Global Trailblazer

The university leads the way in developing and promoting international education

By Ann Whitcher-Gentzke

TWO STUDENTS are overheard in deep discussion in a Tim Horton’s on Maple Road not far from UB’s North Campus. Their conversation covers Buffalo winters, where to shop, getting around town, finding the best Chinese restaurants. One, a student from India, has just arrived on campus. For the moment, his newfound Malaysian colleague serves as both tour guide and academic counselor. Their conversation winds amiably through campus life, religious practices, academic goals, feeling at home.

Similar encounters happen daily in UB’s increasingly multicultural setting, where 15 percent of the student body consists of international students, the highest percentage among U.S. public research universities. According to the “Open Doors” report released in November 2006 by the Institute of International Education, UB—with fall 2005 enrollment of 4,072 students from 116 countries—ranks number 10 in international enrollment among 2,700 accredited U.S. universities.

“The University at Buffalo made having a significant international presence of students on its campus a priority long before it became acknowledged as beneficial or fashionable to do such things,” observes UB President John B. Simpson. “Going back through several presidents, the university started doing this as one of its fundamental initiatives and kept continuing it. I’m very pleased that we’ve had the success we’ve had, up to and including now.”

In a recent campus speech, Simpson said UB plans to grow its international enrollment even larger.

UB President John B. Simpson learns about traditional Chinese remedies during a visit to a teaching hospital in Beijing.

UB President John B. Simpson learns about traditional Chinese remedies during a visit to a teaching hospital in Beijing.

While the university has had international students since the 19th century, a more comprehensive global presence and awareness have gradually developed over the past 25 years, accelerating dramatically since the late 1990s. In recent months, Simpson has traveled widely on the university’s behalf to celebrate and extend this phenomenon. In October 2006, for instance, Simpson led a campus delegation to China to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of three successful UB partnerships in that country. In fact, UB was the first American university to develop such an exchange program with China since the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in 1979.

The following month, Simpson was off on a nine-day trip to Asia as part of a delegation led by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; the central goal was to underscore that the U.S. continues to welcome the presence of international students. In April, Simpson traveled to Japan, where he received an honorary doctorate from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, then visited UB’s other academic partners in that country.

“Many of the leaders of the educational systems in the countries I visited were educated in the U.S., particularly in graduate school,” Simpson observes. “There is still tremendous interest on the part of students in being able to attend university here, graduate or undergraduate. There’s also, as you would expect, various kinds of misinformation that swirls in the aftermath of 9/11, such as how do you get a visa to the U.S.? How do you support yourself once you’re here, what’s it like—is the country welcoming and so forth.”

Today, multiple overseas exchanges and related programs have sharpened the university’s profile abroad to the extent that “UB is better known in Beijing than in Bakersfield,” as Simpson puts it. “I think this is true because the university has put considerable effort in systematically interacting with students and faculty abroad—both sending as well as receiving them,” he says. “We have a record of success at doing that and at establishing a presence in many countries throughout the world, including China, Singapore, Latvia, Poland and Malaysia.”


MEANWHILE, focused initiatives in enrollment management and heightened overseas recruitment have dramatically increased the numbers. UB now participates in recruitment events in far-flung corners of the world. “In the last six or seven years, we have almost tripled the number of international students studying here,” says Stephen C. Dunnett, PhD ’77, vice provost for international education and 2005 president of the Association of International Education Administrators. In addition to overseas exchanges, the arrival of international scholars in such areas as MCEER (devoted to earthquake engineering research), the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics and CEDAR (Center of Excellence for Document Analysis Recognition) has helped shape and influence international growth. “These areas attract quite a few international scholars; so does the medical school,” Dunnett says. “And increasingly, UB is attracting faculty from all world regions. When I went to the orientation this past fall for incoming faculty, I noticed that at least a third of them were international.”

Welcoming this diverse group is Ellen Dussourd, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, who helps international students and faculty settle in and ultimately be successful at UB. The process begins with a week-long international student orientation program in the fall and spring, and continues with a full slate of workshops each semester on topics such as winter driving, filing taxes, border crossing and traveling to Canada, car buying and maintenance, and how to survive Buffalo winters.

“We also offer trips year-round to introduce students to the Buffalo-Niagara region,” says Dussourd. “These trips include guided historical walking tours of Buffalo, downhill and cross-country skiing, ice-skating, hiking in Letchworth State Park and sightseeing in Niagara Falls.”

At the same time, Dussourd tries to acquaint domestic students with their new international classmates in a way that will foster the smooth acclimation of those who’ve just arrived. For example, her office advertises the trips and workshops both to U.S. and international students, while promoting a “cultural partners” program to faculty so domestic students can interact with their international counterparts on topics related to course content and thus fulfill a requirement.

All this global activity occurs amid heightened competition for international students at both graduate and under-graduate levels, not only from other U.S. universities, but also from universities in the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. A report released in October 2006 by the American Council on Education pointed out that while the U.S. is still the most popular destination for international students, other countries are now outpacing the U.S. in international enrollment growth. Britain and Australia, for instance, are making noteworthy gains among English-speaking competitor nations.


WHILE CAMPUS officials know they can’t be complacent in international recruitment, they can still take heart in UB’s strength as an international draw. “I think students from outside the U.S., as well as from inside the U.S., come to study at universities because they know of them, they know their quality and they recognize the other characteristics as being supportive, such as cost, location and housing,” says Simpson. “It’s also true that we have already an institution that’s well-known in the world. All these things make this a desirable place to come. And those institutions that are competing with us are starting further back. They didn’t get started when we did.”

At UB, students continue to benefit from this internationalization, whether it’s experienced in the classroom, in spontaneous meetings or through formal study in distant lands. “It is simply a good characteristic of a modern research university in the U.S. to have substantial international representation in its student body,” affirms Simpson. “It helps the curriculum, it helps the faculty, and it helps the students. It helps everybody to enter what is an increasingly international world. Many of us have read The World Is Flat, which gives some understanding of why this phenomenon is occurring. But the book notwithstanding, I think increasingly our students will find themselves working in their professional lives in situations that require interactions with people from other countries and other cultures.”

At a campus such as UB, these interactions happen every day, sometimes with unexpected results. Dunnett tells of meeting a UB student from upstate New York who initially objected to having a Chinese roommate. The following semester, when Dunnett met this student at a campus orientation for study abroad, the two roommates had become friends. Moreover, the U.S. roommate was studying Chinese and had signed up for the Beijing summer program.


SHAUN IRLAM, associate professor and chair of comparative literature, is among the UB professors avidly pursuing overseas opportunities for his students. Since 2002, he has run an African study abroad program, drawing students from UB, as well as from schools as far away as Oregon. “The extent to which it is a life-altering experience for most students might be measured by the number of them who have changed their academic directions, and in different instances have joined the Peace Corps, repeatedly returned to South Africa and Senegal, or enrolled at the University of Cape Town following the trip,” says Irlam, a native of South Africa. The program—which Irlam proposes to extend to Rwanda in 2009—is unique with its multiple African destinations.

Even with more focus on developing study abroad, however, it is anticipated that the numbers of students having an overseas experience will remain proportionally small for some time to come. As a result, UB faculty want to bolster stateside academic curricula to be commensurate with what’s being offered abroad, in particular, enriching campus area studies and deepening and extending foreign language preparation.

“We have, in my view, many programs and elements in place that help us adjust to a rapidly globalizing world: study abroad programs, campuses abroad and international research collaborations,” says Professor of History Andreas (“Andy”) Daum, a native of Germany who came to UB four years ago after serving as a Kennedy Memorial Fellow at Harvard University and earning his PhD at the University of Munich.

“At the same time,” he says, we need to rethink and revisit our strategies for internationalization by embracing this issue as an intellectual challenge to be discussed across campus, avoiding the temptation to subscribe to a simple rhetoric of ‘globalization.’” Such a revisioning, Daum says, involves filling in some “striking gaps,” such as those that exist in foreign language instruction. He also wishes to “translate the honorable aim of internationalization into curricula and new programs, especially on the undergraduate level.”

“Having been an international student, I understand—firsthand—the distinct challenges our international students face,” says Provost Satish K. Tripathi, a native of India who went to Canada for his graduate studies. “I remember traveling halfway around the world to study and live in a foreign nation and the ‘cultural shocks’ I experienced, from colloquial language to food to popular culture. I know our international students, although some 30 years removed from my personal experiences, still struggle with the challenges of being an international student. Now, as provost, I have the opportunity to influence the ways in which we, as a university, can help our international students acclimate to their new environs, as well as influence the ways in which we can truly be an internationalized campus.”

To help accomplish these goals, Tripathi recently appointed a campus task force of internationally seasoned faculty and staff to assess UB’s current strengths in global education, as well as the best opportunities for growth. “Overall, the task force is charged with creating an international and globalization vision and strategy—complete with recommendations for actions and plans—for our university to pursue,” Tripathi explains.

And while enhancements are planned, current academic exchanges and study abroad offerings are intensifying learning for those UB students who choose them, particularly in such areas as engineering and architecture.

“Engineering students are profoundly changed by their international experiences,” says D. Joseph Mook, who has developed UB programs in Thailand and France and holds dual titles of chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering and assistant dean for international education. “On a personal level, they become much more open in their view of the world, their understanding of cultural and international issues, and most of all, in their appreciation for other people. From a career standpoint, students learn to be much more self-sufficient, while at the same time learning to work better in cross-cultural teams.”

“As architects and planners increasingly work internationally, it is imperative that we offer our students a truly global program,” says Annette LeCuyer, professor of architecture at UB and a licensed architect in the United Kingdom.

“In the past few years, this has prompted us to develop studios in Asia, Europe and Central America; graduate workshops in England and China; exchange programs with leading European design schools; and internships that enable UB students to work in Hong Kong, Lisbon, London and Bosnia. This year will see a new initiative designed for students in urban and regional planning to collaborate with colleagues in Germany and bring students from Stuttgart to study in Buffalo.”

Sometimes academic exchanges involve looking at a classic play through the lens of one’s cultural experience, or simply sharing the human spirit. In “Theatre, Cultures and Civilizations,” a summer program, Department of Theatre and Dance professor Maria Horne takes her students to Sinaia, Romania. “It is important to me that every undergraduate student gets the chance to study abroad,” she says. “I know that this opportunity will open up for them a completely different outlook on their art and the world they live in.”

Over the past decade, a total of 260 UB students have traveled to a once-forbidden destination of Cuba. Now the program is poised to observe the fourth graduation of its joint master’s program in Caribbean cultural studies with the University of Havana—the only such program to be maintained by any U.S. university. Simpson will lead a UB delegation to Havana on June 2-7, and will confer degrees at the graduation, along with the rector of the University of Havana.

After twisting and turning through the diplomatic byways for 10 years, UB’s Cuban connection can be seen as “a tribute to the commitment of a large group of colleagues and friends on both sides of the Cuba-U.S. divide,” says José F. Buscaglia-Salgado, program director and associate professor of romance languages and literatures.

“This program,” he continues, “has brought national and international recognition to UB on account of our steadfast commitment—over the past decade and against all odds—to keep the door open to relations between these two sister republics born of liberty.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

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