Can Tradition Spark Innovation?

Friday, October 28, 2022

by Nelson Millán Nales

Yo-Yo Ma with his cello

One of my favorite cellists, Yo-Yo Ma, stated that “an innovation, to grow organically from within, has to be based in tradition” in an interview about one of his most ambitious projects. I found this assertion puzzling: How could tradition cultivateinnovation? Although seemingly paradoxical, Ma was referring to his avantgarde Silk Road Project, which was inspired by foundations of traditional culture and music as a “transnational influence along the historical silk road”. Challenging himself to reassume a student/pupil role—despite being a well-known master of his craft—Ma traveled around the world for twenty-five years, learning and collaborating with a vast range of experts to create a form of composition, or what became his musical amalgamations forged from the flames of innovation and tradition. This, to me, begs the question: Why would Ma assume a pupil role to create something new?

For years we’ve known that students are instrumental in influencing learning environments. They engage with programmatic decisions within higher education institutions to develop new, relevant, and contextualized initiatives that directly address today’s societal and economic milieu. Observing our own trajectory in the Birthplace of Public Higher Education, students have been essential in shaping the University of Georgia’s structure, course offerings, extra-curriculars, and trajectory for most of our history—from the 1803 founding of the Demosthenian Literary Society to the 2010 creation of the Office of Sustainability. In this spirit of student empowerment comes another UGA initiative, the Student Industry Fellows Program (SIFP). Supported by the Delta Air Lines Foundation and founded in the tradition of student collaboration, the SIFP is aimed at developing innovation competencies and fostering mutually beneficial partnerships between academia and industry.

In my graduate assistantship work to develop and manage the Student Industry Fellows Program, I’ve been able to engage with the Fellows not just as students but as key stakeholders in the infrastructure of the program and in higher education more broadly. I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to scaffold our programs with student agency as a top priority. Our annual two-day Spring SIFP Retreat is composed of executive development workshops and working strategy sessions that allow Fellows the opportunity to voice their opinions regarding their program and its future. During the semester, we solicit student input whenever possible to ensure that they are part of all decision-making that occurs within our program. For such a student-centric and student-driven academic program, the impact of student voices just can't be matched by any other means.

So, how does the tradition of student collaboration improve and innovate student learning and programming? Here’s what I’ve observed:

Embracing Student Perspectives: It’s well proven that diversity sparks innovation: a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and mindsets create fertile ground for new ideas.The concept of student-staff partnerships to enhance higher education is not only customary, it has emerged as one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st century. [i] Universities frequently ask themselves: what do students need? How do they need it? When do they need it? If students aren’t invited to contribute answers to these questions, what’s the point in asking them?

Fostering Student Agency: Student agency, or the degree to which students are actively involved in supporting and improving their own experiences, is a cornerstone of comprehensive programming and engagement—the who, what, when, and how of student voice and action. This sort of agency is often provided through the mechanism of partnerships—these are intentional collaborations between institutions and stakeholders to meet the needs of students.

Engaging Student Interests: This means ascertaining students’ passions—their interests, values, needs, and desires. This can be done through several ways. The more basic ones include interviews, surveys, and focus groups, but even one-on-one interactions like a casual check-in can provide valuable insight into a student’s concerns. The more sophisticated method is to survey students’ social media accounts, which often have nuanced, or even unintended insights into their feelings and thoughts. Universities in Portugal, for example, have proven the invaluable benefits of students as a vehicle of connection between academia and companies.[ii]

Nurturing Collaboration Across Communities: Undergraduate students need opportunities to engage in effective, relevant collaboration, an element of higher education previously reserved for graduate studies. Student voices must be considered as decisions are made about the future of academic disciplines and the meaningful, relevant, and contextualized learning opportunities being created for students. Innovation fundamentally requires educators to empower students for the future of education.

Yo-Yo Ma has continued to be a great source of inspiration and motivation throughout my life, via both music and perspective, often aligning with well-traveled figures like Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child, who all embraced a societal philosophy around collaborative development—one that has defined my outlook on the trajectory of higher education and its infinite capabilities.

"Be a learner first, become a master second, and remain a student forever."

Ernie J. Zelinski

Ultimately, this is what I have taken away from Yo-Yo Ma's interview and would like to share with you all: to create something new, we must all be willing to step into the "student" role, embrace tradition, and use our minds and the resources given to us in ways that are unfamiliar. In doing so, we gain access to untapped and invaluable resources and insights. Providing students with the opportunity to engage with, and actively contribute to, learning experiences as key stakeholders enables them to develop new forms of creative expression and develop collaborative skillsets in a career-focused educational environment.

[i] Standen, A., Tong, C. V., & Sotiriou, M. (2020). Shaping Higher Education With Students - Ways to Connect Research and Teaching. Saint Philip Street Press.

[ii] Santos, P., Veloso, L., & Urze, P. (2020). Students matter: the role of doctoral students in university–industry collaborations. Higher Education Research &  Development, 40(7), 1530–1545.

Nelson Millán Nales is the Graduate Assistant for SIF program and business development within the Office of University Experiential Learning at the University of Georgia. Nelson is working toward earning his Master of Public Administration from UGA. He can be contacted at Stay up to date on all of UGA’s Experiential Learning programs at and follow us on Instagram.