McMullin: Promoting global awareness and Western’s International Week

Over the last four years, there has been a lot of talk on Western’s campus about internationalization.

As I wrote in a previous edition of Western News, international scholarship and partnerships have always been important to our community. Indeed, one only needs to examine the university crests enshrined in stain glass in one of our oldest buildings, University College, to recognize the 11 international universities represented there, including Oxford, Cambridge, University of Sydney and The University of Good Hope, Cape Town. And, more than 50 per cent of our research papers are published with international collaborators.

With the arrival of our current president and provost, came a heightened emphasis on, and investment in, international activities. We now have an office called Western International with a committed, hard-working staff who are happy to provide support, assistance or advice in any matter related to international undergraduate recruitment, international learning, student support or international relations.

As we approach our second, and much enhanced, International Week, it is a good time for us to pause and ask what internationalization means to us at Western.

Although the answer to this question will vary somewhat across faculties, departments and other units, the one thing that seems to resonate across the campus is the importance of providing global and intercultural engagement opportunities for the members of our community. Indeed, this is why global awareness is at the heart of Western’s International Action Plan.

The goal is to help foster an environment where students, faculty and staff can develop what professor Paul Tarc, from our Faculty of Education, refers to as “cosmopolitan literacies.” These literacies are needed to live and work in a world where borders are more easily and necessarily traversed.

Indeed, Western provides many opportunities for students, faculty and staff to develop and enhance their global awareness including a wide list of formal courses, exchange programs, internship opportunities, Alternative Spring Break, local volunteering opportunities, the visiting scholar program and the newly formed Staff International Engagement committee, that has recently launched two staff mobility programs. Additional opportunities, such as cultural clubs and associations, language conversation groups, arts and cultural experiences and even social media, enable us to grow our own cosmopolitan and intercultural literacies.

Students can now receive a record of many of these international and intercultural experiences though the Global and Intercultural Engagement Honor, which includes self-reflection, a designation that appears on their official transcript upon graduation.

Yet, despite all of these opportunities, we are still learning about how best to approach developing deep international, intercultural and global understandings. This idea is captured by professor Tarc in his recent book, International education in global times: Engaging the pedagogic, where he notes “research/scholarship focused on the pedagogical dimensions (of international education) lags behind the expanding array of international initiatives constituting or advancing the international education movement.”

I agree. Indeed, as Carolyn Ford, Western’s manager of undergraduate international recruitment, and I recently wrote, “On their own, these international activities are problematic because engaging in them reproduces a particular way of understanding international matters that are inherently grounded in the privileged perspectives of the West/North. Yet, to fully engage in intercultural learning requires us to embrace difference and develop empathetic (not simply sympathetic) understandings of the peoples of the world.”

This means we must be ethically engaged, with mutually beneficial international partnerships, and we must be self-reflexive and aware of our privilege in the world.

In their book, Ideas for intercultural education, Simon Marginson and Erlenawati Sawir elaborate on these ideas noting that intercultural education holds the promise to mutually transform intercultural educators and learners but this requires openness, reciprocity and acceptance of mutual interdependence. (Western French Studies professor Henri Boyi’s course, Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction is an example of how this can be very well done.)

Western is not there yet, but we are working on it, and we need to continue doing so.

According to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, it is incumbent upon universities to “teach respect for the best in human civilization which comes from all parts of the world.” As a small step in this direction, Western’s community has worked together to organize activities during International Week that help to promote global awareness.

I encourage you to attend as many events as you can so we can learn from one another to further develop respect and understanding of the peoples of the world.

 Sociology professor Julie McMullin was appointed as Western’s first vice-provost (international) in 2012.