation, and GIPA seeks out professors from the U.S. and Western Europe to augment its faculty.
Tbilisi is a vibrant city, casting off the pall of Soviet oppression, and growing with nearly 1.5 million residents. It lies about 600 miles north of Baghdad Iraq and 1,000 miles south of Moscow. Parts of the city are brand new and other parts are aging. GIPA sits between them in a majestic but old building that is being refurbished from the inside out. For most Georgians, Russian is their second language, and English a distant cousin. But students at GIPA take courses from their western professors in English, and do fairly well at it. The lush tones of the Georgian language overlie their pronunciations, making conversation a melodious cacophony.
Courses taught at GIPA by western professors are accelerated. I taught five hours a day for six days to a group of new master’s students who have yet to begin their public careers. It was exciting to have a role in their initial professional development.
Upon arriving in Tbilisi (after nearly 20 hours of travel), I discovered that my luggage wasn’t on the plane with me. Luckily, a GIPA staff member took me to a store to buy some basic clothes and toiletries. Three days later, my luggage arrived. During that waiting period, I washed my clothes in my hotel sink.
However, classes were off to a good start! Because of increased enrollment at GIPA, 27 students were scrunched together in a small classroom. How I appreciate the St. Edward’s class size limits! But, I have been teaching long enough to overcome such contextual issues. Because of my work in the MSOLE Program over the last 10 years, I am used to extended class times, so I was prepared to keep students engaged for the full five hours.
I did have to take into consideration some cultural differences:
- A LOT of people in Georgia smoke. Every 90 minutes there was a 10-minute break or students would have a hard time paying attention.
- For their undergraduate experience, students solely read from textbooks. For my course there were no textbooks—just readings, lectures and participation. (One of the final exam extra credit questions was only answerable if a student had heard my lecture: “What are the school colors of the university I teach at in the U.S.?” J)
- Flexibility and class interruptions are inevitable. An administrator came into my classroom in the middle of a lecture and said “in 15 minutes everyone needs to go to the auditorium to hear a Member of Parliament speak.” No advance notice was given.
- Students are required to speak English (and class is conducted in English), but not every student has the same proficiency. At the end of each day, the class broke into small groups and discussed the major topics of the day in Georgian, then reported to the class in English. That way I knew what they considered to be the main points of the day’s lecture.
- Make no assumptions about technology. Though GIPA assured me that their classroom technology was “state of the art,” it wasn’t. Luckily, I brought my own laptop, as the software on the in-class computer was mid-1990s vintage.
- Cheating is a cultural problem and I was asked to help address this issue. On exams, if someone didn’t understand the question (or worse, didn’t know the answer), they would talk out loud (in Georgian) to get help. About half of the students openly cheated. During exams, I walked in the crowded room, and asked students not to look at anyone else’s paper. I never expected the scale of cheating I saw on exams. When I debriefed with the Dean, she was concerned, too—not just for my class, but for all of the classes.
- Georgians are a warm, friendly and helpful bunch. Every night, faculty, staff and students wanted me to go out to eat with them. The evenings started early and ended late. Georgia is renowned for its wines, so liberal tasting was assumed (and I didn’t want to offend). So after a long day of class, there was little time to unwind before heading out for an evening’s festivities.
- Post-Soviet bureaucracy is alive and well in Tbilisi! To get my travel reimbursement, I had to open an account at Bank of Georgia (a process that took a translator and about an hour as well as 10 sheets of paper). A day later, I went back and waited for an hour in line at the teller, who went through all of my paperwork, calculated at the current exchange rate and gave me wads of cash in 10 and 20 dollar bills. Over two hours for something that would take maybe 15 minutes in the U.S.!
Another memorable event that marked this Tbilisi visit occurred one day after class. I went to my hotel to rest before a dinner event that night. A few minutes after entering my room, there was a knock on the door. The hotel manager said emphatically, “Big problem. Must leave hotel now. Pack your clothes. Go with our driver.” I asked if there was a fire. No fire. Okay, this was awkward. I’m in a strange country in which I don’t speak the native language (and the hotel manager’s English was minimal). What was going on?
I sent an e-mail to GIPA, and luckily got a quick response. The hotel had gone bankrupt and everyone was being forced to leave. The driver would take me to another hotel for the rest of my stay. While waiting for the driver in front of the hotel, teams of workers removed furniture, beds, mattresses and stacked them on the sidewalk. Goodbye hotel! The new hotel was much nicer and far more modern, so I had no problem with the change.
When my 10 days in Tbilisi were over, I was ready to return to the U.S. when a major snowstorm hit European cities. Every flight was delayed—EXCEPT for mine. Luck was finally on my side! BUT, when I arrived in Houston and had to take my luggage through customs: NO LUGGAGE AGAIN! Apparently because of the snow, my luggage never got transferred from Georgian Airways. So it was another three-day delay on the return trip! But, at least I was at home where I didn’t have to wash my clothes in the sink every night and drape over the radiator to dry.
Travelling internationally keeps you humble. Interacting with new cultures expands your horizons. Teaching in a global environment is a passion of mine, and all of the hassles of packing clothes and spending hours on a plane, and then arriving without your luggage, and changing hotels and whatever…. it’s all part of the experience.
Will I make a third trip? I think if they ask again, yes. It had been five years since my previous visit, so I had forgotten some logistical “details” that would have been helpful. The GIPA administration sends me e-mails every week saying “We miss you already. When are you coming back?” so they may already be making plans for Christmas vacation 2011. Maybe next December!
I’ll be in Taiwan over Spring Break to meet with colleagues about collaborating on research. I look forward to sharing my Taiwan experience with you soon!
–Dr. Tom Sechrest is the director of the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Ethics (MSOLE) program, and associate dean of the School of Management and Business.