Rethinking global education

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When President Adam Weinberg gave a talk as part of the Global Studies Seminar earlier this month, he started by debunking the myth that the idea of studying abroad began in American colleges and universities. In truth, the idea of global education dates back much farther. For example, Europe’s elite have been leaving their home countries for broader educations for centuries.

America’s own study abroad, said Weinberg, began after World War I. Early efforts were focused on creating cross-cultural understanding with the hope that if young Americans and young Europeans could learn to understand each other, a new generation of emerging leaders might be able to prevent a second world war. As Weinberg noted, “It was a great theory, but it didn’t work out in practice.”

Those endeavors started a long process among top colleges to generate internationalization and cross-cultural understanding.

Since then, the numbers of students studying in foreign countries has grown considerably from 71,000 in 1989 to 283,000 in 2012. Every U.S. college and university, said Weinberg, is touting opportunities for global education. Weinberg even cites the fact that very few schools cut study abroad programs in the economic downturn, a sure sign that that part of the higher education experience is here to stay.

But Weinberg has some serious concerns when it comes to the nation’s study abroad programs, and he would know. Prior to becoming Denison’s 20th president in July, Weinberg served as president and CEO of World Learning, one of the premier international education, exchange, and development organizations, which works with young people from more than 140 countries, helping them develop the ability to address critical global issues.

Less than 5 percent of all U.S. college students have a study abroad experience. More worrisome, those going abroad are often going to the wrong places and on very culturally and academically thin programs.

“The fact that we have virtually no U.S. students studying in China is a problem,” said Weinberg. “What does it mean that less than 2 percent of U.S. students studying abroad are choosing to go India? A large part of the future, I think, will be shaped by relations that either happen or don’t happen between the U.S., China, India, Russia, Brazil, and other major powers.” Very few U.S. students are going to those countries, or learning about them during their college careers.

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He worries, too, about the experience of international students on U.S. college campuses and the views they take back home. Citing a recent study, Weinberg points out that 38 to 50 percent of international students studying in the U.S. went back to their home countries having made no American friends. His concern is rooted in worry that we send students back to their home countries with lesser views of our own country. “We admit international students to the U.S. and then we make it virtually impossible for them to be successful here,” said Weinberg. Students often feel lonely, ignored, or misunderstood by their U.S. peers.

In addition, he says, the process of getting here needs to be revamped. “Imagine being a 20-year-old from Iraq,” he said. “You’re invited to the U.S. by our State Department. It’s your first time out of your country, and you arrive in LAX and all of a sudden you are whisked away by Homeland Security and strip-searched.” Weinberg understands the need for secure borders, but believes the current system is neither efficient nor effective. He argues that it does not make much sense to identify and invite future leaders to study in the U.S. and then alienate and anger then while they are here. That’s called reverse diplomacy. It does not serve the U.S. or the world well.

Although Weinberg has his concerns, he’s still hopeful for the future of American study abroad programs and the education students can glean from the experience. He’s also hopeful for the ways in which these programs can influence America’s future. But how can we get it all moving toward more meaningful experiences for both American and international students?

Weinberg has some thoughts on that, too. He argues that we need new models that infuse international perspectives, experiences, and content throughout the curriculum. We also need clarity of the goals and metrics we can use to measure progress towards those goals. It starts with the faculty, Weinberg notes. We need to rethink our study abroad programs and curriculum to help facilitate new relationships between our faculty and faculty from colleges around the world.

Denison has recently joined a new initiative of 25 liberal arts colleges located in 13 countries. The goal is to help faculty develop relationships and then to find ways to link courses, students, and research to find ways to infuse “the global” throughout everything we do. Last fall, a Denison faculty member linked her German class on campus with a class in Slovakia. Students practiced their German and studied together.

He’d also like to see new efforts to strengthen the experience of international students at Denison. This means taking a look at everything we do right down to the residence halls, creating ways in which students come in contact with and learn from difference in all areas of campus life.

This is important stuff, says Weinberg. “The future will be shaped by people who are globally skilled and oriented. We need to produce a new generation that is capable and excited to work with diverse groups of people in order to become better creators, innovators, and leaders.”

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