My View from South Hill
Friday, June 26, 2009
I am devoting a series of summer blog posts to some dominant impressions from my first year as president. One area that has struck me anew this year is the unique value of international study as part of a student's preparation for life-long success. Our mission statement commits us to preparing students "to share the responsibilities of citizenship and service in the global economy." I have learned that we truly live that mission.
Our freshmen certainly get it -- over 60 percent of them say they want to have a study abroad experience. About half that number, 30 percent of all students, actually will study abroad by the time they graduate. These experiences range from one week to a full semester. Some students take courses, some do volunteer work, some do both. Professor Hongwei Guan sponsored the participation of 23 students as interns during the 2008 Beijing Olympics last summer, and returned this summer with another group of 12 students looking at health care practices in China. In the year just ended, five students accompanied Professor Ryan Parkhurst to study travel writing in England. Professor Alicia Swords of the Sociology Department went to the Dominican Republic with 18 students. Professor Nick Muellner is taking 10 students to Rome with a focus on photography. Mary Taylor and Erica Weiss, both on staff of the Hammond Health Center, organized a service learning experience in Malawi with 7 students.
These international experiences are reinforced on the Ithaca campus through the curriculum and through residential life options. Many of our majors have an international dimension to them, and students may also choose to minor in the langauges, cultures and histories of various parts of the world. Some students live in themed residence halls that bring international experiences home in the form of language communities, faculty talks, and other programs with an international theme.
Ithaca College's London Center is a special resource that enables about 150 students per year to live and study in London, nearly all of them for a full semester. Though students take courses with faculty drawn both from Ithaca College and from London, the real classroom (as our program brochures like to say) is London itself.
I have not yet visited our London Center, but when I do it will be a homecoming of sorts. Exactly forty years ago, my family moved to center city London for one year as a result of my father's assignment to Ford of England. From one day to the next, my world of suburban space and a tight circle of friends who were all pretty much like me became instead a world of urban neighborhoods, knowing no one, class-stratified accents, and putting milk in your tea.
Everything was strange, and that is the perfect recipe for personal growth. The year we lived in London, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the dollar was the strongest currency in the world, and the Viet Nam war was at its height. Yet I was unprepared for the intensity of respect, envy, and/or anger that could be provoked simply by someone hearing my accent. I was unprepared for the religious and territorial passions associated with the violence in Northern Ireland, or for the extent to which everyday customs and interests were completely different from what I was used to. I learned from each of those contrasts, and came to understand my own country in a more complex way.
Today, of course, London is one of the world's truly international cities, an even richer potpourri of global culture than it was forty years ago. As globalization has advanced more generally, higher education leaders are ever more aware of the value of study abroad. Research shows that international study is rated by students as among the most significant experiences of their college years, and that participants become more globally engaged for the rest of their lives. We can be proud that Ithaca College rankes 3rd nationally among master's level institutions in the number of students going abroad for a semester-long program. And yet the gap between the 63 percent of freshmen who want to study abroad and the 30 percent who actually do so tells us that we can and should do more.
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