Achieving a globally engaged campus in testing times

Study abroad offers a valuable experience for university students in North America to develop their skills, but by itself does not define what it means to be a globally engaged campus.

Universities that aspire to provide meaningful international experiences for their students demand leaders who are committed to the mission of global engagement, able to leverage resources creatively and willing to persevere in the face of challenges such as budget cuts and the recent rise in anti-immigration rhetoric.

That was a key take-away from a webinar hosted on Wednesday by StudyPortals, for which University World News is the media partner.

The purpose of the webinar, titled "The innovation imperative for a globally relevant and impactful university", was to provide insights into how universities can engage with the world “in a more productive manner", said moderator Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of StudyPortals, a global education search platform based in the Netherlands. "We don't want to be a passive observer but ... an active change agent."

Drawing from recent reports, Choudaha defined global engagement as a matter of creating opportunities for students to have meaningful relationships and interactions in an international context. But, he noted, students aren't the only stakeholders.

The webinar featured presidents of three mid-sized universities in North America, two in the United States and one in Canada, each with unique student populations. All three have made global engagement a cornerstone of their mission.

Webster University, a private, non-profit university based in St Louis, Missouri, enrols more than 20,000 students distributed across a network of campuses located in Asia, Europe and Africa.

St Cloud State University, a public university in St Cloud, Minnesota, enrols 14,500 students, 10% of them international students representing 85 countries, and many domestic students are among the first in their families to go to college.

Centennial College in Toronto, Canada, is a relatively young institution attended by 42,000 students, half of them enrolled part time. Last year it opened a campus in China.

Democratising study abroad

All three universities want to ensure that study abroad opportunities are available and relevant to all students. Webster University, for example, pays airfare for every student who wants to study abroad, and recently added a programme in Ecuador that fulfils requirements for science students, a population that is often neglected.

Centennial invests 1% of tuition from international students in an endowment to cover costs. Global engagement should not be "a privilege of a small select group of our students", Centennial President Ann Buller said.

Because many of Centennial's part-time learners can’t devote a full semester to study abroad, the university also offers service-learning programmes through which students spend 10 to 14 days abroad. In past years, participants have participated in projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba and Costa Rica.

Still, the presenters noted, study abroad cannot be the sole focus.

“To merely enable more students to go abroad is not enough,” Buller said. “Your curriculum (formal and informal), your services, your policies, your philosophical approach need to demonstrate the priority that this goal holds within your institution.”

Buy-in from stakeholders

Innovation in global engagement goes beyond the student experience. Webster University, for example, has created a faculty/staff development programme. Each year, about 15 people participate in a year-long global leadership academy, which includes one week in residence at an overseas campus.

"I believe the commitment to assuring that every single student has an opportunity for a global experience has to be built into the curriculum, the financial structure and it has to be led by our own employees," said Webster President Elizabeth Stroble.

At St Cloud State, Interim President Ashish Vaidya said local businesses and state legislators have made clear the need for globally competent graduates, allowing the university to make the case for global engagement strategies that align with local and regional needs. "We can help translate the local to the global,” he said.

This autumn, for example, St Cloud State is delivering courses toward a medical technology certificate to students at Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior University in Mexico who are employed by a medical devices company that is based in Minnesota near St Cloud. Students in Mexico take courses synchronously with St Cloud students, allowing them to interact with each other and better understand the global impact of their industry. The partnership grew out of a trade mission to Mexico by Minnesota’s Governor, Mark Dayton.

Leveraging technology

Though not a panacea, emerging technologies also will play an increasingly important role in allowing universities to reach a broader audience.

"What we’re realising, and taking more and more advantage of, is online opportunities [that] will allow us to extend and expand our niche programmes," Vaidya said.

When Centennial College put its global citizenship courses online, officials were surprised by the interest from outside Canada. It's "a way to share our values and [reach] the next generation of learners", Buller said.

Webster University, too, is developing synchronous online programmes, in part to reduce unnecessary duplication across its campuses. "We will always see [face-to-face interaction] as the foundation but online will be increasingly important to us as we're trying to build linkages [and] take advantage of faculty expertise," Stroble said.

Addressing pressing issues

Webster also views its international network as a way to call attention to pressing global issues, Stroble said. Working through its Ghana campus, for example, the university this year is collaborating with the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network, Inc on projects related to AIDS and HIV awareness in Africa and the United States.

One of the most pressing challenges for universities seeking to promote global opportunities is the recent rise in anti-immigration sentiment. Such a climate "not only asks us to rethink the way we approach this question [of global engagement] but to continue to define the importance of that to our students", Vaidya said.

While the presidents offered no silver bullets, they see the current climate as all the more reason why global engagement must be clearly embedded in the university's DNA.

"The deeper the roots go, the harder it is to take it away when things go wrong or times get tough," Buller said.

"This is not one of those add-on things that’s kind of a nice to have," Vaidya said. "It's very clear now ... that we believe internationalisation is not only relevant, it's essential as a core component of your education. And those aren't just things you can do on the side."

University World News readers can access a video recording of the webinar here.