From Carolina to ... anywhere

University raises global profile through increased study abroad, partnerships

On a perfect spring day in April, students are soaking up the sun on the Horseshoe, playing frisbee or quietly camped out on blankets and benches with laptops. No doubt a few are daydreaming, too — of graduation, the end of exams or the next big adventure in their lives.

Others are on the fourth floor of the Close-Hipp building, making that next adventure a reality with a visit to the Study Abroad Office. Posters throughout the office tout various countries — China, Ireland, Brazil — as well as specific university programs such as Global USC in Italy and the class U201: Navigating Cultures.

The marketing is working: The university has seen a consistent uptick in the number of students studying abroad. In 2000-01, there were just 241 undergraduate study abroad trips. By 2016, that figure had increased to 1,743. Last year alone, the overall number of undergraduates studying abroad jumped 15 percent. The growth in study abroad recently landed the university in the No. 19 spot on the Open Doors report for the number of students who pursue long-term study abroad (defined as one semester or longer). It’s the first time the university has cracked the Top 20.

With some 1,700 students heading abroad each year — frequently for a two- or three-week program, less often for a full semester — study abroad is a visible aspect of the increasing internationalization of the University of South Carolina. But it’s far from the only element in an unfolding narrative. The university is also expanding its overseas faculty research projects, attracting more students from abroad, and coordinating these efforts through a strategic initiative, Global Carolina, which launched two years ago.

In one sense, it’s a challenging time to be reaching out to the world — a time when trade deals, the European Union and international cooperation itself are being challenged by inward-looking populist movements throughout the Western world. The political climate, including changes to U.S. immigration policies, could complicate efforts to build international ties in the coming months and years. But the underlying reasons for building those ties remain.

The rationale for exposing students to the world is just as compelling, and perhaps even more so, for those who will continue to live in South Carolina after graduation. In 2016, the state ranked No. 1 nationally for the percentage of jobs dependent on foreign direct investment. In addition, more than one in five jobs in the state is supported by trade. To thrive in such an environment, students need to have the skills and confidence to operate in a global context.

“We feel very strongly that it is our core educational mission to create students who possess a global consciousness,” says Vice Provost Allen Miller, director of the university’s Global Carolina initiative. “The economy today is a global economy. Trade policy may change, but the fact that there are very large economies that are doing business around the world is not going to change.

“So, if you are going to train people who are going to be functional in this world, they need to understand cultural differences, they need to understand linguistic differences, they need to understand historical differences. And these aren’t just abstractions in a book somewhere; these are, in fact, part of daily life.”

A Global Perspective

Miller’s background makes him an ideal candidate to lead the effort. In the 1980s, while working on his doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Texas, “We had people from all over the world who were doing all kinds of literatures, so it was a very international environment,” he recalls. “There were a lot of interesting concerns about post-colonialism, about how we understand literature and tradition, both inside the West and outside the West.”

Miller came to South Carolina in 1998 to head the comparative literature program. A few years later, all of the university’s language programs were merged into the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures; Miller became graduate director and later chair of the merged department. From leading a department that included 10 different language programs, “it was actually a fairly easy transition” to lead Global Carolina, Miller says.

So what, exactly, is Global Carolina?

It’s the strategic umbrella that unites key global programs at the university: the Study Abroad office, which facilitates student and faculty travel abroad; International Student Services, which supports international students studying here; the English Programs for Internationals, which provides language instruction; and the International Accelerator program, a structured bridge program that helps international students make the transition to the university. Global Carolina also works closely with many other globally focused parts of the university: the Arnold School of Public Health’s global programs; the Walker Institute; the Carolina International House at Maxcy College; the Confucius Institute; and more.

Miller started in his role in 2014, and the Global Carolina initiative was rolled out in 2015. But its goal — internationalization of the university — goes back further, to the 2011 Focus Carolina plan.

“That was the first time it was articulated formally,” Miller says. Miller’s predecessor, Tim Doupnik, laid a lot of the groundwork as the first vice provost charged with overseeing international programs. Miller built on that foundation, bringing numerous offices together under one strategic plan and a single business manager.

In July 2015, Global Carolina was officially launched.

Laying the Foundation

At the heart of the university’s internationalization efforts are MOUs, agreements that it signs with other universities. The agreements vary widely from institution to institution and from country to country, but basically they set the parameters for student and faculty exchanges; establish research connections; and lay the groundwork for dual-degree programs.

“The most traditional exchanges are undergraduate student exchanges,” says Magdalena Grudzinski-Hall, director of the Study Abroad Office. “However, some of those do allow for an opportunity for faculty to conduct research together, to participate in guest lectures or to do a short faculty exchange. Our faculty could go and teach for a certain period of time — and that is usually driven by the college or by the department where that agreement was originally initiated.

“Sometimes I am directly approached by interested academic partners abroad to seek out USC faculty who may be interested in such experiences and then I will share the opportunity across campus,” says Grudzinski-Hall, who was born in Poland and grew up in the U.K and Canada.

The number of agreements reached serves as another indicator of the university’s growing global profile: In 2010-11, the university had 38 exchange partnerships. As of 2015-16, it had 86.

If you are going to train people who are going to be functional in this world, they need to understand cultural differences, they need to understand linguistic differences, they need to understand historical differences.

Allen Miller, vice provost and director of the Global Carolina initiative

The MOUs can come about in lots of different ways. Sometimes they bubble up from existing ties, where a faculty member who already has connections at another institution — maybe with former students, maybe with fellow researchers — starts the process of deepening those ties, which ultimately brings their dean and Miller into the conversation. Other times the agreements stem from proactive outreach from Global Carolina, a coordinated effort to expand ties in a strategic region or field of study.

Often, reaching out in one area leads to opportunities in others.

“One good example recently is that we signed an MOU with National Taiwan University of the Arts, which is arguably the premier arts university in Taiwan,” Miller says. “Then the next time I was in Taiwan we visited the school there, and we brought someone from the School of Visual Art and Design. They saw the facilities and got very excited, and we are looking at a variety of collaborations there. And because we have started this relationship, now the School of Music is sending over their associate dean. So, this actually started because of work that this office did, and we brought it to the arts people. They in turn wanted to be part of it, and now it is kind of going on its own.”

That’s an important factor, especially for faculty exchanges.

“I’m kind of the matchmaker,” Miller says. “I put people together and hope they have the chemistry. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s really ultimately up to the faculty at that level. We try to make the connections happen, and then they can take it from there.”

A Springboard for Research

One region where university leaders have focused recently is Asia. A delegation visited universities in Taiwan and mainland China last summer, with a focus on building ties in public health. In January, Global Carolina organized a trip to universities in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

It’s no surprise that the Arnold School is heavily involved in Global Carolina’s outreach efforts. The school has long had faculty conducting overseas research as part of its own Global Health initiative. China is a natural place to look for partnerships, as it faces significant public health challenges and offers U.S. researchers access to valuable datasets. Recently, the university has launched a partnership with Nanjing Medical University in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu; the president of the university visited Columbia this spring to cement the agreement.

“We are particularly excited about that because it is ranked No. 3 in China for schools of public health,” says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School. “Their faculty composition, faculty interests and profile are similar to the Arnold School. So there should be a lot of synergies. I am always looking for faculty abroad who will have synergies with faculty here. Because at the end of the day, I’m just the dean: I can’t force the interaction. But if there are clear complementarities, then usually the faculty will find their own matches abroad.”

The benefits to faculty of building relationships with counterparts at strong Chinese universities can be tremendous.

“There are a lot of people in China, and a lot of their medical records datasets are unique in the world,” Chandler says. “Just to use Nanjing Medical University as an example, there are four or five affiliated hospitals and several thousand beds associated with it. So, they see a lot of patients and they collect a lot of information on those patients that is private but highly organized, detailed, regimented and available for research use.”

As with many global partnerships, the agreement with Nanjing Medical University has been fueled by a combination of strategic outreach and an existing faculty connection. This particular connection got a jumpstart through a faculty hire, Xiaoming Li, who came to the Arnold School in 2015. He earned his undergraduate degree in Nanjing decades ago and had numerous contacts there. “He and I had discussions about what kind of people he knew in China who might be interested in talking to us,” Chandler says.

Li’s research focuses on the children of HIV-positive parents; China has one of the highest rates of HIV infection rates in the world. So his research — which focuses on the psychology and social well being of children — is valuable to both the Chinese in dealing with an immediate need and to others who might want to replicate aspects of Chinese programs.

Whether the field is public health or computer science, the same logic of collaboration applies: Working with overseas researchers can open up new opportunities.

“Researchers can benefit from access to each other’s resources,” says Chin-Tser Huang, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering who also serves as Global Carolina’s regional director for China and Taiwan. “Research facilities, data — that’s very important. If you have access to more samples or a more advanced facility, that gives you some opportunities.”

Ready for the World

Part of the impetus for partnering with overseas institutions is to facilitate faculty research. Other motives include student recruitment and opening up new study opportunities. Ultimately, the mission is coordinated internationalization aimed at raising the university’s global profile and educating students to have a global perspective. 

Asked what students gain from study abroad, Grudzinski-Hall pauses to reflect. She recalls a conversation with a student who had completed a semester abroad. “I asked, ‘What does this whole experience mean to you?’ And she said, ‘I can finally say more than it was life-changing. I can say there is a context to what I want to study in graduate school and I am more selective about where I want to work. I can appreciate different ways of thinking because my ideas and assumptions were all challenged when I was abroad. I am more culturally flexible and can better navigate new situations.’”

That’s a key takeaway: being challenged, and growing from the experience. “It’s a kind of resilience that grows in a student when they are abroad,” Grudzinski-Hall says. When they return, they have a new perspective — on life, on their friends, on their priorities, on everything. It can cause reverse culture shock as students seek to re-adjust to the life they left behind 12 to 15 weeks ago, Grudzinski-Hall says. But as they soak in the experience, they tend to find a deeper appreciation for other cultures and viewpoints.

Huang, a 1993 graduate of National Taiwan University, has a close-up view of the university’s internationalization efforts from multiple perspectives: as a regional director for Global Carolina, as an adviser for the Taiwanese Student Association, and as a professor in the College of Engineering and Computing, which has more than 400 international students — nearly one-quarter of the university’s 1,789 degree-seeking international students. All of these roles have led him to see the advantages of local students interacting with international students in the classroom.

“When we have more of our students going out and more international students coming here, there is a great opportunity for students from different backgrounds and cultures to interact with each other, to learn from each other,” Huang says. “That gives our students the opportunity to become high-quality global citizens.”

He stresses that Global Carolina is important for the whole student body — even those who don’t study abroad.

“We like to give our students more opportunities even if they don’t go abroad,” Huang says. “When we bring more international students here, then our local students also have this opportunity to see international culture. That is very important.”

At the end of the day, it’s about giving students the global training that can take them anywhere — and raising the university’s global profile in the process.

“We want to promote the internationalization of the university,” Huang says. “We feel that we have great faculty and a great student body. We have made great progress, and we’d like to let people know about us, about how good we are.”

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