University needs to dig deep to be global-ready

As a business student, Melyssa Kerr worried she wouldn’t be able “to do good” when she joined a working world focused on the bottom line. But an experience abroad showed her passion for community service did not have to be relegated to a weekend hobby.

Kerr knew she wanted to go beyond being an accountant at a non-profit organization or someone who volunteered at a soup kitchen on weekends. After venturing to Peru as part of the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, Kerr began to see how to combine her business studies with community service.

“Suddenly I understood how business would work in the developing world,” says the recent Richard Ivey School of Business graduate, who spoke during the Fall Perspectives on Teaching conference.

The annual conference, held Sept. 1, focused on Educating Global Ready Graduates: Intercultural Competence on Campus. The keynote speaker, Darla Deardorff of Duke University, explored what it means to be a global-ready and the implications of intercultural competence on the classroom.

During her studies at Western, Kerr participated in two ASB programs and the Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction course in the Department of French Studies. This course, taught by professors Jeff Tennant and Henri Boyi, involves a six-week learning experience in Rwanda.

“The international experiences I’ve had at Western helped me determine my career course and how I want to be involved in the community at a personal level,” she says.

Kerr’s self-awareness of how she fits into the larger world picture is a key step toward intercultural competence, Deardorff says. “In the world we live in today, we really must be engaged.” she says.

Being fluent in a second language is not enough a global-ready graduate; it is a state of mind.

Deardorff, who is the executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators, based at Duke, was involved in a study to determine what it meant to be inter-culturally competent. When she asked experts about whether a second language fit the bill, she says they could not reach a consensus because “there are too many cases of fluent fools.”

In order to be interculturally competent, students need to go beyond adopting the “fun stuff” of a culture, such as the food, music and cultural festivals; they must develop a foundation of respect, openness, curiosity and discovery. Being able to see from another person’s perspective is essential to being interculturally competent, she explains.

It is important to show respect and value others, exercise cultural humility and build relationships.

How this translates in the curriculum could be through using materials from other cultures; using Skype to bring in guest speakers; classroom diversity dialogues; and hosting international scholar lunches and symposiums.

Intercultural competence, she says, should be integrated throughout the university.

In the community, students should be engaged in service learning and the university should seek opportunities to partnering with locals schools and immigrant communities. “Being global-ready, it doesn’t just happen. It needs to be a coordinated effort,” she says.

Western’s focus on raising the bar on internationalization means more than just sending students like Kerr into the world; it is also important to diversify the student body.

It would be irresponsible for the university to increase the number of international students – which represent about 3 per cent of students, compared to the 6 per cent provincial average – without offering them sufficient supports, says Julie McMullin, special advisor to the provost (internationalization). McMullin is focused on improving the co-ordination and communication on international learning opportunities.

Western exceeded its target for 2011-12, enrolling 300 first-year international students. But it remains an uphill climb to 400 by 2014-15. For 18 months, McMullin is surveying Western’s international landscape, including recruitment, student exchange and study-abroad opportunities.

For an international student, coming to Western is his/her study-abroad experience, notes Nanda Dimitrov, Teaching Support Centre associated director. In order to ensure it is a positive one, both the university and the student must work together.

With about 25 per cent of PhD candidates being international graduate students, the university must examine how to set them up for success. It is important for supervisors to consider what educational assumptions they bring to Western and articulate expectations for teaching and academics.

Faculty should also be aware of how their students are developing intercultural competence, recognizing they are not only learning a new language, but also the language of the discipline.

“One of our challenges is to teach them to operate in a global world where they will be leaders,” Dimitrov says.

The university is also establishing the Western International Education office and the position of vice-provost, international education, for which McMullin will serve in an acting role for the next year. This portfolio will include international recruitment, student services and learning.

In the past, the university has offered formalized exchanges of one-to-two terms, but the goal is to expand those opportunities more broadly, such as developing embedded study-abroad programs, offering more short-term opportunities and possibly a certificate program for those completing courses with international components, McMullin says.

“For those who aren’t able to travel abroad, we need to provide opportunities at home,” she adds.

“This is not a short-term fad,” McMullin continues. “This is something we are engaging with long-term.”