Associate news editor Melissa von Mayrhauser recently spent time in Jordan as part of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation Summer Ecosystem Experience for Undergraduates. While there, she reported on Columbia’s global center in Amman. See a slideshow of the Amman center here.
AMMAN, JORDAN—The white-trimmed lunchroom at Columbia’s global center in Amman, with its steel chairs and plain rectangular tables, may be the most utilitarian room in the otherwise grandiose, castle-like building.
But the lunchroom also plays the important role of uniting researchers, staff members, and students, who gather there each day for pita bread, melon slices, and Coca-Cola. Breaking bread and discussing the day’s news is part of the daily ritual at the Amman center, one of Columbia’s international research hubs.
The global center in Amman is one of seven centers the University has launched so far, in an effort to create a network of regional hubs. Having opened more than three years ago, it’s one of the most active and fully developed centers, already looking to expand its programs regionally and to engage more Middle Eastern students and alumni.
But while the Amman center is intended to be Columbia’s Middle Eastern hub, so far it has primarily developed programs concerning Jordanian society. And as the global centers grow, they must strike a delicate balance between national and regional research.
“Our focus for the first few years has been to build a solid foundation in the country we’re in and to start expanding as we go along,” said Farrah Bdour, senior officer of communications at the Amman center.
Researchers in Amman have focused on Jordan largely because of the close relationship between the global center and the Jordanian government. Queen Rania Al Abdullah helped facilitate the creation of the center and remains a member of its advisory board, which meets once a year to review the center’s progress.
“We engage the public/governmental, private, and nonprofit sectors in most of our projects and initiatives in an effort to encourage intersectoral action and increase the scope and impact of our work,” said Diala Dabbas, a research associate at the center.
Several Columbia schools and institutes are collaborating with the Jordanian government through the global center. The center’s Institute for Sustainable Development Practice, for instance, is developing a poverty reduction strategy for Jordan, and the Mailman School of Public Health is researching methods for monitoring child rights abuses.
School of Social Work researchers “have been working on a baseline assessment for two years and designing the interventions for introducing a foster care system into Jordan,” Dabbas said.
Last month, they introduced one child into a new family, and they hope to conduct a similar process for other children.
“Two years from now this project could be making headlines with the government introducing a foster care system in the country,” Dabbas said.
The public health school is also working on a proposal to serve more nutritious, local food at Jordanian public schools. Meanwhile, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is drawing blueprints to restore the house of Jordan’s first prime minister, Ibrahim Hashem.
But researchers are also considering how the global center could pursue more research oriented toward the Middle East as a whole, while continuing to devote resources to Jordan.
“One thing that we want to do more of, and that I still think that we need to put more effort into, is the regional expansion,” Dabbas said.
Several staff members said that one of their major goals for the next few years is to expand their programs regionally. Omar Al-Hmoud, the manager of the Institute for Sustainable Development Practice, believes that the center is already building a framework for regional work with its current programs.
“While some of the Center’s programs (such as social work, public health, poverty alleviation, etc.) are currently focused on Jordan, they are nevertheless issues that are common throughout the region, and will be expanded upon in the near future,” Al-Hmoud said in an email.
Other researchers expressed a desire to respond to contemporary issues in the Middle East—most notably the Arab Spring—by conducting research with institutions in other countries.
“I think with the current situation going on in the region, it’s very good to expand to Egypt, the Gulf area, Lebanon, and maybe Morocco, Algeria,” said Mohammad Hmoud, a research associate at the center. “We can keep Jordan as the focal point as we spread throughout the region.”
The Amman center has already established a close relationship with the global center in Istanbul, Turkey, a reflection of University President Lee Bollinger’s vision of an interconnected network of centers. The two centers hosted a joint discussion about democratic transitions in Egypt and Turkey last November.
Staff members are also looking for ways to bring more potential Columbia students to the Amman center, both from Jordan and from other Middle Eastern countries.
At the beginning of June, the center hosted admissions representatives from 27 U.S. and European colleges and universities, partly as an effort to increase the low number of Middle Eastern students at Columbia. According to the University’s International Students and Scholars Office, just 3.6 percent of Columbia’s international population was Middle Eastern during the 2010-11 academic year.
Doing more to engage alumni around the Middle East is another priority. While only 20 or 30 of Columbia’s 150-200 alumni in Jordan are active, Bdour said that the center and the Columbia Alumni Association have held events in Dubai, Jeddah, Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Tel Aviv, and Cairo, and will soon host a larger regional alumni symposium.
“It’s generally been that certain universities have just had bigger names here, such as Harvard,” Bdour said. “But Columbia is gaining more recognition, especially with the center here.”
The center’s outreach efforts have a local component, too. In an effort to bring more Jordanians to events—especially high school students—staff members plan to start uploading the center’s public lectures to YouTube, and they recently launched a Twitter account to highlight the center’s activities.
“In order to exist in a community in a sustainable way, you need to do something that gives back to the community,” Dabbas said.
As the center moves into its fourth year, though, its staff is focused primarily on building up its programs and making them sustainable and legitimate.
“This has been a discussion we’re having here. How do you ensure that the Global Centers are leveraged well?” Dabbas said. “Once the mandate of the Global Centers is streamlined on campus, we’ll be contributing more effectively to further globalizing Columbia University.”
See a slideshow of the Amman center here.