Spreading the liberal arts
Even though American college students lag behind their global counterparts in working and studying abroad, the U.S. Department of State reports that an estimated 6.3 million Americans — more than ever before — are doing just that. Further, among 18-to-24-year-olds, 40 percent have expressed interest in finding work abroad.
Nora Britton ’14 is one of those 6.3 million Americans. After earning a degree in religious studies, she struck out for Hong Kong, where she is a junior fellow at Morningside College. Established in 2006 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the small college has a general education practicum that incorporates liberal arts tenets — unusual in Asian higher education.
Britton, who also studied Mandarin Chinese at Conn, helps teach a general education course at Morningside called “Current Dilemmas and Their Histories,” which considers — through a philosophical lens — everyday challenges faced by students, working professionals and political leaders.
In a place little accustomed to liberal arts approaches to challenges both global and domestic, Britton is an up-to-the-task emissary to her first-year charges.
“The style of thinking is definitely new for them,” she says. “They’re kind of forced to come to me as
Expats with a cause
Many professors incorporate themes of global justice into their courses, raising questions that are central to life and work in a 21st-century global milieu. Sheetal Chhabria, the Blaustein Assistant Professor of History, teaches a course on the globalization of urban poverty, for example, while Professor of Human Development Sunil Bhatia involves students in his efforts to raise awareness about the need for working toilets in some of India’s poorest slums. Last summer, the College sent a delegation of faculty, staff and students to Peru to explore issues of sustainability and environmental justice, and two of the farmers they met visited campus in October to speak with students about how globalization is affecting traditional farming there.
Part of preparing students to become global citizens is teaching them humility, empathy and responsibility. “We don’t want them to be the expats who come in, make a bunch of money and leave,” Forster says. “We want them to be more thoughtful about how they integrate into other cultures.”
Adam Boros ’02 planned to become a doctor when he enrolled at Connecticut College. But after studying abroad in South Africa during his junior year, he decided to commit himself to international development “in one way or another.”
In 2004, he volunteered for a nonprofit in Johannesburg called Joint Aid Management, which implements large-scale nutrition and agriculture programs on the continent.
He has lived in South Africa ever since.
He is now a senior client relationship manager at Tshikululu Social Investments, a nonprofit that manages more than $45 million in charitable giving from leading South African companies.
His experiences, in more ways than one, have been unlike anything he’s encountered in the United States.
Working in a country characterized by huge inequalities and faced with redressing very real and recent injustices has been personally and professionally rewarding, Boros says.
And there are intangible benefits, too. “The work-life balance is so much better,” he says. “My wife and I get about 25 days of vacation a year, and though I tell my boss I’ll check my email once a week when I’m on leave, she’ll say, ‘Why would you do that?’”
The crime rate is higher — Boros’ workplace has been broken into three times in four years — and companies must hire security firms to protect their assets, “but that’s just a reality you adjust to,” he says.
Boros credits his days at Conn, and the College’s worldly focus, with bringing him career success and an appreciation of other cultures.
“I’m a huge liberal arts fan because it gives you a broad perspective of the world and teaches you how to think creatively,” he says.
The power of language
To be sure, students live a polyglot existence at Conn, where they can study any of 11 languages, including Latin and Arabic. Students and faculty are able to break bread at designated dining hall language tables, and graduates are able to leave New London with advanced proficiency in a foreign language.
Aided in part by the Mellon Foundation grants, the College has continued to expand the boundaries of language learning. A recently piloted Language Fellows Program, which is now being adopted campuswide, features students conversant in a modern language developing co-curricular and social programming for peers.
For the past two decades, the College has promoted Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum, in which students can enroll in a course in ethnobotany, for example, that also incorporates Spanish instruction. In recent years, professors, advising staff and students have worked to expand the program; 12 such courses, in fields ranging from environmental studies to economics, are being offered this spring.
“Enabling students to engage with primary sources in their original language, even at an early stage of their language learning, is a powerful way to demonstrate how this can significantly enrich the possibilities for analysis and research,” Dooling says.
Lauren Burke ’06, who majored in Chinese language and literature (with a second major she crafted in “socio-cultural dimensions of international relations”) and was a CISLA scholar, relies on her language skills daily. She’s director of Atlas: DIY, a New York City organization she co-founded that provides legal, mental health, career, educational and life skills services to undocumented immigrant youths from around the world.
“Most of my Chinese clients have been trafficked to the United States and have experienced trauma, from domestic violence to homelessness. I love that my language skills allow me to advocate for them,” she says.
Junhee Lee ’14, now a software engineer for
Microsoft, took Arabic courses while majoring in computer science at Conn. He went with Professor Waed Athamneh to Turkey for spring break during his senior year, and relished adding another language to the ones he already knew — Korean, English and some Spanish — even if didn’t obviously relate to computer programming.
As a senior, he found his communication skills — honed by language and other liberal studies — helped him stand out during the interview process with top companies, including Google, Amazon and BlackBerry. Now, he is part of a team that develops Microsoft Excel and readies new versions of the product for international launches.
“When you change the language in a program, lots of things have to change, like the formatting for how numbers are shown,” he says.
One of the languages he is working with? Arabic.
“No one expected this Korean-born computer science major to know Arabic,” he says. “Turns out, I’m the only one on the team who does.”
Language skills learned at Conn have also helped Michael Kiakidis ’88 find success. The founder and managing director of an Athens-based company that rents luxury villas around the Mediterranean, he says he has learned that the best way to build trust with clients — who hail from all over the world — is to communicate with them in their native languages.
“[Cummings Professor of Italian] Robert Proctor was definitely an inspirational figure in my era; he taught us Italian and made us love Dante. Now, 30 percent of my clients are Italian, and I can chat with them about economics, art, politics, the works. The fact that I speak Italian makes them come back again and again,” he says.