Engage in Global Challenges

SFU co-op students gain global perspectives in Arusha, Tanzania

September 28, 2023
SFU co-op students Maggie Cross, Lauren Ord and Emily Burkholder travelled to the Aga Khan University in Arusha, Tanzania to collaborate on food systems research.

Many university students dream of taking their studies abroad, and for those who do, the experience can be life-changing. A great number of students also look for ways to have a positive and meaningful impact on their communities and on the planet.

What’s Next: The SFU Strategy prioritizes offering students a rewarding and transformative educational experience and recognizes the university’s commitment to engage in global challenges.

This past summer, three Simon Fraser University (SFU) students had the opportunity to travel to Arusha, Tanzania in East Africa for a learning experience that brought new and global perspective to their studies.

Emily Burkholder, Maggie Cross and Lauren Ord study resource and environmental management (REM) at SFU. Burkholder is pursuing a master’s degree in the planning program, while Cross and Ord are completing bachelor’s degrees in planning. The trio travelled to the Aga Khan University of East Africa (AKU) Arusha campus as part of their programs.

AKU is a pioneering institution of higher education and research that works to improve quality of life in the global south and beyond. The campus is on the nearly 4000-acre Arusha Climate and Environment Research land (ACER) where environmental research takes place.

SFU and AKU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last fall to facilitate joint research, faculty and student exchanges, and collaborations. Both academic institutions share a commitment to tackling global challenges like climate change, healthcare and food security. The MOU builds upon a longstanding partnership between SFU, AKU and the broader Aga Khan Development Network and enhances the opportunities for joint projects in East Africa.

Burkholder, Cross and Ord worked on a new collaboration between SFU and AKU, "Planting the Seed: Food Literacy for Climate Resiliency, Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Circularity in Tanzania, Kenya, Canada, Pakistan and Indonesia.”

The research project is led by REM professor Tammara Soma who directs and co-founded the Food Systems Lab at SFU, a research and innovation hub working to reduce food waste and build sustainable food systems. The Planting the Seed project extends this work by looking at the impact of climate change on agriculture in Arusha.

“We can learn a lot from communities around the world about food security, food sovereignty and circular food systems, especially amidst a changing climate,” says professor Soma. “We also want to learn more about how to engage young people in the practice of sustainable and equitable food production. This project really is a win-win for the communities we are collaborating with, and for our student researchers. Our community-centred work on food systems transformation supports climate innovation and tangible actions.”

We caught up with Emily Burkholder to talk about her time in Arusha, Tanzania.

SFU REM (planning) master’s student Emily Burkholder.

What an incredible summer co-op experience working in Arusha. What is the focus of your research at SFU, and why did you choose to participate in this co-op?

As a master’s student in the REM Planning Program at SFU, my research focuses on improving the sustainability of our food system through a circular food economy. With my background in international development, I was really motivated to find an international experience during my time at SFU. I am interested overall in how food can make the world a better place. Long term, I have goals of continuing to work in an international context, so I was thrilled when I came across this opportunity. 

Please share more about the research project, “Planting the Seed.” How has your experience in Tanzania inspired you as a researcher?

Planting the Seed is a collaborative project between SFU and AKU that seeks to understand how youth food literacy can help promote climate resiliency, food security, Indigenous food sovereignty and a circular food economy.

I learnt so much while in Tanzania. As a grad student, I am thinking a lot about what I hope for my future career and being in Arusha—and at AKU—really gave me better insight into what I want to do. I learned a lot more about Tanzanian culture, global climate impacts, planning in the context of Africa and the impacts of colonization. 

SFU REM undergraduate students and research associate interns Maggie Cross (far left), and Lauren Ord (far right) with AKU professor and ACER research director Dr. Emmanuel Sulle, second from left. SFU REM master’s student and research associate intern Emily Burkholder is second from right.

Tell us more about the highlights of the co-op experience. What did you work on within the project? What did you do outside of the research work?

The Planting the Seed partnership project between SFU and AKU looks at how we can use youth food literacy to make a more sustainable and just food system. While in Tanzania, I did a preliminary search of what food literacy looks like in Eastern Africa. It is very clear that educating young people on the importance of a sustainable food system is the key to our future.

On top of my research, I had incredible opportunities to explore Tanzania. With my supervisor, I went on a variety of field trips to better understand what impacts climate change is having on the region. Outside of my co-op, I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and went on a beautiful safari. Personally, I learned the importance of slowing down and taking lessons from a variety of environments—not just a classroom or office.

What was it like to work alongside an SFU research superstar, professor Tammara Soma?

Professor Soma is an incredible supervisor and mentor. Her values of equity, decolonization and justice permeate her teachings and projects. Not only does she care about the well-being of her students, but she is deeply committed to the long-term impacts of the projects she works on. Her research really aligns with the values and principles I hope to carry into my career which is why I am always so excited to work with her.

Your work at SFU and AKU aligns with two priorities of What’s Next: The SFU Strategy—transforming the student experience and having a meaningful impact on global challenges. What should other SFU students and potential students know about our programs and opportunities?

I entered this master's program with a clear intention of wanting to continue to work in the field of international development. Despite my program's regional focus, I was thrilled to be able to have this unexpected international experience. I have also learnt so much about decolonization through my MRM degree and I was really proud to be entering the global field with those teachings. It has become a critical component of my research, and I am very grateful that the fundamental components of REM prepared me for this experience.

This fall, SFU president Joy Johnson will be leading a delegation to Tanzania and Kenya to advance university priorities, including the commitment to work with international partners on global challenges such as health and climate change.

The delegation will engage with key researchers at the new Arusha Climate and Environment Research land and explore new opportunities for joint research. They will also meet SFU students in Arusha who are participating in the first field school at AKU. Stay tuned for more about the SFU visit and field school later this fall.