Meeting Alumni in Campinas

We held our alumni event at the Dan Hotel, which was convenient and not very expensive.  Only three of the six invitees could actually make it, but it was good to talk to people who had been affected by our programs.  They almost all say the same thing.  They almost always tell me that their program was a life-changing experience and this makes them friends forever of the U.S.

I met the guy who went on a Community College Initiative exchange in 2009.  He spoke to me in fluent English, which he attributed to his time in the U.S.  The Community College Initiative is an ECA program that sends participants to study in fields like agriculture, applied engineering, business management and administration, allied health care, information technology, media, and tourism and hospitality management. Fulbright administers the program in Brazil and participants are recruited from historically underserved populations.  Ronaldo studied information science.   He said that is still maintaining friendships he made in the U.S., but also worldwide with other participants he met in the U.S.  In this world of networks, I wonder what role our program participants play.   

As I was talking to Ronaldo, I have to admit that my mind wandered to how we measure success in public affairs. It was not because he was uninteresting. On the contrary, it was exactly his enthusiasm that led me to this related related topic. Here was an articulate and promising young man who was my immediate friend because he was a friend of the United States. We helped him become successful and put him into an international network.  He told me that much of what he becomes will be thanks to us. I don’t know if all of that is true, but some is. How will we measure this? How will we measure the thousands of contacts he might make and deeply influence? We are too stuck on numbers and metrics, which usually measure superficial “reach”. Is reaching 100,000 people with a 140 character message on twitter worth more or less than this one kid?

I also thought about the Pygmalion effect.  That is the idea that you create success by your idea that the person is or will be successful.  Do we find successful people or do we help create them?  Some of both are at work in a complex interaction.  It was fortuitous that in walked another of our guests, a psychologist who had been on an exchange program in 2009.  One of Ricardo’s specialties was how to measure the interaction between training and selection.  We talked about a study of applicants to Ivy League universities that compared those who were accepted and actually attended them to those who were accepted but did not enroll.  After several years, their outcomes were very similar. To a large extend, a great university like Harvard produces great results because it is able to start with great raw material.  Returning to the Community College paradigm, perhaps the Community Colleges actually produce a greater value added. They take kids who otherwise might not be successful and make them better.  Of course, the other permutation is how hard it to add value.  The better you get, the harder it is to make each additional percentage point of improvement.  The discussion will never be resolved.   

The last guy to show up was a recent IVLP.  Luiz studied alternative power in the U.S. and is working to apply what he learned in Brazil.   Like all the others, Luiz praised the connections he made in the U.S.  This is a persistent theme.  The program might last a month or year, but the contacts are forever.  My thoughts returned to measuring results.  The measuring paradigm, IMO, is inadequate.  We are using a physical-mechanical model to measure what works more like a biological system. Let me explain.   

In a physical-mechanical system, you can measure and predict results from inputs.  It may be very complicated, but it is not very complex.   For example, a mechanical watch is complicated, but not complex.  It won’t change its mind and it won’t reach to changes around it, except maybe to break.  A watch will not grow any bigger or get any smaller if you change its environment. In contrast, a biological system is complex, with various parts changing based on changes in other parts of the system.  A little seed can grow into an enormous tree and in the course of its grow will affect everything around it.

My three friends hold potential for growth much beyond the inputs and outputs that we can measure.  Their actions will affect the ideas of others in ways that we cannot predict. Maybe my belief in the efficacy of public affairs is faith based.  I have faith that good programs will produce good results in ways that I cannot explain, much as I have faith that good seeds will produce good plants and fruit in ways I also cannot explain.   My judgment tells me that we did a good job with these exchanges and I have faith that taking time to meet with them in the evening in Campinas was worth the time.