Preparing to Succeed in a Global Society

Justina Leung '09 (CANR) with schoolchildren in South Africa, during a Study Abroad program.

Justina Leung ’09 (CANR) with schoolchildren in South Africa, during a Study Abroad program.

Walk through the halls of Global House, one of 16 Learning Communities on the Storrs campus, and you are likely to hear a harmonious blend of languages – Swedish, Korean, and French, to name a few. Opened in 2007, Global House houses undergraduates who are interested in international issues, Study Abroad, and foreign languages.

Global House – which houses 125 students from 10 countries – is just one example of the University’s growing focus on preparing students to succeed in an increasingly global and diverse society. In living situations like Global House, through contact with international students, on Study Abroad trips, and in classrooms, UConn students are becoming citizens of the world.

UConn’s graduates must be equipped to succeed in an increasingly diverse and global society, says Elizabeth Mahan, interim executive director of the Office of Global Programs. The University’s mission as a public institution centers in part on shaping its graduates into engaged citizens.

Tiffany Touma ’13 (CLAS), an English major from Redding, Conn., understands the importance of learning to live in a diverse society. A resident assistant in Global House, she is the daughter of immigrants – her mother is from France, her father from Lebanon.

“I’ve met people from cultures and countries I knew nothing about,” she says. “There’s a lot you can learn in the classroom, but it is so important to get to know people. It’s helped me become more accepting.”

An Expanding Network

But students need not live in Global House to meet peers from other countries. There are numerous opportunities for travel abroad, including UConn’s exchange programs, where the University has an official agreement with another university to exchange students on a regular basis. Exchange programs are an affordable way to study overseas because students pay UConn tuition for their experience abroad.

Such a partnership exists between the School of Fine Arts and the Moscow P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Russia. An agreement between the two institutions was signed at a ceremony in Moscow in 2006 by David Woods, then dean of the School of Fine Arts. “I signed the agreement at the very desk that Tchaikovsky used,” he says.

Each year, during spring break, several UConn students travel to Russia to study at the conservatory, while conservatory faculty regularly come to Storrs to perform and lecture.

Meanwhile, the University hosts close to 200 international exchange students each year – like Pei Kang Wu from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. An economics major, Wu quickly fit in on campus.

“I was surprised to see the school hosting clubs and events for students,” he says. “Schools in Taiwan never do that, so I always find fun things to do here.”

Many of the international exchange students who come to Storrs hail from institutions that belong to an elite network of research-intensive universities known as Universitas 21 (U21). In 2010, UConn was elected to membership in the U21 network, which is made up of 23  universities in 15 countries.

The universities in the U21 network include the University of Virginia (the only other American member), University of Melbourne, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “In addition to providing students with cultural experiences they can’t have here in the U.S., these programs are expanding UConn’s curriculum,” says Mahan. “Students can take classes at other universities that we don’t offer here.”

U21 also makes faculty exchanges possible. For instance, Professor Simon Yarrow of the University of Birmingham in the U.K., who spent the 2011-12 academic year at UConn, was the University’s inaugural U21 Humanities Institute Fellow.

Since becoming a member of Universitas 21 (U21), one of the leading global networks of research-intensive universities, UConn has found in its fellow institutions new avenues for international partnership – from academics to community outreach.

Being a part of U21 is not only increasing the University’s international visibility; it is also providing students with a myriad of Study Abroad opportunities, says Mahan: “Think of it as expanding our own campus.”

As part of this prestigious network, she explains, UConn has essentially enhanced its existing curricula. Before U21, a UConn engineering student with interest in aeronautical engineering would not have a class available to take. Today, that student could opt to take classes at Lund University in Sweden, a U21 institution offering coursework in the discipline.

UConn’s U21 membership has also opened up greater Study Abroad opportunities – and at affordable rates, with students paying UConn tuition for time spent overseas at the member institutions under the exchange agreements between U21 institutions.

Participation in Study Abroad in general has increased at UConn by about 15 percent over the past eight years. “We’ve grown tremendously,” says Mahan, noting that the growth of the program has outpaced the national average, which last year was at about 3 percent.

“The U21 network has opened a lot of doors for us,” she says. “Now the list of our exchange partners is on par with the so-called ‘public ivies,’ giving our students access to some of the best universities in the world.”

At the same time, UConn is working to create new programming initiatives through the network, such as the U21 Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala, in which undergraduates from U21 institutions implement social entrepreneurship strategies in rural Guatemala in an effort to alleviate poverty. This new U21 program is modeled on a successful existing Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala Study Abroad program at UConn.

Closer to home, the University plans to host the U21 annual Summer School in 2013 in Storrs. The event will be focused on human rights.

This past April, UConn invited doctoral candidates in business from across the U21 network to its Hartford campus for a research conference, allowing these graduate students, Mahan says, “to present their work on a global stage.”

“U21 is a good platform for collaboration and communication,” says Raluca Nahorniac, program specialist in the Office of Global Programs. “We get a lot from it in terms of exposure and access to resources, and we can also contribute a lot to it; even as a new member, UConn is very active.”

With possibilities of piloting joint Ph.D. programs with fellow U21 members, creating a faculty exchange system, and boosting UConn’s international student population, Mahan sees many opportunities for raising the profile of the University globally.

U21, she says, “allows us to focus and deepen relationships with a certain set of schools and leverage the opportunities afforded only when a group of universities come together.”

Culture Beyond the Classroom

The University has a robust Study Abroad program, with 20 percent of each graduating class engaging in some sort of international experience, says Mahan. “We have made good progress toward our institutional goal of having 30 percent of students study overseas.”

What distinguishes UConn is the diversity of Study Abroad options it offers, says Mahan. Students may take advantage of more than 300 programs in 65 countries – among them the School of Pharmacy program held in Beijing, China. Each summer, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutics Diane Burgess and Fei Wang, an associate clinical professor of pharmacy, take students to China to study traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

“The purpose of the course, from a pharmacy perspective, is for students to learn a different culture within their major. However, the course is open to non-pharmacy science majors and is very attractive to pre-med, nursing, nutrition, physiotherapy, and horticulture students,” says Burgess, who developed the five-week program in 2008.

Classes are held at the Peking University School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, a sister school to UConn’s School of Pharmacy. In addition to classroom study on the history and theory of TCM, students visit pharmacy departments in hospitals and local pharmacies that practice TCM, collect medicinal plants in the field, and visit TCM manufacturers. They also engage in intensive study of Mandarin and visit cultural sites, like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

For Andrew Straznitskas ’11 Pharm.D., the most enriching part of the trip was meeting Chinese students at Peking University. “It was eye-opening interacting with other students and learning about their culture,” he says, adding that the experience has made him a better pharmacist. “I have a clearer understanding of alternative medicine and why someone would choose to pursue that route.”

Camille Kritzman ’13 (CLAS), a psychology and Latin American studies major with minors in human rights and French, is on her third Study Abroad program. “For me, [Study Abroad] has been an essential part of my college experience,” she says.

Kritzman spent a month in Toulouse, France, working on her French, and also interned with an economic development nonprofit in Guatemala. This year, she studied Spanish in Santiago at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, a U21 institution. Although each program has offered her something unique in terms of personal growth, Kritzman says she particularly enjoys the level of independence afforded in Chile.

“Here, I am virtually ‘on my own’ and have no other option than to speak Spanish all day,” she says. “I have had the opportunity to make many Chilean friends and truly feel immersed in the culture, language, and country.”

Acting Locally

There is also a social justice component to many of UConn’s Study Abroad offerings. One of the University’s goals is to produce global citizens who “have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for understanding the world’s problems and actively working toward their resolution,” says Mahan. “Students are interning for human rights organizations, using experience gleaned from business courses to help reduce poverty, and studying sustainable agriculture.”

Dan Couture ’12 (CLAS), an anthropology and psychology major, has gone on two Study Abroad trips with a focus on improving the world. “I wanted to be able to work in the local communities and give back to the countries I was learning so much from,” he says.

He joined Kritzman in Guatemala last summer, where they worked with the Social Entrepreneurs Corps to help develop a micro-consignment supported business. Through this program – jointly sponsored by the School of Business and the Honors Program – UConn students have helped provide fire-retardant stoves for poor families and reading glasses to weavers, who often must stop working as their vision fails in middle age. As their final project, students in the program analyze and invest in a local business they chose as a group.

At UConn, there are many outlets for students who want to increase their knowledge about other cultures and people, and these experiences, whether on UConn’s campuses or abroad, are life-changing. Says Kritzman, “I cannot stress enough the value that these experiences have had on my life.”