Enabling students to develop an international mindset

When I called Dr Jim Butterfield at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo, to interview him about having been awarded the Malone International Leadership Award, I expected to discuss the activities praised in the press release announcing the award.

These were his lectures on internationalisation of higher education in Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Brazil and, especially, WMU’s study abroad programmes – including one at Sunway University in Malaysia, which WMU has been twinned with since the mid-1980s and new ones with universities in Spain, Germany and China.

The political science professor’s efforts in leading his colleagues in integrating study abroad into their curricula was one of Butterfield’s many contributions to the internationalisation of the university that led Paulo Zagalo-Melo, associate provost of the Haenicke Institute for Global Education at WMU, to nominate Butterfield for the award bestowed every two years by the (American) Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

“He promoted a different mindset about studying abroad,” said Zagalo-Melo.

Previously, study abroad had been largely seen as an opportunity for students to grow by the experience of being overseas. Under Butterfield’s leadership, “faculty look more seriously at study abroad and what it means for the student’s education. It is now connected to the level of global competencies and cross-cultural competencies that students need to have by graduation”, said Zagalo-Melo.

What I wasn’t expecting was what he said a moment or two later. “If we achieve 15% of a graduating class studying abroad it would be utterly remarkable. We probably have around 10%.”

One of the reasons why students do not avail themselves of the opportunity to study abroad is the fear of doing so. Another is the insular view held by many Americans.

Unlike the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Michigan State (East Lansing), much larger, wealthier and more famous universities each about a two-hour drive away, which attract students from around the United States, WMU draws mainly from small and medium-sized towns in western Michigan and the neighbouring states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Additionally, WMU has large contingents from the poor African American and Latinx communities in Detroit. Even though Michigan borders the Canadian province of Ontario, “most of our students don’t see themselves as living right on an international border”, Butterfield told University World News.

The largest impediment to students going overseas is, however, financial.

“We have a lot of first-generation students and Pell Grant [Federal grants for students in financial need] recipients, special programmes for children of migrant farm workers and foster children, programmes for veterans and an awful lot of students who work, too,” Butterfield said, adding: “They are not going to go abroad because they don’t have the money to do so.”

Cross-cultural and global interactions

To ensure WMU’s goal, that “even if a student is never to leave their home country or home town, they will [nevertheless] be prepared to understand and engage in social and professional cross-cultural and global interactions”, WMU would have to find ways to turn the regional university’s campus, which is hundreds of miles closer to the American heartland than to JFK International Airport in New York, into a global education platform, Zagalo-Melo explained.

One way to involve WMU’s domestic students with globalisation is by fostering one-to-one relationships between them and the school’s 1,800 international students who hail from more than 100 countries.

In an effort to break down the ghettos that tend to form among international students, something Butterfield remembered from his own experience studying abroad while doing his graduate work in Russian studies, WMU has put in place a number of initiatives.

“We have a new dormitory where students can opt to have an international student as their room-mate,” he said.

Quantifying how successful this and social activities, including international events, such as food days designed to engage both international and domestic students, is difficult, but, pointing to his classes, Butterfield noted that, as compared to earlier in his career, international students now interact with domestic students (and vice versa) more comfortably.

Referring back to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the campus, Butterfield said that, in small group discussions in one of his courses, the three Japanese students in the class sat in different corners of the room.

“So, when engaging in small group discussions, they were participating with American students and maybe international students from another country.”

Butterfield was instrumental in a number of initiatives designed to put flesh on the bones of the third part of WMU’s mission statement that the school is ‘globally engaged’.

Using multimedia to augment lectures and discussions, courses in the Virtual Study Abroad programme attempt to immerse students in the milieu of foreign countries.

(Incidentally, since these courses are digital, the expertise in creating them provided WMU with a head start last year when the university moved classes on-line because of COVID.)

The Global Classroom programme is part of the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) project, in which faculty at WMU co-teach courses with faculty in Ecuador, Ethiopia and South Africa.

“WMU Global Classrooms emulate ‘real world’ challenges students will find when they graduate and eventually have to start interacting professionally and socially, virtually or in-person, with people of different cultures, with different perspectives, and in different time zones,” said Zagalo-Melo.

The programme, which includes courses in health policy, music, aerospace engineering, and blindness and low vision studies, is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years.

Butterfield helped into existence WMU’s Global and International Studies. There are presently 40 students majoring in the programme, down from 60 before the COVID pandemic. Another 24 students are taking a minor in the programme, down from 30 before the pandemic.

Ian Magnuson, who graduated from the Global and International Studies programme in 2015, credits the programme and its structure that allowed him to focus on specific areas of interest with helping him secure a Fulbright International Fellowship.

“I focused on Western Europe and political science, but I wasn’t a true political science major – I did less theory and I did more applications and learned how political science works with economics, works with history and kind of creates this whole idea of Europe,” he says on a video on WMU’s website.

With obvious pride in his voice, Butterfield told me that, a few days before our discussion, a former student had called to say he was going to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship.

To ensure that WMU continues its decades-long tradition of ensuring that every student has some intellectual engagement with global issues and other cultures, under Butterfield’s leadership the university has introduced a number of one-credit-hour courses.

“These allow students to engage without too much of a time commitment, and they all have some kind of globalised skills,” said Butterfield.

Global engagement programmes

It is, however, among Butterfield’s colleagues and the university’s regular course offerings that his championing of internationalised education has had its greatest impact.

In 2014, the International Education Council (IEC), which Butterfield chaired, organised a full-day workshop on global engagement at WMU and invited Hilary Kahn of Indiana University to conduct it.

Among the 75 or so attendees was Dr Ramona Lewis of the WMU’s department of educational leadership, research and technology, whose prior work did not have a global focus.

After attending that workshop, she created a new course on global perspectives in higher education. She also co-developed two study abroad courses for education students.

“We didn’t find out about any of this on the IEC until several years later when some of her graduate students gave us a presentation on their course projects,” Butterfield told University World News in an e-mail.

“The students now are going forward with a global focus. They are not repeating the beliefs and biases of their predecessors,” he added.

Dr Charles Crawford, a professor of sociology at MSU focusing on drug policy in the United States, used an internal grant to become part of a six-person seminar team that went to Portugal to examine the impact of Portugal’s decision in 2001 to decriminalise drugs and focus on treatment and harm reduction.

In addition to attending lectures organised by the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, during the 10-day seminar, he was able to meet grassroots activists and experts in the field.

“I was able to create a section for my courses on how Portugal approaches the war on drugs and drug policy. I include pictures of the sites we visited and can provide the context in much better detail now, touching on race, history, politics and culture of both nations [and] why US policy is different and could the Portugal model be replicated here,” Crawford wrote in an e-mail to University World News.

Using funds from a four-year National Science Foundation grant, Butterfield’s colleague, Dr Pnina Ari-Gur, a professor in WMU’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, organised joint research projects involving US and Brazilian students, who visited each other’s labs.

In spring 2022, she will teach a new course, mechanical engineering project-international, funded by the Global Classrooms project.

Butterfield ended his last e-mail to me with a story that nicely sums up the fruits of his efforts as recognised by the Malone Award.

A political science student whose interests were not necessarily international took his course in Russian and Central Asian politics in spring 2019.

“One class session was devoted to water issues (as both an environmental problem and the source of potential conflict). She decided to explore that issue in depth in her honours thesis titled ‘The effects of cotton demand policy in Uzbekistan’.” She successfully defended her thesis three months ago.