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October 12, 2006

Brustein speaks on global competence

In a world that grows more interconnected by the minute, global competence is recognized as a necessity for today’s students who must be prepared to compete in an international marketplace.

But, what is global competence and how can institutions of higher education deliver the international education students require?

William Brustein, director of the University Center for International Studies, addressed those issues in his welcome to the Pennsylvania Council for International Education’s 2006 conference, which brought more than 100 educators to the Pittsburgh campus Sept. 29 and 30.

Often, the paths to improving global education seem straightforward, Brustein said: Increase the number of students studying abroad; bring more international students to American campuses; get faculty to increase the international content of their courses.

“All fine and good; who would disagree?” he said. “What we don’t do enough is think what is it we want as an outcome. When it comes to the students and graduating the students, what do we want them to look like? What kinds of competencies do we want them to have?”

He stated that institutions must begin by determining the desired end result then design a curriculum to fulfill that goal. “I don’t think we do enough of that,” he said, noting that he aims to stimulate discussion within PACIE and other similar organizations.

Defining global competence is a start, he said.

“Global competence is the ability not only to contribute to knowledge but also to comprehend, analyze and evaluate its meaning in the context of an increasingly globalized world and then to add the skills that form the foundation of global competence. They include the ability to work effectively in international settings; awareness and adaptability to diverse cultures, perceptions and approaches; familiarity with the major currents of global change, and effective communication across cultural boundaries.”

Brustein outlined several areas he finds hinder progress in achieving global competence.

One is the direction foreign language study typically takes, he said, noting that few American students study critical foreign languages such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Arabic compared with the numbers who study Spanish, French or Italian. He said that higher education must partner with K-12 educators if that is to change. He also noted that the emphasis on foreign literature in college-level language programs may be impractical.

“That may be fine for majors in language and literature, but what about our students coming out of the social sciences, the natural sciences, the professional schools? Maybe they need to know how to use that language in the context of their discipline as engineers, as business people,” Brustein said. “We have to look at this because there is a critical need here.”

He also found shortcomings in the content of area studies programs, which he said fail to encourage theorizing and development of critical thinking skills. “We’ve got to get away from programs that are very descriptive. We have to equip our students with the ability to differentiate fact and fiction, to know how to ask the right questions,” he said. “Those types of skills often are too much lacking when it comes to international and area studies.”

Brustein said he uses his frequent travels as an opportunity to quiz leaders of multinational corporations on what they look for in the new graduates they hire. “Never once do they start off, ‘We want to hire somebody who knows everything there is to know about East Asia,’ or ‘We want a great Latin American specialist.’ … It always starts, ‘We hire engineers, we hire biologists, we’re looking for a good chemist,’” he said.

But the corporate executives go on to say that if that person has knowledge of his or her discipline in a context broader than just the United States, has foreign language skills or has studied abroad, he or she will stand out. “If this biologist, if this physicist, if that anthropologist has this global competence, this international experience, that places that person in a special position,” Brustein said.

“That person also will be placed on a fast track within that company because of the globalized nature of our companies,” he said, arguing against what he called “the curse of the stand-alone degree.”

He questioned whether graduates who solely have an international studies or area studies degree are equipped with the kinds of skills that will make them competitive in the current job market.

“A disciplinary degree plus an international or area studies competency may make a lot of sense,” Brustein said, specifically arguing against stand-alone international studies degrees at the undergraduate level.

At Pitt, undergrads can pair certificates in international or area studies with their disciplinary degree, or can take a more research-oriented BPhil degree in international and area studies in the Honors College to accompany it.

Brustein also said that educators must examine how study abroad is funded, who oversees foreign language programs, how international students are integrated into campus life, how to assure quality programs and how to develop entrepreneurial fundraising strategies to smooth the way to a global campus.

Program fees on top of steep tuition put study abroad out of reach for many students, he said.

“If study abroad is as important as presidents of universities, provosts and chancellors say, then it should be treated like math, it should be treated like any other academic subject,” Brustein said, arguing that it should be covered by tuition and state appropriation dollars. “We need to get to the point where a student taking math is treated no different from a student deciding to go to Quito in Ecuador to study Latin American issues.”

Better integrating international students into campus life in America also can help internationalize a campus, he said, noting their experience can enhance the understanding of students who might not have the chance to study abroad.

Noting that there’s no single path to achieving global competence, he said institutions must mount a school-wide effort to make available a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking and is comprehensive, coherent and accessible. In order to do so, a clear idea of the components of global competence must be developed.

“We need to start off at the point of what is it that we want our students to possess when they leave,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 4

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