World of opportunity

Susanna Mathews '16, far left, works with local translator Vuong Thu Trang to fill out a market research questionnaire after surveying food-buyers at a supermarket in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mathews is participating this semester in the College's Study Away Teach Away program, through which a group of students study for a semester abroad with one or two Connecticut College faculty members. More than half of all Connecticut College students complete an internship or study for a semester abroad, compared to less than 10 percent of college graduates nationwide.
Susanna Mathews '16, far left, works with local translator Vuong Thu Trang to fill out a market research questionnaire after surveying food-buyers at a supermarket in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mathews is participating this semester in the College's Study Away Teach Away program, through which a group of students study for a semester abroad with one or two Connecticut College faculty members. More than half of all Connecticut College students complete an internship or study for a semester abroad, compared to less than 10 percent of college graduates nationwide.

As a high school student weighing his college options, Christopher Bothur ’07 was sure of one thing.

“I grew up in Connecticut, I went to school in Connecticut, and I wanted to get as far away from Connecticut as possible,” he says.

But a visit to Conn, where Bothur figured he’d at least inquire about study-abroad opportunities, would challenge, and quickly upend, his plans to leave the state. Bothur was struck by the College’s commitment to international education, highlighted by intensive language instruction, subsidized international internships and an interdisciplinary curriculum steeped in world affairs.

They are factors that have distinguished the College from its peer institutions for decades. Hundreds of students before Bothur have left New London to forge successful careers on the global stage — whether abroad or in the United States.

The stakes are high. As digital, physical and business worlds become increasingly intertwined — through technology, social media and the emergence of new world economies — Conn’s mission to prepare students to “put the liberal arts into action as citizens in a global society” has taken on a heightened resonance.

The globally focused mission statement was adopted in 2004, spurring the College to build on a good thing. The International Commons, a faculty-led initiative to integrate global issues across the curriculum, was established that same year, and the College moved to recruit more international faculty and students to bring global perspectives into the classroom. Today, at least 40 of the College’s 179 faculty members hail from abroad, while 100 currently enrolled students are foreign citizens.

Those efforts have been enhanced by two major grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The first, a three-year, $375,000 grant awarded in 2009, expanded language learning into new disciplines and enhanced traditional teaching methods with new technologies. With the second, a $700,000 grant awarded in 2013, the College launched the Mellon Initiative on Global Education, which has very broad ambitions that include expanding innovative programs in the languages.

Also in recent years, faculty, staff and students have been involved in discussions about how to revise and renew the general education curriculum, in place since 1973. One of the goals is to better integrate language and culture study into all facets of the student experience, and ideas on how to do that include better and earlier advising and more opportunities for students to reflect on global experiences during the course of their studies.

All of the developments are designed to prepare Connecticut College graduates for an undeniable reality.

“Students today need to be incredibly flexible in their ability to think across regional and traditional boundaries, while also synthesizing vast quantities of information,” says Amy Dooling, associate professor of Chinese and co-director of the Mellon Initiative on Global Education. “You can have an international career in New York City or Minneapolis or Atlanta. The reality right now in America is that global society is right here.” 

‘Looking to see the world’

Bothur is a direct beneficiary of the Conn ethos. He started his own financial firm in New York City this year, after spending more than five years as a credit officer and chief operating officer for Deutsche Bank offices in Hong Kong, London and New York, and earning an MBA from Yale School of Management. Looking back on that initial campus visit, he says he knew he’d be going places; he just didn’t know how.

“I was looking to see the world, but I was an 18-year-old kid who had no concept of where to go,” the international relations major recalls. “Luckily, a couple of professors got their hands on me.”

While Bothur whimsically considered studying in Japan (“someplace far and interesting”), those faculty members — John Tian, associate professor of government and international relations, and Alex Hybel, the Lynch Professor of Government and International Relations — provided Bothur with an on-the-spot road map for the future.

“They said, ‘Nope, you’re going to China, and you’re going to do CISLA (the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts program),’” 
says Bothur.

He studied Mandarin Chinese with Dooling and Professor Tek-wah King and, in the summer after his junior year, completed a paid internship in Beijing, where he worked for the United Nations.

“The internship was wild. Here I was, 20 years old, and I’d get sent to a meeting with a cadre of Communist Party officials to provide consulting to the Chinese equivalent of the Senate. Half the time, I didn’t even get a briefing of the topic beforehand,” he says. He credits the language and broad problem-solving training he got through the CISLA program with preparing him for the internship, and later, for working abroad.

Since it was launched in 1989, CISLA has been challenging students to consider pointed questions: What are the origins and dynamics of contemporary society? What are the material, spiritual and ethical challenges of modernity? Each year, 30 sophomores are admitted to the program to wrestle with such queries and internationalize their majors through a combination of specialized coursework, intensive language study, study abroad, a College-funded international internship and an in-depth senior research project.

The College’s other centers for interdisciplinary scholarship, including the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, and the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology, also develop students’ global sensibilities and fund international internships. And more than half of all Conn students complete an internship or study for a semester abroad. That compares to a rate of less than 10 percent among all college graduates nationwide, according to the Association of International Educators.

“We teach students to understand the world from different perspectives, and we are increasingly giving them international experiences that are integrated into their broader academic programs,” says Marc Forster, the Plant Professor of History and director of CISLA. “In their courses, they become more sophisticated about understanding their place in the world.”  

An international history

Global developments and continued efforts to enhance international education have shined a spotlight on Connecticut College, and the institution was awarded the 2009 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization by the world’s largest professional international education association. But the College’s history of international excellence dates back more than 70 years, to the launch of a Latin American studies program in the 1940s in response to growing interest in the region.

Russian was added as a major in 1946, and Conn was among the first liberal arts colleges to establish a Chinese language department when it did so in 1965. Students had begun to study abroad in the 1930s through an independent program sponsored by the Institute of International Education, and expanded options for study abroad were added throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The College launched its own program — Study Away Teach Away, through which a group of about a dozen students study away for a semester with one or two Connecticut College faculty — in 1993.

And for decades, graduates of the College, such as Michèle Lewis O’Donnell ’77 P’15, have been forging successful careers overseas.

Born in Paris to parents who worked in Europe and Asia before settling in Connecticut in the 1970s, O’Donnell enrolled at Conn thinking she’d forge a career in art or translating.

That is, until she took psychology and child development courses and participated in an exchange program with England’s Westminster College. In short order, the experiences set the tone for her life’s work. For nearly three decades, O’Donnell has worked internationally as a psychologist, focusing on the well-being of humanitarian and mission staff, and, more recently, the developing field of global mental health.

The need for people like her is great.

“In many parts of the world, up to 90 percent of people with serious mental health conditions have no access to treatment,” says O’Donnell, who is based in Geneva, Switzerland, where she regularly works with nongovernmental organizations and United Nations personnel. “It’s really a travesty. A lot of it is tied to poverty, social determinants of health and inequality.”

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 
a resource.” 

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. 

Keeping pace with the world

New technology and new developments in global politics and industry continue to drive innovation in the College’s programs.

Some students are now experiencing the world without ever leaving the classroom. Andrea Lanoux, associate professor of Slavic studies, teaches a teleconference course called “The Net Generation: Contemporary Russian and American Youth Cultures.” Half the class is on the Conn campus, while the other half is made up of students from the Saint Petersburg National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia. Video cameras and projection screens create the illusion that they share the same classroom, facilitating lively discussions about everything from comparative family structures to racism in Russia and the U.S.

Arabic was added to the College’s language offerings in 2008, and in November, faculty approved a new major: Global Islamic Studies. In many ways, the degree, which combines study in religion, history, language and government, reflects a new way of looking at the world.

“Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions, and less than 15 percent of Muslims are in the Middle East,” says Associate Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Uddin. “We are no longer looking at just one group of people in just one region — we are rethinking how we understand Muslims and the role of Islam in the world.”

Faculty are also working to implement the ideas brought forth through the Mellon Initiative on Global Education, and are considering a number of proposals that have grown out of the campuswide general education curriculum review. One new requirement, approved by faculty in March, stipulates that students complete two semesters of language study — ideally no later than sophomore year, to allow them to incorporate what they’ve learned into their academic work in the junior and senior years. In addition, students will be encouraged to work closely with advisers to incorporate their language learning into co-curricular experiences, including internships, study away, research, student teaching and volunteer opportunities.

“We are working to ensure that students develop a nuanced understanding of the intersections among language, culture, history and religion and their impact on the world in which we live,” says Dean of the Faculty Abigail Van Slyck. “Citizenship in today’s global society requires nothing less.”   

Bothur, meanwhile, agrees. He says learning a foreign language, beyond “taxicab Mandarin,” has paid dividends for him.

“It’s eye-opening and door-opening.” 


April 22, 2015