Faculty Impact - Dr. Sonja Bickford

Posted: April 17, 2017 12:00:00 AM CDT

Originally from Scandinavia, Dr. Sonja Bickford has had a plethora of experience abroad. Bickford has taken groups of students on trips, has been instrumental in creating a partnership between UNK and a university in Finland, and has worked with the International programs on campus. She is currently a visiting faculty member in the department of Industrial Technology. Bickford elaborates here on her experiences abroad and her current projects.

Sonja Bickford portraitTell us a little about yourself.

Growing up between Scandinavia and different parts of the United States in a family that moved due to the demands of my father’s job ignited my passion for international business early on.

Prior to the move to Kearney, Nebraska, I was an Assistant Professor in the University of Great Falls' Business Administration Department in Montana, USA. In addition, to teaching I have served on the administrative side in higher education in capacities as a director for multiple types of university programs, such as Study Abroad, Continuing Education, RN to BSN Program, Public Relations, as well as Technical and Intellectual Property. I have experience in global business administration as well as professional network creation and maintenance. My current research involves an extensive international network of public and private stakeholders focused on best practices of rural communities from the Midwest to the Arctic. These best practices focus on corporate social responsibility including environmental as well as social impact assessments and business support models such as market entry barriers. In addition, I have research projects looking at community branding, cultural differences of community gardens, as well as business and market analyses of micro- and medium- scale aquaponics systems.

My experience also includes working on a large collaborative international research project focusing on industrial best practices of environmental impacts in all 8 Arctic countries at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre’s Institute of Minority and Environmental Law, in Rovaniemi, Finland. I also worked on a Department of Defense (DoD) project on application specific advanced packaging at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Office of Electronic Miniaturization (OEM), in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I try to balance my life with hobbies. I am a master level falconer and have during the past year started to swim with my children’s swim team (Greater Nebraska Swim Team), and more recently have realized a passion for martial arts and have a yellow belt (orange hopefully after this week) in taekwondo from the Nebraska School of Martial Arts.

Explain your role(s) here at UNK and how you have impacted students.

During the past two years I have been a visiting faculty member in the department of Industrial Technology - College of Business and Technology – starting in the fall 2017 I will join the UNK Department of Communication as an assistant professor of advertising and marketing. I have been at UNK for 2 years now teaching courses such as communicating through technology, project management, and leadership. A few examples of the impacts from the courses that I have taught are that I have students tell me that they have felt more comfortable taking on presentations even outside of class or taking on project managers roles or positions after taking my project management course. I see my current role and responsibilities to guide, mentor, and teach students within the framework of my courses, but also to provide students opportunities that I know will be of benefit to them as they work to achieve their career goals.

Examples of such opportunities, beyond the classroom, are getting students involved and excited about research or in organizations/committees on campus. I serve as a faculty mentor for students wishing to pursue research projects. In addition, I have worked with the International Programs on campus and helped to establish international partnerships with universities in Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland). I have also created and taught a travel class where I have taken students on a trip as part of the course. In May 2016 I taught a course focusing on business in Scandinavia and the Arctic during which I led a 18-day trip to 5 different countries (Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Estonia) as we looked at cultural and business examples and differences in various business fields.

I hope that the impact I have on my students is them to get out of their comfort zones, seize opportunities, work hard, and have fun along the way. I also strive to be a role model for them and provide examples of this in the classroom.

Outside of the classroom - this spring semester the research students that I mentored showed their work both at the UNK Ted Talks as well as the UNK –URF Research Day.

Looking forward - going into the fall 2017 semester I have 4 URF students working in the research laboratory I co-created with Dr. Angela Hollman – the Core-Bit Lab (Collaborative Research in Business and IT) on project related to marketing, aquaponics, community branding, and corporate social responsibility.

What do you enjoy most about your position at UNK?

I truly enjoy working with the students in and outside of class as well as being a part of the UNK community.

In addition, I enjoy working in a multidisciplinary research team. The current core research group whom I collaborate and work with has become more than my research colleagues – they have become my friends. Through my research I have also met so many wonderful people and seen new sights and places in the community and state.

The support I have received for my teaching and research has been encouraging and led me to try and create new research projects and opportunities such as the international partnerships.

Your family is very entrepreneurial. Can you share your reasoning for this and some examples?

Both my husband and I moved a lot during our childhoods and that forced both of us to understand the importance of friends and making friends which has led to our network. As far as the entrepreneurial side, I believe that the “out of my comfort zone” experiences have fostered my enthusiasm and willingness to seize and create opportunities. This is something that we try as a family to teach our children as well. For example, our two older children have participated in the Biz Kidz camp and have learned to network and create business opportunities. They have also learned to conduct their own research projects and have showcased and presented their work in various venues.

I think one of the key foundational skills is being comfortable with the situations and the out-of-comfort-zone experiences, because that is where learning happens as well as the great opportunities are found. That is why we let our kids try new things whether it be foods, classes, or opportunities provided on campus and I encourage my students to do the same!

You have been instrumental in creating a new partnership between UNK and the University of Tampere in Finland. Explain how this began and your role in the process.

I have seen many aspects of international education at the college level. During my undergraduate studies I was an exchange student and went through the exchange process. In my previous position as director of study abroad, a program that I initiated and created based on my experiences and the needs of the students and faculty I feel that I understand the benefits of international experiences as part of the educational process – both academic and personal growth.

In regards to the most recent exchange agreement that UNK has signed with the University of Tampere and how that came about…

For the past two years I have taken faculty-led courses over to Finland as part of the trip and we have visited the University while we are in the city to provide all students an opportunity to meet peers and learn about different educational systems in the countries. As part of these campus visits the Dean of Management, Dr. Antti Lönnqvist, spoke to our group about their mission and aims for the programs. In meeting with the dean on my trips we discussed the similarities and complementary programs and courses that we could provide the students at each respective university by having students go on a university exchange. In addition, there is a mutual desire to collaborate on research on an international scale. So from here we decided to see if an exchange agreement, or memorandum of understanding, would be of interest at our respective universities. I see my role as the liaison between UNK and University of Tampere.

In addition to the agreement with Tampere University in Finland, during my first year at UNK I served as the liaison on another memorandum of agreement with the University of Karlstad, Sweden. Karlstad is in central Sweden.

How do you see this partnership benefiting UNK students and faculty?

What makes this agreement different is that not only does this agreement provides opportunities for student exchange, but also for collaborative opportunities for faculty and staff. We have initiated discussions of collaborating within courses, but also providing the opportunity for faculty mobility for guest lectures and networking.

What are your hopes for the partnership in the future?

My vision for the partnership would be a mutually beneficial program or programs – meaning that it would fulfill the missions, visions, and needs for both institutions. I believe that the relationship and partnership between the universities will provide opportunities to create new and wonderful programs, courses, collaborative research, as well as learning opportunities.

You are pioneering a team that researches Corporate Social Responsibility. Can you tell us more about this and why it is important to our business landscape?

Rural communities in Nebraska, and around the world, are facing some decisions in regards to how they should make decisions to grow sustainably. Communities strive to retain and attract new people and talent along with attracting more businesses and opportunities. From the business and organizational perspectives, we have found that the most successful and profitable businesses need to have a positive relationship with the community that they operate within. This attainment of a positive relationship is in many places referred to as a Social License to Operate (SLO). From a community perspective the community expects the companies to support the community, but also to share a common community vision, values, and goals. A shared goal and vision for a sustainable and growing rural community is achieved by working together to build collaborative relationships, educational opportunities, and infrastructure by providing opportunities for both the businesses and community members.

Through an international stakeholder engagement and networking methodology in this study combined with semi-structured surveys and interviews the project will conduct a gap and needs analysis in the community and thus add value for rural community decision makers. The project will provide results that will aide decision makers as they steer their organizations to embrace sustainable growth. In addition, the results will include ideas for innovative and new CSR practices best matched to current community needs. Best practices and examples from rural communities in various stages of development will be identified of successful CSR activities between rural communities and business that operate within them will be identified and assessed in this study. During the past year a CSR steering committee in Kearney, Nebraska led by the project team has met with an engaged group of stakeholders from private and public sectors in Kearney and Nebraska which has provided the research team with direct insight and real time feedback about their organizational needs for the research results. By thoroughly understanding the impacts and benefits of CSR efforts, specifically in rural communities, more informed, collaborative, and sustainable rural communities can be created. Rural areas in other parts of the world where companies have become a contributing and visible part of the local community have proven to not only provide benefits to the company but to the community, as well. The positive impact to the company includes increased productivity and efficiency, which positively influences the local economy. Communities located in the Arctic have already seen these positive impacts and New Zealand has shown that without a positive SLO and CSR companies and the country is unable to attract new people. The rural areas in the other parts of the world such as the Arctic and New Zealand are very similar to Nebraskan communities in terms of goals for sustainable development, economic development, community size, close knit societal way of life, and strong ties to land and culture.

Within the project that I am leading we believe that via stakeholder collaboration and engagement in hands-on research will benefit the rural communities in Nebraska and beyond by creating a source of proven and innovative CSR methods that can be implemented in rural Nebraskan communities, such as Kearney, to support each of the community’s sustainable development initiatives.
Thoroughly understanding CSR efforts can aid in creating a more informed and collaborative rural community, which in turn can help us make decisions that will enhance and speak to our community’s values and thus in turn sustain businesses and talent in the community.

How have your experiences abroad impacted your teaching?

Growing up in an environment where I moved between different countries in Scandinavia and several states in the US taught me to adapt to different cultures and to better understand and appreciate different countries and traditions. Academically, I have worked on international projects in diverse places, such as Iceland and Greenland.

In the classroom and in my teaching I am able to use this understanding and international experience in the classroom as I help each student learn the material covered, but also use it to show differences between US and abroad. For example as we talk about how we as individuals communicate and perceive different pieces of communication. I also use my international work experiences and networks to identify guest speakers as well as for research opportunities. I have students working on research in international multidisciplinary teams!

By: Emily Kassmeier

Category: Business and Technology, Entrepreneur

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