College students today live in a world very different from the one their parents grew up in, and they require a very different kind of education to be successful. George Mason University is leading the way in preparing students for life beyond graduation by giving them the skills and experiences they will need through a multifaceted global education.
“The students we educate are going to be in a world that’s more globally interconnected, and in some senses more globally complicated than ever before,” says Provost Peter N. Stearns, author of Educating Global Citizens in Colleges and Universities: Challenges and Opportunities (Routledge, 2008).
“Whether you’re talking about the kinds of jobs they’ll have or their roles as citizens, having global awareness is an essential attribute that they should carry from their education to the rest of their lives.”
Stearns defines global education as “an education that makes students as aware as possible of the different players in the global system, as well as processes that have built the globalization phenomenon itself.”
Mason is committed to providing every student this sort of education, so much so that included in the university’s mission is the goal to “educate the new generation of leaders for the 21st century—men and women capable of shaping a global community with vision, justice, and clarity.”
For students who are particularly interested and foresee this type of experience as being especially beneficial to their career, Mason is one of a few colleges that offer interdisciplinary global studies degrees. Students can major or minor in global affairs.
In spring 2010, the first group of students were awarded Mason’s new Global Proficiency Certificate, which is available to students interested in improving their international understanding regardless of their major.
Starting January 2012, Mason will begin offering the global problems and perspectives minor in partnership with the Global University Consortium, which includes universities in Brazil, China, Korea, Russia, and Turkey. The hope is that in the near future some classes will be cotaught by professors in the different countries using CISCO TelePresence technology (see sidebar).
Mason’s chief information officer and vice president for information technology, Joy Hughes, has been working with the universities in the consortium on this technology.
“The students will be required to take at least one course at a different institution,” says Hughes. “We want to make it a norm that students from many countries participate in the same class—particularly classes that grapple with themes from which cultural differences emerge.”
Earlier this year, Mason history professor Steve Barnes, the Information Technology Unit, and the new Office of Global and International Strategies were selected to create an internationally team-taught course with Russia’s Higher School of Economics.
“We want to see as many students as possible have the opportunity for some international educative experience,” says Anne Schiller, vice president of global affairs, “and because not everyone can travel, we see this kind of learning as being integral to that.”
She adds, “One of our goals is within five years to be able to say that 25 percent of all our students have an international experience as part of their undergraduate education.”
But not all students voluntarily seek out this sort of education.
“One challenge is figuring out how elements of general education and other majors can be crafted to build in an appropriate segment of global connection,” says Stearns, who cites such programs as Mason’s new chapter of Engineering Students Without Borders as an example. The group of current students and alumni just completed its inaugural trip to help implement a water storage system for a mountain village in Peru.
“Here’s a way that an important segment of engineers can explore global opportunities in connection with their major,” Stearns says, “and we need more of that.”
Providing students the opportunity to interact with international students and study and travel abroad is as important to global education as what is taught in a classroom.
“We’re looking to prepare our students for a world where in order for them to succeed, they have to be able to operate in other countries’ cultures,” says Hughes. “That’s why we want our students to work alongside students in other countries.”
With students from nearly 130 countries and one of the largest study-abroad programs in the nation, taking students to more than 30 countries, Mason students fortunately have ample opportunities to interact with people from other cultures at home and abroad.
Another important component to global education is the perception of America and Americans abroad. Through course work, improved understanding, and communication with people in other countries, students gain a greater understanding of these international perspectives.
“As Americans, we have to be aware of the importance of other global players,” says Stearns. “We’re helping the nation build understanding as we build partnerships with places like China, India, and Russia. It’s in the national interest to have higher educational institutions playing an important and collaborative role in these areas.
“[Mason is] seen as a leader in efforts to build collaborative possibilities with international institutions. We have established, and are in the process of establishing, a variety of dual degrees with international partners.”
One example is Mason’s successful China 1+2+1 program, in which Chinese students come to the United States to study for their second and third years. Since it began in 2001, more than 18 colleges and universities in China have participated, and more than 150 Chinese students have come to the United States to take classes at Mason. A similar collaboration is in the works with Moscow State University in Russia.
Stearns says that he foresees universities being increasingly measured by their global education initiatives. After all, he says, “for many students, not just global specialists, having global capacity is going to be directly relevant to the jobs they get.”
As Mason’s international connections continue to grow, the Information Technology Unit has worked to find a way to strengthen communications with our partners abroad. One way that has proven to be extremely successful is a CISCO technology called TelePresence.
Mason has five TelePresence rooms on campus that take video conferencing to a whole new level. The rooms are outfitted with similar paint colors, furniture, and high-definition screens to create a truly immersive experience. The technology allows participants to feel like they are in the same meeting, when in reality, they may not even be in the same country.
“The immersive technology is needed when you want to negotiate a solution,” says Hughes. “You want to notice body language and how people are responding or not responding.”
Hughes says that she uses the technology a great deal for relationship building with international partners. For instance, she has been using it in negotiations with Beijing Language and Culture University, which hosts many Mason students on its Beijing campus and sends quite a few faculty and students to Mason each year.
This technology has already been useful in communicating with Mason students studying abroad. When the uprising in Egypt began in early 2011, faculty spoke with the leaders of the study-abroad program there to ensure the students were well and to discuss safety procedures.
“When a discussion is complex, has lots of pieces, and requires both sides to make changes, that’s not something you do with one visit, e-mail, or Skype,” says Hughes. “Those are the situations that call for TelePresence.”