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Forging a more global Skidmore

by Susan Rosenberg

Quoting Salman Rushdie
is hardly standard procedure in administrative documents, but Skidmore’s 2005 strategic plan does it: “It has perhaps never been more important for the world’s voices to be heard in America…never more important for a global dialogue to be fostered.” That urgency shapes the plan’s second goal, to help students develop the intercultural and global perspectives needed to succeed in the fraught and fractious wider world. Not content with just a foreign-culture course or semester overseas, the plan calls for deeper and more active engagement in international issues so that students can become leaders, not just observers, in today’s truly worldwide web of ecology, economics, politics, science, and culture.

That vision was endorsed by the Middle States accreditation board in 2006. It reported, “Skidmore is appropriately proud of its abroad program and rightfully touts it as a plus in the area of diversity.” The evaluators also emphasized the need to continue the shift away from traditional Eurocentrism, both in destinations and in course content even within Europe—for example, students in the Paris program can’t understand the issues facing that city unless they learn about the Islamic Francophone world as well.

To facilitate these and other advances, an all-college Intercultural and Global Understanding Task Force was charged with guiding Skidmorites to become “increasingly inquisitive” regarding race, ethnicity, religion, and other aspects of national, social, and personal identity. In 2007 alone, IGUTF awarded presidential discretionary funds to more than twenty initiatives ranging from a Muslim chaplaincy fellowship to a Chinese music performance.

“What’s really driving our efforts to enhance international education is students’ interest in their world,” says Gary McClure, business professor and director of the academic international-affairs (IA) program. “They’re voting with their feet—learning languages and flocking to study abroad.” Seven years ago, when Cori Filson came to Skidmore to direct its off-campus programs, 35 to 40 percent of students typically studied abroad, but she says nearly 60 percent of this year’s seniors have gone overseas. Roy H. Ginsberg, government professor and founding director of IA, explains, “Students today are much more globally aware than they were a decade or two ago. They know that no discipline, no career, is restricted by national borders.”

A longtime counselor at the International School of Geneva and a pioneer of the Council of International Schools, Beth Oliver Linguri ’59 maintains that students should learn not just about international governance, but also “gain a deeper understanding of the value differences that separate us as well as the common humanity that unites us.” Skidmore trustee Julianne Cartwright Traylor ’68, an international human-rights lawyer and scholar, agrees that travel can “broaden students’ perspectives about issues and concerns that are common to others despite their living in different cultures.” She’d like to see “more affordable or subsidized study-abroad opportunities” so that American students from all backgrounds can participate. Linguri and Traylor both affirm the value of learning foreign languages.

Skidmore’s IA program began in the mid-1990s with a few students doing a minor; it now has many minors and about fifty majors. Ginsberg explains that it “also serves as a fulcrum to help foster and enhance international education across the curriculum.” Global or comparative studies take place not only in the Asian or Latin American studies program or the foreign languages, but even the sciences, particularly environmental studies. (A few years ago ES and IA collaborated in a federal grant program to enrich the science content in IA courses and the international content in ES courses.)

Collegewide, Ginsberg and others are very keen to “connect the dots” among international studies and activities such as on-campus coursework, guest speakers and other cocurricular offerings, off-campus study, internships, career guidance, and alumni networking. “Cultivating these synergies will put us ahead of the pack in terms of international-studies education at liberal-arts colleges in the US,” Ginsberg asserts. McClure notes that IA students, and some other majors, forge such links when they build their junior-year studies abroad into their senior-year theses or projects. At the same time, Filson has clarified and formalized links between courses available abroad and students’ requirements for their major field of study.

Like so much else, progress in international education is partly “a resource issue,” Filson says. “There’s a cost to cultivating arrangements with institutions overseas or to bringing speakers here.” She points to the Middle East scholars and officials whose visits are funded by the Greenberg residency and Perlow lecture series, and to the five-year Freeman Foundation grant that allowed Chinese students to study on campus for a year. “Now that the Freeman grant has expired,” she says, “it would be nice to find other resources to continue that kind of exchange program.”
Ginsberg and McClure have a wish list too: they’d like the college to hire faculty with specialties in modern China, India, and the Middle East and in the study of global health, migration, and political unrest. For now, students who want to focus in those areas are being helped by their faculty mentors to supplement their Skidmore courses with guided independent research, off-campus study, or work with visiting scholars. At the top of the wish list is a center for international education, with its own director, to coordinate a holistic, integrated system of international education efforts on and off campus.

“I have always said that Skidmore is a national institution with an international vocation,” Ginsberg states. “We bring the world to our students and send our students out into it. Right now Skidmore is positioned to more fully exploit its international capital.”