Internationalising the campus in frugal times

The ‘internationalisation of education’ is a term which often makes the people who use it sound naïve and those who hear it cringe with understandable scepticism. However, in the last couple of decades, aided, most certainly, by the explosion of electronic news and social media, many institutions of higher learning have had to come to terms with this trend in order to secure a relevant position in global rankings.

Naturally, the institutions that have traditionally benefited from public and private funding to implement comprehensive international programmes have managed to increase their student and faculty mobility, as well as attract greater numbers of overseas students.

However, smaller universities or those that lack clear mandates on internationalisation tend to disperse the few allotted resources or put all their efforts into a single component of the internationalisation process.

After years of talking about and experimenting with the phenomenon, everyone agrees that internationalising a campus is no easy task. Even with ample resources, both human and financial, many institutions still struggle with the concept and-or with its implementation.

International revolution

For the past few years, the Politecnico di Milano Lecco Campus in Italy has witnessed a revolutionary change in vision and practice. Although the offspring of a larger mother campus in Milan, the desire to convert the Lecco site into a destination for the international student community has become an important goal for both university administrators and prominent community members.

The transformation started in 2004 with the project Formare Ingegneri Stranieri – Training Overseas Engineers – which promoted greater collaboration between public and private institutions.

The support of the community was fundamental to building a new campus, one that more closely resembled a typical residential university. This year the state-of-the-art campus and its on-site 250-student dormitory were inaugurated and are now the pride of the city of Lecco.

Obviously, the physical structure to house an international community constituted just a part and the beginning of our vision. Along with an administrative mandate to teach all masters courses in English, the campus now houses a CNR (Italy’s National Research Council) lab, where our young engineers will be working on projects of national and international relevance.

However, what I would like to share in this article is an aspect of the internationalisation of a campus that is often overlooked in the literature and is, in my opinion, where real transformation occurs.

I am referring to all the co-curricular and extracurricular initiatives that help promote integration of foreign students on campus. Ours is a rather small campus where most students come together at one point or another and this has facilitated the process.

Most importantly, we have approached internationalisation as anyone would a puzzle or a Lego figure: one piece at a time, building on it to help support a larger, more complex structure. We have mapped the process from its inception, recorded where we are now, where we are headed and how we are going to proceed.

Professional development

The first aspect of this co-curricular project was to start offering ongoing professional development courses in English that most students would be interested in and would need in their curriculum vitae. Some of what is offered relates to intercultural communication and issues in the workplace.

Other subjects are of a more pragmatic nature, ranging from principles of leadership and teambuilding to gender issues, CV writing, presentation skills and time management. All of these are taught in English, of course, the indisputable, current lingua franca of the international community.

When these co-curricular offerings proved to be in great demand, we decided to centralise all the services and projects dealing with international living and cultural exchange. Thus, the Office of Campus Life and Student Resources was born, with just one experienced officer and the temporary help of student assistants.

Aside from offering guidance and support to student organisations, this office coordinates student-initiated events on campus, promotes intercultural opportunities, expands the network between the university and local community, proposes new professional workshops and has recently created a new online mentoring programme called International e-Mentoring.

This one-academic-year international mentoring programme between ex-alumni of our campus and our masters students has been in place since last year.

The feedback we have received from a recent survey of both mentors and mentees confirms that, if proper recruitment and monitoring are in place, the resources needed are within the possibilities of any institution. Obviously, the key is to have dedicated, knowledgeable staff managing any programme.

Giving international students a voice

The aspect of ‘internationalisation at home’ that is at the top of our list of challenges for the coming years is giving international students not just a taste of Italy, but offering them the possibility of having a voice in our community.

In other words, giving all our students opportunities for leadership and real integration. We believe that our mandate is to shape global engineers who are capable of working in and relating to any environment, who are flexible and willing to break language barriers and who can be empathetic to cultural differences.

If we can do that for our students then we will have accomplished a real, quality human exchange.

Alina Cordova is director of the Office of Campus Life and Student Resources, Politecnico di Milano, Lecco Campus, Italy. She is also a teacher of international communication and a global higher education strategist and has worked for more than 30 years both in the United States and overseas with international and linguistically diverse populations. In addition, she has created numerous programmes to help implement internationalisation in the private and public sectors.