As the U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water writing instructor for the past two years, Dr. Rick Bereit has developed over 30 English and technical writing lessons, corrected thousands of punctuation and article errors, logged numerous hours traveling to Pakistan and, most notably, endeared himself to nearly every student who’s studied with him.
Writing instruction is a key aspect of the U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCASW) Exchange Program, offering students a chance to polish their research writing as they work towards theses and dissertations. Bereit earned his Ph.D. in Literature from the U and brought a bevy of technical experience to the role, but it’s the amount of heart he puts into his teaching that has made the greatest impact.
“I ask the students to write four personal diagnostic essays,” said Bereit of how he structures his course. Many USPCASW students count English as their third or fourth language. These short assignments offer a way to evaluate students’ writing skills and gather common patterns and mistakes that Bereit can address in the classroom. The topics are simple–a hometown, a process, a success story, and one person who has impacted your life–the responses are moving and have made a box of tissue standard issue when Bereit sits down to grade.
His style? Kindness, respect, and involvement. “It takes a semester for me to level the relationship,” Bereit said, who balks at being called sir. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, he’s no stranger to proper titles and signs of respect. “But what I fear in submission is that often students don’t value their own ideas,” he said. “I don’t know that many teachers have treated (these students) the way I do,” reflected Bereit.
“We study the sun,” said Bereit. It may be an unlikely topic for a writing class, but it’s a method he devised to break students out of their reticence to challenge published research. From the sun’s position to the track of orbits, Bereit strongly notes that famous astronomers got parts of their theories wrong, but also they made progress by questioning the work that came before. “The only way to advance is to question former research,” he says.
And if there is to be a sustainable future for Pakistan, it is critical that these students actively advance their field. Reliable drinking water is accessible to less than 15% of the population, inadequate sanitation contributes to preventable waterborne diseases leading to a child’s death every two minutes, and inefficient management of water leads to losses greater than 50%. “There is an urgency to this work,” remarked Bereit.
He believes that the true potential of the USPCASW project lies in what happens when the formal partnership concludes at the end of 2019. Bereit sees the USPCASW partnership akin to the ignition system in a car–the starter motor may get things going, but at some point, an engine must take over. To enhance the program sustainability, Bereit has worked to establish a hybrid online writing course. Aimed at early intervention, the curriculum will strengthen students’ English writing skills earlier in their academic career and course administration will eventually transfer fully to partners at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology in Pakistan.
When he took the job, Bereit knew he would be tasked with helping students write, but it’s clear that his influence has been felt more deeply.
“Thank you so much, Rick for your support and encouraging remarks,” wrote former student Huma Tariq Malik. “I know one thing for sure–if I ever enter academia and teach students, I will be following your footsteps. I have not only learned writing, your class was like a training session for good teaching techniques too. Instead of just communicating, you interact with students on a personal level and that is what makes someone a great teacher.”
Indeed, many of the letters students have sent to Bereit tell of plans to pursue Ph.D. studies and Fulbright fellowships after the encouragement they received from him. “Maybe THAT will be the spark that takes it all forward,” he reflected.
Bereit, too, is moving ahead. This summer ushers him into yet another adventure when he moves to Colorado where he will couple his Air Force background with his writing experience to teach aerospace engineers at Schriever Air Force Base. Happily, the move will take him closer to his daughter and two grandchildren, though he, and the kindness and care he brought to each student in the USPCASW program, will be deeply missed both in Utah and Pakistan.