New York institutions tout value in supporting global ed programs
Several schools in the CUNY and SUNY systems have embarked on partnerships with overseas institutions and nonprofit organizations to promote stronger education programs in those countries. Colleges and universities in the United States have long understood the value of international students who can offer a diverse range of insights and experiences to a college campus. Now institutions are finding that partnerships based in service to other countries’ needs can lead to mutually beneficial relationships between institutions across borders.
Robin Matross Helms, the Director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, wrote in a 2015 report on global standards of international higher education partnerships that close to three quarters of students have reported internationalization accelerated on their campuses in recent years.
“The various forms it’s going to take and the types of engagements and forms it takes will continue to evolve,” she said. “Institutions say their main goal is preparing their students for a globalized world.”
The importance of negotiating cultural differences and respecting those differences can be paramount to the success of a project. Martha Bragin, an associate professor at CUNY Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, noted that Western discourse can often be a predominant force in discussion and understanding of academic subjects, and Western professors engaging in cross-cultural collaboration must be cognizant of the pitfalls of that bias.
Helms said higher ed institutions embarking on international partnerships would have to make their own decisions on how to honor collaboration while making determinations on whether cultural differences could lead to significant disagreements between countries and universities. She cited China’s positions on academic freedom as an example, noting some institutions have chosen not to commit to partnerships in that country while others have found ways to do so without sacrificing their stated ideals. Helms said creating a “negotiated space” is paramount, to offer all parties the chance to convene and consider the issues that may arise in the course of a partnership.
SUNY Cobleskill and Haiti: an agricultural link
The College of Architecture and Technology at SUNY Cobleskill recently announced a partnership with several other SUNY schools and organizations in order to help create a sustainable village and learning community located in Akayè, Haiti. The process is in its initial planning stages, and representatives from SUNY Cobleskill and nine other participating schools recently returned from a needs assessment in Haiti.
Susan Jagendorf-Sobierajski, the school’s executive director of International Education, said, “Particularly for Cobleskill, we have a breadth of agricultural resources and programs, [which can be leveraged to identify] what do people need to sustain themselves with food and cultivate the land.”
She added she hopes to eventually see engagement around "a piece that will deal with families and childhood development, but that has to come later."
The program is being supported with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation totaling nearly $800,000, and a professor from Nassau Community College donated 40 acres of land in the Haitian town in order to commence work. SUNY believes there will be opportunities for students and faculty in the United States and Haiti to collaborate on sustainable development initiatives as the program continues to progress. Jagendorf-Sobierajski said there already had been sustainable development work in Haiti, but often a group from outside the country would arrive and not interact with local individuals and organizations in order to instill a successful foundation for growth. She stressed the program would help fulfill SUNY Cobleskill’s mission for its own students as it simultaneously works to improve conditions on the ground.
“It’s not simply just [doing] a lot of research and [being] in a laboratory. We need to take what we learn and make those skills work in the real world. That applied nature of our institution really works for us here, because most of our bachelor’s degree programs require internships, so it’s a natural extension to have students apply their skills in other contexts and in other environments,” she said. “We need to make sure there’s some cross cultural skill development at least proposed in the experience.”
Brooklyn College embarks on early intervention partnership with Indian university
Faculty from CUNY’s Brooklyn College and Aligarh Muslim University's Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, a public institution located in Aligarh, India are working together to develop early intervention programs, which are of increased interest in the country. According to Mary DeBay, an associate professor of Early Childhood Education and Art Education at Brooklyn College, the program had expanded beyond its initial origins in scope and promise.
Two faculty members from Brooklyn College are heading to India this fall to help develop an early intervention training program for students at AMU. DeBey said the program grew out of the interest of Shaheen Usmani, an alumnus of AMU, who is an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College. She traveled to AMU with DeBey in October, which led AMU physicians to visit CUNY/NYU’s New York Simulation Center at Bellevue Hospital. They then encouraged AMU to work with CUNY to strengthen its on-site early intervention training. AMU is now building a children’s hospital to house the program. Like SUNY Cobleskill, DeBey said there was hope for student involvement as the program progresses further, and she believes Brooklyn College was suited to its role in developing early intervention programs due to a certificate in the subject offered by the school.
“A major part of it is working with families. When you’re working with young children, you have to work with families,” she said. “What’s important to us is really looking at how early intervention and parenting with families works across cultures.”
DeBey expressed excitement for the progression of the program, and said she is appreciative that global outreach had been stressed in CUNY’s Master Plan, which drafted the system’s ambitions for 2016 to 2020.
“It sends a message all the way down that this is important. And that’s helpful to say the work you have is important. During these very tight fiscal times at CUNY, that doesn’t often translate to having the resources,” she said. “It’s not that global initiatives aren’t being funded and everything else is, it’s just in these times, there’s not a lot of fiscal support. Times are tight. The global initiatives are very important and our task is to find funding.”
Co-developing counseling programs for Afghanistan universities
Bragin has been engaged with helping to develop social work programs in Afghanistan for years; in 2010, thanks to a grant from UNICEF, she helped create two such programs at Kabul and Herat universities. Now, her attention has turned towards co-developing counseling departments through the Hunter College School of Social Work, and is currently in the midst of a two-year endeavor that will entail curriculum development and the establishment of counseling centers at the dual universities. The programs will be of great benefit to a population that has been wracked by the trauma of contending with decades of armed conflict, she said.
The numerous incidences of violence and the Taliban's subsequent limitations on education made it more difficult for academics to advance their fields in Afghanistan, but Bragin expressed optimism and admiration for social workers in the country, who understood they had an opportunity to have foundational roles in the development of the subject in the country. She also felt Hunter College, and the CUNY system in general, had a unique perspective to offer the field.
“It’s a great partner for CUNY because we too bring out the best and the brilliance of students who may come from environments of adversity who become very fine scholars,” she said. “So we feel a natural affinity for an education system developing in this way.”
Bragin noted that higher education was viewed in Afghanistan as a cause, and the enthusiasm of Hunter’s collaborators at the partnering universities had made co-creating course materials a strong opportunity for everyone involved, though she lamented that academics in the country were sometimes left under threat by forces who are averse to seeing the country develop a robust education system.
“We don’t hear enough in this country about the Afghan teachers who teach in the elementary and high school system,” she said. “These are teachers who leave these higher ed institutions who are teaching everyday.”
Benefits and challenges of educational partnerships
Helms said there are many considerations for U.S. institutions to undertake when considering these types of cross-cultural collaborations, including considering which institutions would make the most effective partners. She also noted it would be vital for the leaders of institutions at home and abroad to have a clear understanding of the time and resources these kinds of partnerships take to develop.
“Getting that buy-in and investment from senior leadership can be really important,” she said, also noting that U.S. institutions need to work to understand how their partner institutions operated. “Who are the people to talk to to get things done? That will change country to country, system to system and institution to institution.”
Often, programs like these emanate from faculty members, as was the case with Brooklyn College’s partnership with AMU. This can offer numerous positives, but it can also leave programs vulnerable if they have a singular “champion” on the participating U.S. campus. Helms said if that person leaves the institution or can no longer participate in a global education effort like the ones described above, it risks falling apart entirely. The concern underlies the need for administrative zeal and support when a driven faculty member has attained the tools necessary to instigate such an endeavor. These programs stand to be helpful for the partner universities abroad, but Helms said the benefits to institutions at home were increasingly clearer.
“The world is increasingly interconnected and we need to prepare our students for that,” she said. “That reality is not going away, so institutions are seeing the reality of these connections and being creative about how they are done.”