Campus News

Global and growing

As outlined in Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, the University builds on its strong international partnerships and an array of programs to guarantee access to a global education for all students.

Barbara Stephenson.
Barbara Stephenson, former U.S. ambassador, is Carolina's first vice provost for global affairs. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Despite a pandemic that has severely disrupted international travel, Carolina has enabled students to continue intentional and transformative global learning through new programs with partners all over the world.

Preserving and strengthening Carolina’s ability to work with partners around the world to educate students and to address the most pressing challenges of our time are primary aims of the University’s strategic plan Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, which will guide the University’s strategic investment and decisions with a three-year time horizon. To accomplish that work, the plan’s Strategic Initiative 7: Globalize states that the University “must find innovative ways to conduct international work, likely relying more on technology to connect than we have in the past.”

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

The Well spoke with Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer, about how the University is transforming global education.

The Well: Why is a global education important for Carolina students?

Stephenson: We see our students as the next generation of leaders, and that means being global leaders. Over the course of my life, our world became inextricably interconnected. The movement of goods and capital, for example, has increased exponentially over the last 30 or 40 years. The world that these students will graduate into is interconnected in complex ways that affect all kinds of components of their everyday life. To become those global leaders, to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, our students need a global education.

Many of those challenges this rising generation will face will be global in nature. Climate change, cybersecurity, the pandemic — these problems are inherently global. They don’t live neatly within national borders. To address them successfully, students need to understand how our world is interconnected and to develop the skills to find the stakeholders who will be their partners in addressing these challenges.

How does a global education help students support North Carolina?

As North Carolina continues to grow and diversify, student success is inextricably connected to North Carolina’s success.

We know that employers in all sectors and industries are increasingly prioritizing global skills and recognizing the value of a global perspective. A survey a few years ago of U.S. business executives reported that 75% of companies considered a global perspective to be important for their staff. Another survey of U.S. businesses reported that 40% were unable to expand because workers lacked the requisite international experience.

Companies and their workers need a global perspective to contribute to the economy in North Carolina and beyond. Part of the reason North Carolina’s economy has outperformed others is a focus on education.

With travel severely limited, how have students been participating in these intentional academic opportunities?

Before the pandemic, our exceptionally well-led study abroad program was in a serious growth phase with 43% of Carolina undergraduates participating in study abroad before graduation. This figure demonstrates that the student interest is there. We’d been intentionally expanding study abroad, but then student mobility came to a screeching halt in March.

Study abroad remains very much a part of Carolina’s menu of opportunities for a global education. We hope to have more than 50 students going abroad this semester, and we want to encourage students to schedule virtual appointments with study abroad advisers to learn about program options.

While travel remains severely restricted, though, we really needed to be innovative and create new programs to ensure ongoing and growing access to a transformative global education. That is our promise under the University’s Global Guarantee — that all Carolina students will have access to a transformative global education.

A key part of our answer is to continue enhancing the curriculum and offer virtual programming. Through Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World, we offer three different approaches to global courses, each connecting Carolina students with partner institutions — through Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), through virtual study abroad and through speakers, in what we call international dialogues.

Where do faculty fit into this?

Quite simply, Carolina’s faculty play a starring role. Our faculty have contributed greatly to making sure a transformative global education remains available to all students. Faculty have made a significant push to modify courses, to bring in rich global content and experiences. One of the things that’s crucial to a successful program is a strong cohort of professors who take advantage of the opportunities like this and share how they solve problems. Then best practices emerge. Faculty members identify a problem and, with the Global team, work on it so that they don’t have to slog through it unassisted.

And COIL or Collaborative Online International Learning launched because of work by faculty, partner universities and Carolina’s own resources and support?

It has been so heartening to see the way that faculty have responded to the invitation to participate in Collaborative Online International Learning, which was launched by my office, the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, with invaluable support from the Study Abroad Office, using funding from the Chancellor’s Global Education Fund.

Twenty-one faculty members from across campus have so far joined the COIL pilot program after being selected for curriculum development awards and, in many cases, graduate student support. I hope to double that number in the coming months. We’re excited to bring more faculty members into this work and will continue to accept applications for Curriculum Development Awards for COIL through March 15.

We know it is hard work for faculty, and we are committed to supporting them. They are redesigning syllabi in significant ways to include, at a minimum, a three-week component of shared learning between their class in Chapel Hill and a class in another country. We have faculty participating with partners from nearly 20 universities worldwide, including the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Vietnam University of Fine Arts and King’s College London.

We’re also grateful for the support of library staff and the extensive resources and guidance they provide. They shared resources with our most recent cohort for things like incorporating a podcast and technology tools for shared reading lists and online exhibits. The presentation was amazing. It felt like that moment in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the wardrobe is opened.

Seeing campus-wide support for a new initiative like COIL is like seeing rays of dawn after a very dark night. This initiative has definitely been a team effort and a huge lift for everybody.

In which academic areas are faculty teaching COIL courses?

They come from the College of Arts & Sciences, Kenan-Flagler Business School, Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the schools of nursing and education, and the list is growing. We expect 425 students will participate in our 2020-2021 pilot, and that number will grow in the years to come. In fact, I have set a 2021-2022 goal of 1,000 students participating in a COIL course.

Redesigning a course is time consuming for faculty, but once faculty make that initial investment, we hope that many of them will continue teaching these courses for years. These courses will significantly expand the global content of the Carolina curriculum and diversify the portfolio of offerings that underpin the Global Guarantee.

What other benefits have you seen from COIL?

If we think about the Global Guarantee — our commitment to offer all students access to a global education — COIL is key to fulfilling that promise. While UNC-Chapel Hill is doing a very good job compared to our peers in responsibly restarting select study abroad programs, student participation numbers are much reduced. COIL provides an alternative way for student to pursue a global education. It is also highly cost-effective. Cost has always been a limiting factor for study abroad participation and, frankly, a barrier for many students. As a first-generation college student myself, I remember these challenges all too well.

COIL, on the other hand, is “inclusive by design.” The cost per student for my office to support a COIL course is low — just over $300 — which means our funds for the Global Guarantee can now go a long way to providing access to a transformative global education to ALL Carolina students. As we work to build our community together, I am thrilled to see new, “inclusive by design” options become a core part of the portfolio of programs available to students seeking a transformative global education.

What’s more, the student feedback from COIL makes my heart sing. Students are enthusiastic and tell us they want more, saying things like, “I love working with this partner in my class, and I want to do more of that long-term.” Seeing students run to Collaborative Online International Learning and embrace it helps to keep us going during a pandemic when a lot of the news is not good.

How important are global partnerships to Carolina’s research mission and educational mission?

They are the foundation on which so much good work is built. When I arrived at Carolina, I inherited a network of international partnerships and linkages that were in great shape. These partnerships are buttressed by the vibrant individual relationships our students and faculty are developing with their global peers and our joint research.

The pandemic forced us to creatively rethink a number of programs because they involved travel to each other’s university. For example, with King’s College London, we pivoted joint summer conferences for graduate students and redirected funds meant for travel and hotels to support graduate students in their work to shift those conferences to remote events over a longer period of time.

The strong partnerships that we’ve nurtured over the years have also contributed to the success of the Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World initiative. Thanks to these partnerships, we could quickly connect faculty members with faculty abroad for COIL, and our students could enroll in virtual study abroad courses offered by three universities in Ecuador, Vietnam and Germany. And we’ve successfully worked with some donors to secure scholarships that support these folks.

So, we found ways to keep the partnerships strong and thriving while opening new ways to offer a global education. What we have learned since March is going to carry forward beyond this difficult period and complement how we maintain the free flow of ideas between universities around the world.

What other kinds of partnerships are succeeding?

We renewed the remarkably successful PharmAlliance, which celebrated its five-year anniversary in 2020. In October, we also launched the DentAlliance, which is built on the model of the PharmAlliance. The DentAlliance brings together four of the world’s top 10 dental schools, and they work together across several domains of pedagogy and research. When the PharmAlliance anniversary pivoted from a weeklong in-person conference to a monthlong virtual event, we lost a chance to break bread and make music together, but we gained in participation. One participating dean referred to the democratizing impact of the online forum, which created space to hear from hundreds of new voices who would not have been part of the in-person travel experience. There is a powerful lesson in that.

What do you think the summer will look like for Carolina’s global programs?

Planning for the summer and early fall remains a huge challenge, with multiple variables in play, from encouraging news about vaccines to discouraging trends like new border closings. I am proud that UNC-Chapel Hill is living up to its reputation as a leading global public research university by continuing to engage in international travel for essential research and educational purposes. We are able to do that because we are developing effective risk-management policies and processes that are enabling us to be leaders in returning to international travel.

We are working, for example, to refine a list of summer study abroad programs that merit an exception to the ongoing prohibition on University-affiliated travel, including, of course, international travel. When we compare ourselves to peer universities, we seem (based on admittedly incomplete data) to be in the vanguard of finding responsible ways to allow study abroad to resume during a historically challenging period for international travel. I want to remain in that space — leading the way in responsibly reopening essential international travel — this summer and beyond.

And how will the number of Carolina students participating in intentional and transformational global experience increase?

Even with the best risk-management policies in the world, study abroad numbers will not instantly spring back to previous numbers. Rather than just waiting for the pandemic to pass, we at Carolina recognized that we needed immediate solutions if we were to come through on our commitment to offer all our students access to a global education. With support from across campus, we have successfully diversified our portfolio and developed creative solutions like Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World to ensure that transformative global learning continues and grows. As we say in Carolina Next, we will offer all Carolina students the best menu of global opportunities possible under challenging and changing circumstances.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.