Going Global: UM's international efforts link Montana to the world
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Research View is published twice a year by the offices of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations at The University of Montana. Send questions, comments or suggestions to Rita Munzenrider, managing editor, 327 Brantly Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, or call (406) 243-4824. Production manager and designer is Cary Shimek. Contributing editors and writers are Brianne Burrowes, Patia Stephens, Shimek and Cory Walsh. The photographer is Todd Goodrich. For more information about UM research, call Judy Fredenberg in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Development at (406) 243-6670.
Growing up in the Republic of Georgia, University of Montana graduate student Melina Oganesyan always associated the United States with its largest cities.
“The main image we get of America is of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles,” she says. “I didn’t even know what to think” about Montana.
Well, one thing leapt to mind: cowboys.
“What I knew about Montana came mainly from movies,” says Oganesyan, 23, who arrived in Missoula last fall as a visiting scholar from the Tbilisi Institute of Asia and Africa. Oganesyan, who holds the equivalent of a master’s degree in her own country, decided to remain in Missoula to pursue a master’s in American history at UM.
“I like this place very much, because Missoula is small and, in my opinion, a very safe city,” she says. “I like the research possibilities at the campus, and the faculty is very helpful, very understanding – and very demanding, as well.”
The community has been welcoming, too.
“The people are very friendly, and I don’t really feel I am away from my country,” Oganesyan says. “I can see many similarities in personal relationships between Montanans and Georgians. And Missoula is similar to Tbilisi. It has the same topography, and a river runs through Tbilisi just like the river runs through Missoula.”
“We’re in this business not only to train, but to change hearts and minds, and build bridges,” says Mehrdad Kia, director of UM’s Office of International Programs. “A more unified humanity will function better than one separated by stereotypes.”
For UM, it’s a two-way street. Oganesyan is one of more than 500 UM students from foreign countries who give the campus a diverse and international flavor. (They even host an International Culture and Food Festival each spring, in which students cook signature dishes from their homelands to share with Montanans.) In the meantime, some 40 UM students are studying abroad this semester.
“Our dream is to see the day 1,000 students at The University of Montana have come from all over the world,” Kia says. “And the ultimate dream is that before they graduate with a four-year degree, every student here will have spent one semester abroad.”
UM President George Dennison explains why.
“As we move into a global society, we have to find ways to assure that when graduates leave, they do so with the confidence and comfort level and all that is necessary to function in a global society,” Dennison says. “They need to be able to understand people from other cultures and work with people of other cultures.”
It’s an exciting
time on the UM campus. With private-sector partners who are footing
the financial costs, the University is investigating the possibility
of establishing a campus in China.
UM students, meanwhile, have more than 100 universities around the world to choose from through the International Student Exchange Program.
In the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, students can learn not only French, German, Italian and Spanish, but also Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Persian and – coming in fall 2006 – Turkish.
“People say, ‘Why these, when we don’t teach all the European languages?’” Kia says. “After the attacks of 9/11, we know the answer.”
In fact, in an effort to increase UM’s focus and expertise on the Middle East and surrounding areas of strategic importance, Kia and his colleagues founded the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Program at UM. The program promotes development of language programs for that region and arranges faculty and student exchanges, as well as offering informative campus lectures about the region.
The University also is heavily involved in grant-backed programs like the one that brought Oganesyan to campus, wherein foreign educators receive training to help them implement educational reforms back home, where their countries are undergoing the transition to a free-market society.
English Language Programs at UM offer intensive language instruction to non-native English speakers to improve their academic English skills – a key to luring foreign students. Indeed, some 54 students from Saudi Arabia alone enrolled in the English Language Institute in January.
“Every country adopting a more free market economy
But the bottom line is not what it’s about, Kia says.
“When we diversify the culture on campus, we build necessary bridges so that our students can become aware of the complex world in which they live,” he says. “It’s natural to want to remain isolated, to not interact with countries that challenge our cultural values. But the reality of the world is that it is a small village, and we have no option but to interact with it.”
UM accepted its first exchange student in the early 1920s. In 1924 that student, Alex Stepanzoff, joined with four other Russian exchange students and founded the International Student Club. Now called the International Student Association, it is the oldest student organization on campus.
In 1948 the Immigration and Naturalization Service approved UM’s request to enroll foreign students, and a faculty member was assigned the part-time role of foreign student adviser. Study-abroad programs began in 1971, and UM hired its first full-time foreign student adviser in 1972.
Since then, UM’s involvement on a global scale has accelerated rapidly.
“I was very impressed when I realized how internationalized the faculty here already is,” says Kia, who took over OIP three years ago. “So many are working on international projects, or with colleagues at other universities around the world, or have traveled extensively. Some of it is outside the scope of our office, but we are always willing to offer logistical advice and support to encourage these types of projects, interactions and exchanges.”
Kia, who was born in Iran and spent the first 17 years of his life there, came to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin. He stayed in America, but says many foreign students in the United States return to their native countries after graduation.
“What makes the United States powerful in the world is what we offer academically,” Kia says. “Tens of thousands of people who come here to study go back to assume positions of leadership in their countries. After the tragedy of 9/11, we decided to close our doors and to protect ourselves. I understand the need for vigilance and quality security checks. But [interacting with the world] is how we win in the long run.”
The proposed China campus is one of UM’s most intriguing opportunities.
“We’re trying very hard to create a larger footprint in one of the most important and dynamic countries in the world,” says Terry Weidner, director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, which is spearheading this and other projects in China.
The obstacles are formidable: There is a potentially lengthy Chinese Ministry of Education approval process, there is work required to create a suitable degree program, and it also will have to be approved by UM’s regional accrediting agency and the Montana Board of Regents.
That said, Dennison firmly believes it is worth pursuing.
“It’s very difficult for the Chinese to respond to the educational needs of the population they have,” UM’s president says. “When you have 250 million people of college age, you can’t build campuses fast enough. They invited institutions to come in and help, and we’re willing to do that so long as we can control the curriculum. They want an accredited program, and we can deliver that.”
It benefits UM in two ways, Dennison says. First, it will bring in new revenue that will help support the Missoula campus. Second, it has a built-in design feature that will allow UM students to travel to China and serve as mentors for the Chinese students, all expenses paid – one English-speaking mentor for every 10 Chinese students.
“The fact that we will offer a UM curriculum wholly in English increases the possibilities for participation from the main campus and other institutions in the state,” Weidner says.
The site selected – Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast – was important, according to Weidner, who is proficient in Chinese and once worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“It’s a place I feel good about sending our students and faculty,” he explains. “It is clean, prosperous and outward-looking. It’s right across from Taiwan, and it’s not only a pleasant place to live, but it’s a city that values international exchange.”
The Xiamen Institute of Technology is moving its campus outside the city, leaving behind buildings that UM and its private-sector partners could take over. The academic offerings would be primarily business-oriented, and Weidner expects it would take three to five years to roll out the program. Ultimately, the University would expect to have an enrollment of 2,000.
“Moreover, given the partnership we have developed off campus, there really is no cost to us,” Dennison says. “Everything is guaranteed by our private-sector partner, who’s willing to put the money up front. It really is a wonderful opportunity for us.”
“That’s the vital thing,” Weidner says. “We’re only doing this because the financial model doesn’t put a burden on Montana or the University. Our partners are paying all the costs; our responsibility is to create a curriculum we totally control.”
Those partners, a group of Chinese and American entrepreneurs, believe the time is ripe for such a venture, in which UM would get an equity share. China’s emergence as an economic power, the rapid increase in the number of people in China who can afford U.S. tuition, and the continued prestige of an American degree at a time when post-Sept. 11 visa policies still make it difficult for many Chinese students to study in the United States, are all contributing factors.
“One concern we had was mixing academic standards and profits,” Weidner says. “But our partners feel profits will come only if we have high academic standards. To me it’s an ideal situation.”
Butte had a higher percentage of Irish immigrants in 1900 than Boston, one of the reasons Alan Noonan attends UM. The exchange student from the University of Cork is writing his master’s thesis — 40,000 words worth — on the Irish in Montana.
“One of my lecturers in Cork spoke to me about the exchange program, and wondered if there was any material on the Irish in Montana,” Noonan says.
There was, of course, lots of it. Before he came to UM, Noonan read “The Butte Irish” by David Emmons, UM history professor emeritus.
Since arriving here last fall to study, Noonan has discovered plenty of Noonans made their way to Butte. “I even came across a picture of Gen. George Armstrong Custer dressing down a bear,” he says. “There were two fellows with him, one an Indian scout and the other a fellow identified as John Noonan.”
Like Oganesyan, Noonan says he’s changed several preconceived notions about America and Americans during his time in Missoula. They aren’t alone.
“Among the Pakistani groups who have come here, we had a lady who was clearly hostile and negative when she arrived in Missoula,” OIP Director Kia says. “She was here over three months, and when she came to say goodbye, she came with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘I have to confess and to apologize.’ ”
Previously, the only thing she knew about America were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she explained – images she saw daily on television news programs in Pakistan.
“She said the training she received, the hospitality and friendships she enjoyed here, made her feel ashamed for thinking the way she used to,” Kia says. “She said, ‘Now I see Americans as my friends. They were so patient and generous. I will never forget the kindness I have been shown.’”
UM students and faculty who study and work abroad report similar things to Kia.
“I’ve had them tell me, ‘You can never return to what you used to be. It forever changes you,’” he says.
In an office filled with posters and trinkets from around the world where UM is involved – Tibet, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Korea, Japan and many more – Kia repeats his firmly held belief:
“This is,” he says, “how we win hearts and minds in the long run.”