Valparaiso's Raman: Study abroad opportunities for engineering students critical
An assistant provost details the challenges and importance of providing such opportunities
The increasing globalization of business over the last few decades has highlighted a need for cross-cultural education opportunities. This is easier said than done for some fields, particularly engineering. It's an interesting conundrum, really: The nation faces a dearth of workers qualified for the field's high-demand jobs, with companies in many cases having to fill them with qualified workers from other countries, and American engineering students often don't have the opportunity to pursue study abroad opportunities.
That problem isn't lost on Valparaiso University Assistant Provost for International Affairs Jaishankar Raman, either. The Indiana university recently launched a cross-cultural engineering program with China's Dalian Jiaotong University, which has traditionally focused on locomotive and transportation research. For Raman, however, it's also not just about the social and cultural experience American students get.
"It’s equally important that the Chinese students are also getting this unique opportunity," he told Education Dive. "Not all Chinese students can afford to come to the United States. Through that program now, they have students from that parent university, the foreign university, spending maybe a semester with them. These are tremendous experiences that you don’t typically get."
We recently caught up with Raman to learn more about higher ed's importance in promoting cross-cultural collaboration, the challenges of launching such a program, and why engineering students have so few opportunities to study abroad.
EDUCATION DIVE: Tell me about the new civil and mechanical engineering program. Why Dalian Jiaotong, and what goes into creating a cross-cultural program like that?
JAISHANKAR RAMAN: The engineering program that we have is essentially a Ministry of Education-approved program in China. About three or four years ago, the government started encouraging more of these kinds of partnerships in the engineering field. In the business side, they’ve had this for quite a while, where the essential agreement is that this is a program that is jointly run by the foreign partner and the Chinese university. In varying cases, what they’d do is a certain component of the program in China is taught by the foreign university by sending their faculty. That component would be all in English, and you have a foreign instructor bringing foreign pedagogy into a Chinese degree program.
Typically, these programs offer the Chinese degree. This is not a joint degree program where we’re offering our degree in China. This is sort of the broad understanding of the program the way it is set up. The number of courses to be taught there varies. In some programs, it’s about a third of the courses. But the philosophy is that this is one way to introduce foreign pedagogy and foreign language instructors, and to essentially partner with a foreign university that can bring other benefits to the Chinese university.
With establishing a new program or partnership like that in a country like China, are there any particularly notable difficulties or concerns you had to deal with?
RAMAN: I think if an American university didn’t have any Chinese contacts or presence before and they were going into this new, there is a big learning curve in terms of knowing what the rules and regulations are, and also understanding culturally what kind of processes you need to follow. In our case, we’ve been in China for about 25 years now. We have a study center that we run in a city that is about three hours from Shanghai. Every fall semester, we send a group of our students with one of our own faculty to spend a semester in China, taking language classes in that university plus a couple of other classes by our professor. So we sort of know the Chinese terrain. We’re quite familiar with it.
I think the challenges are in terms of now trying to understand, if you get into a program like this, what are the legal ramifications? What are the tax ramifications? We had to do some consultation with a tax expert in China, but thankfully for us, what has happened is the Chinese government approved business programs for many years. We knew many other universities that had done business programs, so it was not that difficult to maneuver that part of it.
With the increasingly global nature of business, cross-cultural collaboration is becoming more important. Do you think this is perhaps sometimes overlooked by a lot of programs, particularly in engineering?
RAMAN: You’re absolutely right. Engineering typically has been a very challenging field to do cross-cultural stuff, partly because in the United States, what you find is that a student who commits to going into an engineering program in the freshman year essentially knows exactly what they’re going to do for the next four years. All the coursework is mapped out. Everything is mapped out. It’s very rigid. It’s very, very packed and dense.
These students don’t typically get an opportunity to say, "OK, sophomore year, spring semester, I’m going to spend in someplace." There’s coursework that needs to be fulfilled, and, typically, whenever you go do study abroad, you have to be very flexible in terms of what coursework you’re going to finish and bring back. Engineers would find that to be very difficult, and we’ve always found that engineers would not be able to study abroad as much.
That’s one aspect of it. The other is that we’re now creating a program where our engineering students can plug into some of the courses that our faculty are going to teach in Dalian. They get the semester abroad experience, they get the academic credit, and they’re now interacting with engineers from China, which is something that you find a lot of business students get to do quite often, but the engineering students do not get to do this. So this has been a sort of a huge upswing in terms of enthusiasm about the program, with students saying, "Can we go to this program in the summer time when we have classes there?" I think that this is going to open up a lot of different opportunities for our engineers.
How important is higher ed when it comes to instilling the importance of such collaboration early on?
RAMAN: I think it’s so essential. Personally, I come from India, so I came to this country as a graduate student. I’m sort of living the experience of cross-cultural stuff. The point that we try to tell our students—and sometimes they sort of gloss over it—is the fact that, in your lifetime, you’re going to be interacting with more people from other countries. It is absolutely critical that you know how to interact culturally with all of these people.
Higher ed institutions need to pay a lot of attention, need to put a lot of resources into creating more opportunities for students to go study abroad and make those very meaningful experiences. I would be a very strong advocate. In fact, in my university, we have signed on to a pledge that, by 2020, we’ll have 50% of our students going and doing some study abroad experience.
What advice would you give administrators at other institutions who might be interested in establishing similar programs?
RAMAN: I think making sure that you understand that the institution is behind it. That’s very critical. We have very good leadership here in our president, Mark Heckler, in understanding that internationalizing the campus is very important. People who are interested in doing this need to know that their institution is ready to do these kinds of things.
I think, for a larger part, this is happening in China quite more, and frankly the Chinese provinces have more resources at this point to set up these kinds of things. I would suggest that you go travel, seek out your partner, find out who they are and what they want to do, and then proceed into it. You have to have not just your upper administration buying into it. You have to make sure that your college — the engineering college, if we’re just talking about engineering — buys into it.
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