From Fortress to Vista on the World

When it comes to creating an international campus, America’s universities are far better at welcoming faculty and students from abroad—and sending students to study abroad—than in truly elevating global consciousness. Simply having foreign individuals on campus doesn’t make global citizens of the rest of us. Exposure is hardly sufficient. Like wallflowers at a dance, there is sadly too little meaningful interchange.
Barely one in eight undergraduates participates in study abroad, and, when they do, it is most often in Western Europe or Australia, and even then in an American enclave or among English-language speakers. Integration in a foreign country is rare. A semester abroad certainly can create a memorable experience and maturation, but does a few months in one country truly generate an appreciation of the wider world?

Americans are largely monolingual—and now expect the educated worldwide to speak English. In fact, linguistic atrophy is more characteristic of student life than foreign language competency. Only 8% feel their abilities in a second language improved in college.

The curriculum likewise doesn’t present much reassurance. Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok, noted that: “Only a small minority of students appear to take any coursework that would prepare them as citizens to understand America’s role in the world and the global problems that confront it.”

We give lip service to the importance of global consciousness, but do little to promote it. I offer a few suggestions and observations to redress this:

  • Avoid tokenism. Don’t create a singular curricular hurdle or opportunity and declare victory. Instead, generate a limitless menu of possibilities for students and faculty.
  • Avoid cultural relativism in the classroom. Too often foreign students are treated differently because of alleged cultural differences. They don’t speak up in classes in their home countries, so perhaps we should expect less contribution to class discussion. Academic dishonesty is more rampant abroad, goes the myth, so we shouldn’t hold foreign students to the same standards or repercussions. By submitting to cultural biases, even under the guise of sensitivity, we compromise the quality of the academic experience for all students.
  • Take advantage of immersion opportunities, even in our own backyard. We host so many immigrant communities, which might expose a more representative view of the world than the elite stratum able to afford American tuition pricing. Be on the lookout for teachable moments and experiences locally through community service or participant-observation. We are often surrounded by unfolding case studies in our own environs and through them connected to world events.
  • Take advantage of communication technology to create ongoing academic interchange. The logistics of being in the same place at the same time are daunting for faculty to teach abroad or students to enroll abroad. Blended or distance learning can allow faculty and students to co-mingle without co-locating. We now have the capability to create virtual academic community for those who can’t commit to moving.
  • Don’t limit the cultivation of global citizenship only to those below age 22. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: like youth, global opportunities are often wasted on the young. We shouldn’t try to forcefeed or cram too much into the undergraduate years. Graduate and professional education—and programs for older students, often studying part-time—extends the opportunities to integrate international efforts. Create graduate study abroad—short, intensive destination courses for student cohorts.
  • Seek out study-abroad-in-reverse, and build institutional alliances that create a dynamic two-way flow of students studying abroad for a single semester or year. Establish dual-degree agreements that promote this bilateral exchange. Create distance learning exchanges so that online courses might become melting pots for students from various institutions and cultures.
  • Be cautious of major overseas commitments, but bullish on partnerships. Beware of the urge to create bricks-and-mortar, standalone branch campuses: These are often beyond the core mission of the institution, limited in any deeper benefits to the main campus and fraught with risks and the poorly anticipated.  Alliances, however, provide the ease of starting and exiting, the benefit of in-country expertise and existing overhead, often a truer opportunity for global interchange, and perhaps even a baby step toward more extensive involvement.
  • Embrace the conversation as much as the outcome. So often, I have heard from faculty and administrators that simply the opportunity to explore new overseas opportunities brought colleagues together on a project, which became a valuable learning experience in itself.
  • Balance the intensive with the extensive. The core dilemma for developing global awareness and commitment is whether to focus concertedly on one place or more broadly across many continents. Too focused becomes binational rather than global, but too broad becomes both superficial and unrealistic. Rotate the focus of attention.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once offered the helpful concept of the diachronic and synchronic—that is, a comparative perspective across both time and space. This, for me, encapsulates the mind-opening purpose of the university: to take someone out of the comfort of one’s own place and era, with the means to understand other cultures and, as a consequence, to gain perspective on being a contemporary American. At their best America’s higher educators provide a foundation for global awareness that produces lifelong curiosity and sensitivity—and, if possible, a deeper understanding of the connections between the local and the global, the past and our future.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.

Related Posts: Trends & Indicators: International Enrollment; Forum on Internationalization (pdf)

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