5 questions about
Leading a vocational training team
with Ron Smith
Past governor of District 7430 (Pennsylvania)
1. What led you to form a vocational training team?
As an incoming district governor in 2006, I met Francis “Tusu” Tusubira of the Rotary Club of Kampala-North, Uganda, which led to us working together on many grants. A few years later, Rotary rolled out vocational training teams (VTTs) — groups of professionals who travel to another country to teach and learn from others within their field. Tusu put me in contact with some folks in the medical school at Makerere University in Kampala, and we realized there was a need to reduce mortality associated with childbirth. At the time, my son was in medical school at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which is a leader in distance education. So we decided to form a team there to put together a training program for midwives in Uganda and to put the whole system online at local health centers.
2. How did you get started?
First I took a trip on my own to Uganda in 2013 and met with the head of the obstetrics department at Makerere. We visited some health centers and identified infrastructural needs. We then built a combined humanitarian/VTT global grant, with half going toward funding computers and infrastructure, and half toward sending a U.S. team to Uganda and bringing a Ugandan team to the United States. We felt strongly that this two-way VTT would help us build a stronger partnership with the medical professionals in Uganda.
3. What are the responsibilities of a VTT leader?
As a Rotarian, your job is to put together a team that is supported by organizations that have the depth and the interest to provide training. Our first team from Drexel was made up of a computer engineer, a library scientist, three midwives, an obstetrician, and a pediatrician. My priority was to train them about Rotary and introduce them to issues in Uganda. On the trip, I would hold morning meetings to make sure everyone on the team was on the same page, and I would get them to Rotary club meetings so that they were visible in the country. I was also the liaison to the host club, Kampala-North, which coordinated visits to the health centers and made additional arrangements.
4. How do VTTs compare with other grant-supported projects you’ve done?
VTTs take more time. But they give you a bigger reward in the end. We didn’t want to just drop off computers. The first team from Drexel provided training to Ugandan midwives and learned about what future training would be required. I think we learned more than we taught. The team members then got certified in specific training methods used in limited-resource countries. Ultimately, we want to turn midwives into trainers so they can teach others. We’re also creating infrastructure that can support telemedicine. With a VTT, you also develop professional relationships between skilled individuals on both sides. The level of interpersonal engagement can’t be duplicated in another type of activity; the team members are not just colleagues but friends. Through these relationships, Drexel and Makerere universities have now signed agreements that will sustain this effort well beyond our project.
5. What advice do you have for Rotarians interested in leading a vocational training team?
You need a great team and good partners. It’s taken a lot of work, but all through it, we’ve had consistent partners. Make sure your vision is your partner’s vision. That’s a key thing. You also need to adapt. Every VTT has obstacles, but you’ll have a much better experience if you can adapt quickly to situations. Let things develop organically; don’t be married to your plan. You can be married to your vision, but not to your plan.
— JOHN M. CUNNINGHAM
• Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa
• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.