Since the beginning of humankind, men and women have typically defined their world by the horizons they could see with their own eyes. Italian explorer Christopher Columbus proved in a series of expeditions that the world is round. But with the advent of global communications, technological advances and current economic conditions, the world again has become a flat place. So how do Kentuckians lend meaningful shape to an increasingly linear world? They travel beyond their own personal horizons.
Reshaping the World
“I think it is clear that American students need to come to grips with how the world has changed in the last half-century or so, and how it will continue to change over the course of the next half-century,” said Chris Bierwirth, executive director of the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS) at Western Kentucky University.
“While the U.S. is still the world’s leading nation, other countries are beginning to catch up, and by the second half of this century, some of these may well have passed us, both in terms of economic power and in terms of international political influence. Given these realities, it is obviously important for American students to familiarize themselves with the changing world,” Bierwirth said.
KIIS began in 1980 as an “agreement of cooperation” among Murray State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Western Kentucky University. Over the past 30 years, the program has expanded into a consortium that includes 37 colleges and universities and offers college students 25 programs in 19 countries. During the summer term of 2013, Bierwirth said KIIS will send its 10,000th student abroad.
According to the KIIS website, kiis.org, the consortium is “always taking into consideration the changing times and shifting demands of a global society.” To that end, KIIS offers a variety of programs during college semesters and summer terms that help students learn how to become global citizens. Each student who applies and experiences the study abroad option receives college credit through WKU, which then transfers to the member schools of the KIIS consortium.
Bierwirth, who holds a Ph.D. in African and Middle Eastern History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had his first study abroad experience as a graduate student when he spent two months studying Arabic in Jordan. He proposed a teaching program in Istanbul in 2003 to former KIIS director Milton Grimes and served as director there for three years before returning to WKU as executive director of KIIS.
While KIIS offers Kentucky students a comprehensive study abroad program, one other Kentucky college also is leading the ranks in international studies.
Centre College in Danville was named “No. 1 in the nation for study abroad participation among baccalaureate institutions” by an “Open Doors” 2012 report from the Institute of International Education. Centre is a KIIS member but also runs its own study abroad programs to help control program costs and quality.
“We at Centre really believe that to be educated in the 21st century is not only to be educated as how to function as a citizen of your community, state and country, but as a citizen of the world. That implies a personal knowledge of the world. If you spend a semester in China or Japan, you can never make the easy stereotypes we often make of people that we don’t know well,” said Milton Reigelman, director of the Center for Global Citizenship at Centre.
Reigelman said that only 1.5 percent of American college students study abroad, but at Centre, the rate of students who study abroad at least once during their tenure has grown to at least 86 percent. And, he added, more than half of Centre’s faculty has taught abroad in their specialty.
“I think you internationalize a campus not only by internationalizing the curriculum and internationalizing the students but also the faculty. If you’ve taken a group of students to Borneo, as one of our science professors is getting ready to do, you will never teach the same in a laboratory in Kentucky,” Reigelman said.
The opportunity to study internationally is an option, not a requirement, at Centre. Students are made aware of study abroad programs early in their college careers. The application process is lengthy, and the program is competitive, with each student acquiring faculty recommendations, writing essays and demonstrating academic ability to be considered. Cost, however, is not a major factor.
Reigelman said the semesters spent abroad cost the equivalent of a semester spent on campus with the exception of airfare and a $350 fee.
“Our students are offered scholarships to cover even those things,” Reigelman said. “I don’t want to have any student look me in the eye and say they couldn’t afford it.”
Centre also will purchase a passport for those students who show an interest as long as students apply before October of their freshman year.
The program is unique, Reigelman said, in that Centre offers students a chance to complete full-time course work (12 hours of class credit) while living and learning abroad in such places as France, England, Mexico, Spain, China and Japan. Students live in the heart of each host city, learn to shop in open-air markets, and attend classes with Centre faculty, host country professors and adjunct instructors who are local experts in their fields.
“Every course that the student takes abroad has to use the city as its laboratory, and so the classroom becomes the city of London, say, and every course the students take can only be taught in London,” Reigelman said. “To be there is to be there viscerally, emotionally and personally. You can’t get the smells of life, the flavor or the color, or the silent language of a place over the Internet.”
Northern Kentucky University, also a KIIS member, takes studying abroad one step further and offers international student teaching through its association with the Consortium for Overseas Student Teaching (COST), headquartered at Kent State University in Ohio.
According to Jill Shannon Niemeyer, director of clinical experiences, COST, and KTIP (Kentucky Teacher Internship Program) at NKU, the university has sent more than 75 students to teach abroad in the last six years.
“They are going to bring this experience back to their students that they teach back home, and this will be an experience they will share for many years,” Niemeyer said.
“It’s opening a global door through the eyes of one teacher. Think how many students one teacher will affect over the course of their career.”
Welcome to the World, and Back Again
Mark Bell, a professor at the Licking Valley Campus of Maysville Community & Technical College, said his study abroad experience made an impact on how he looks at people and places today. Bell traveled to Beijing and Shanghai, China, in 2009 as a graduate student at Eastern Kentucky University. He and 12 other students traveled with EKU’s Dr. Ed Fenton to visit six different types of companies, took major cultural tours to tourist hotspots such as China’s Great Wall, and rode on a high-speed train at night.
Bell said he and other students prepared for the trip by reading and studying the culture and language before they arrived. Despite the preparation, there were still a few surprises in store. He said he learned not to judge a people by their government or by what he saw portrayed on American media.
“I had stereotyped China as working ‘sweat shops’ with low pay and low-skilled workers. There may be those industries, but the cities were modern with modern industries,” Bell said. “That said, you would see people also washing clothes or dishes in a canal.”
David Mauser, a junior at WKU majoring in biology with a math and chemistry double minor (concentration in pre-med), also studied abroad, except he chose a KIIS five-week summer program.
“I love to explore new cultures and environments, and I knew that going to Tanzania would challenge me and be a great place to learn from the culture.” —David Mauser
“I love to explore new cultures and environments, and I knew that going to Tanzania would challenge me and be a great place to learn from the culture,” Mauser said. “I was able to take a health practicum that gave me great medical volunteer experience. And we were able to travel to Gombe National Park, where Jane Goodall did her groundbreaking research, and study chimps in the wild.”
Mauser traveled to Tanzania with a group of about 30 other students and faculty from schools all over Kentucky. He said he had to get used to the pace of life—the silent language Centre’s Reigelman said is an important part of any study abroad program. But the experience of life in another culture is what Mauser said affected him the most.
“The health practicum was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. In the practicum, we spent time at the Kurasini Orphanage. I was able to spend time with amazing children, and they taught me so much about being happy with what you are given and making the best out of any situation,” Mauser said.
With experiences in foreign lands, whether they come from institutions to learn or to teach, the world, indeed, is round again.