Next month, the Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought will host a forum with University President Lee Bollinger called “Your Global Thoughts?” to solicit undergraduates’ ideas about Columbia’s worldwide expansion. Over the past few years, Columbia has by self-proclamation tried to become a global university, opening satellite centers in eight countries on four continents and “engaging across borders and across disciplines.” Indeed, a stated goal of the global centers is “expanding Columbia’s mission as a global university,” and one way they hope to do this is by supplementing the undergraduate curriculum with international study abroad, internship opportunities, and course offerings.
Globalism comes in different forms, though, and this is a concept with which I feel Columbia has struggled. Study abroad programs can be amazing opportunities for students to experience places different from what they are accustomed to, potentially outside their comfort zones. Taking courses in another country opens the mind to other academic settings and perspectives and allows one to become immersed in a different culture. However, is this cultural immersion the only benefit of study abroad programs? Are there no models for programs away from Columbia that offer benefits other than this one? Columbia seems to think this is the case.
The sustainable development major is churning out global thinkers who are working toward solving many of our planet’s biggest problems. As a student in the major, I wanted to do a semester away from campus with the Semester at Sea, a program sponsored academically by the University of Virginia with a curriculum focused on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Over the course of the semester, I would have visited more than a dozen countries to learn about their progress toward meeting the MDGs and participated in U.N.–sponsored projects around the world. There could not seem to be a better fit between major and study abroad program.
Unfortunately, I was told that I could not do the Semester at Sea program because it does not meet Columbia’s study abroad requirement of “cultural immersion.” In this case, it seems the perceived need for immersion was considered far more important than the benefits of global perspective and experience that this program offers.
To make matters more frustrating, many Columbia students who have studied abroad have told me that their programs were filled with Americans who spent most of their time together and as a result did not even have a true immersive experience. I’ve even heard of cases of students who have studied abroad in their country of origin or heritage. While this may provide an avenue for self-exploration through immersion, it surely doesn’t provide the type of enrichment that was intended by the policy.
Semester at Sea is at least as international in its student make-up as many of Columbia’s approved programs and would have required me to work alongside professionals from many nations with a variety of backgrounds. It also offers a rigorous, accelerated course load—basically, the full semester’s worth of material is condensed down into the time when the ship is at sea to allow students to work on the projects at each of its destinations.
In my mind, Semester at Sea is a model for a global education. Where, then, does the rejection of this program fit into Columbia’s pursuit of a global outlook? The Office of Global Programs believes that study abroad opportunities play a role in its broadening impact on the University, but is a student truly more global if they spend an amount of time in just one other place? At the forum in a few weeks, we need to tell President Bollinger that the University must broaden its ideas about what a successful study abroad program looks like. Failure to do so might mean that Columbia risks barring its students from many fantastic global opportunities.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in sustainable development.
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