By SUSAN JONES
The Global Plan for Pitt was just words on paper when it was first presented in 2016. Now, in addition to a variety of programs, it has a physical presence in the new Pitt Global Hub in Posvar Hall, which officially opened on Aug. 27.
The colorful and eclectically decorated lounge on the Schenley Plaza end of Posvar’s first floor grew out of student, staff and faculty engagement sessions that started in the 2015-16 school year, says Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies. The key question asked during those sessions was “What does it take for Pitt to be considered a global institution?”
“We were sort of taken aback by the responses, from students in particular, who were asking for a myriad of programs that we already offer,” says Torres, citing study abroad and language learning as some of the programs students were seeking. “What we then heard from students was, ‘Well, we didn’t know. Where do we go to get this information? … It would be great if we just had one place on campus that we could to drop in and just get our questions answered.’ So that’s where the idea came from.”
According to Pitt’s Office of International Services, some 6,000 students, scholars, faculty and staff make Pitt their academic home. Pitt sends more than 2,100 students to study abroad every year, where they take part in more than 350 programs in 75 countries.
The hub, which was designed by Pittsburgh architecture firm Strada, shows up in the Global Plan for Pitt as the Global Advising Center.
Leading the advising will be Karen Lue, the inaugural manager of the hub, along with four student ambassadors, who will either be enrolled in an international program or be an international student themselves. Lue says one of her goals is to encourage more interaction between global and domestic students.
Lue, a 2015 Pitt grad in economics and history of art and architecture with a French minor, started in the hub in July after a busy few years that included teaching English in Taiwan, working for a start-up in New York City, going back to Taiwan for an intensive Mandarin program and coming back to Pittsburgh at co-working company Beauty Shop as an operations and programming manager. She grew up in the Philadelphia area and her parents are Chinese immigrants.
“When I saw this position open up, I thought it was such a serendipitous coming together of all my various experiences,” she says. “I have the operations component; I have the international and the education experience. There’s even a bit of curation and creativity needed to run the space too. … And then, of course, coming up with events and programming for the space as well.”
Already several groups are planning to use the hub, including various language tables and the German club. Different advisors on studying abroad, language programs and certificate programs will be at the hub, along with people from Office of International Services, for regular hours each week to answer questions.
What to expect at the hub
The focal points in the space are three “digital environments,” Torres says, meant to “educate, to engage, and to explore.” They were developed with ZebraDog, a company from Madison, Wisc., that specializes in interactive and high-tech communication elements.
The Experience Wall at the back of the space will feature facts and videos from countries around the world. The 24 that are currently in rotation, changing every hour, are the countries where Pitt has the largest footprints through either alumni who live there, students on campus, study abroad programs or other collaborative ventures.
“The fundamental point of the Experience Wall is to mitigate the intimidation factor that most students feel when you talk about global engagement,” Torres says. “We are cognizant of the fact that we are still an institution that welcomes a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who’ve never applied for a passport, never gotten on a plane. Talking to them in the abstract about studying in another location or studying about another location in the world can be really intimidating. … The Experience Wall is a way to encourage students to see themselves in the world.
“We’re hoping that’s a sort of subtle, but interesting way of seeing that a lot of people around the world are just like them, and that a lot of places around the world seem very similar … to the ones that they’ve seen here in the United States,” she says.
The videos currently come from YouTube, but Torres and Lue both hope to get students to contribute as they travel abroad. They want to find an expert on campus who could give tutorials to students on shooting the best videos.
Lue says the Experience Wall also can be used for presentations. Already, the German language table organizer has asked if scenes and facts from Germany can be on display when they have weekly meetings in the hub.
The Engagement Wall, located next to Posvar’s main corridor, is where students, staff and faculty can get information about all of Pitt’s international programs. Students, in particular, can take a survey on the wall and then, through scanning a QR code, be directed to programs that might interest them. The wall also lists upcoming global-related programs on campus and when advisors will be in the hub.
While the walls are geared toward students, Torres says they want faculty, staff and visitors to learn something too, “even if you’re only passing by … for the 30 seconds it takes you to get to the elevator.” The walls will have interesting facts about the Nationality Rooms, Pitt alumni and “curiosities of a particular part of the world,” she says.
The third digital element is at the top of the new steps to Posvar’s second floor, which connect the hub to the popular, recently renovated study areas. The clock feature across several screens “is subtle, but represents all of the flags in the world in the abstract shapes and colors that become the numbers in the digital clock,” Torres says. Those shapes transition into images that represent the country that will next be featured on the Experience Wall. The hope is to attract the attention of those studying on the second floor to come check out the Global Hub.
A few words about the decor
“I think it’s such a different space than anywhere else on campus,” Lue says. “It’s very eye catching, it’s pretty, it’s someplace that’s approachable — that was the whole point of the design. We want it to be like a welcoming, comfortable space, no walls, no doors.
“The furniture is meant to evoke Pitt being at home in the world,” she says. The different spaces all have home-related names, such as the kitchen island, the living room and the back porch. “And each one of them, if you notice has very unique pieces, none of them match each other, and that’s intentional.”
The idea is that Pitt has collected these pieces of furniture during its travels and has brought them back home.
“But it was also really important for us aesthetically to reference the world without being very particular or specific about where in the world, because the idea is to always evoke multicultural aesthetic,” Torres says. “Some of the panels that you see may evoke African design or Brazilian design, but it’s neither. Some of the arches may look more Middle Eastern, while others may look a little bit more European. And again, it’s intentional that you cannot place it.”
Lue says anyone is welcome to hang out in the hub, but they need to be aware that there will be several programmed events going on around them. She wants students to know “they can go there to learn about international opportunities, they can go there to find a language exchange partner, they can go and join a language table, and ask questions about study abroad. I want that to be what the space is known as, and not just, ‘Oh, it’s a pretty place for me study.’ ”
What’s in it for faculty and staff?
“For faculty and staff, it’s an opportunity to meet students where they are,” Torres says. “We’re also hoping that faculty and expert practitioners will take advantage of the Experience Wall as a place for presentations, for film screenings, for discussions on current events. We could, in fact, show things that are happening in real time — in the EU as regards Brexit, for example — and encourage faculty experts to talk to students and contextualize them in real time.”
Two small nooks will have video conferencing equipment, “so if faculty and staff want to run small group conversations with folks around the world — maybe their research partners abroad or their contacts in a particular region — they should feel welcome to reserve those spaces.”
Torres says they want faculty and staff to feel empowered to participate and to share ideas for programming. “We see the hub as a sort of bridge and as a place that facilitates and connects students with existing experts and programs. We’re not about reinventing the wheel as we are so much about creating a gathering space.”
Faculty and staff who are globally savvy are welcome to come and have a cup of coffee and engage with students as they’re coming into the space, Torres says. “Because for us, it’s really about communication, collaboration. It’s really about conversation at the end of the day.”
A website is under construction for the Pitt Global Hub that will list all the programming and have a place for faculty, staff and student groups to reserve a space.
Both Torres and Lue say that feedback is important for the Pitt Global Hub going forward.
“We want people to use the space, use our digital environments, check out our website, and give us feedback,” Lue says. “What are we getting right? What are we getting wrong? Because this is going to be a constantly changing project.”
“The feedback piece for me is the most important because … the hub is going to be a very fluid, dynamic and always changing environment,” Torres says.
Lue says her goal is have something different going on in the hub every day, in addition to the advising hours, “whether that is a language table, or that’s something the hub puts on itself, like a coffee tasting or tea tasting, so students can expect, I can come to the hub, and there’s going to be something going on.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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