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Fledgling Study Abroad Program Offers Worlds of Experience

By Irene H. Yoon (Intern, U.S. Department of Education, FIPSE)
Washington, DC, USA; October 16, 2002

Imagine that you are a new undergraduate student at a large research university. You are wide-eyed to the world of the campus. Then, at orientation, you are presented with a rare opportunity to learn Chinese, study for a year in China, perhaps eventually take courses taught in Mandarin, and, even more impressive, to conduct new research with several other students and faculty members at your school and at a school in China. Finally, your collaborative research possibly would be significant enough to be published and presented at national conferences.

Gretchen Kalonji, the director of a program called UW Worldwide (UWWW) whose largest program links the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle to Sichuan University (SU) in Chengdu, China, really offers such a program. Kalonji is almost casual when talking about the chance that some of her undergraduate students might publish the findings of their research. When asked about the academic accomplishments of her students, she says, “I expect that when the third-year students return from their year in Chengdu, some of them will have results they can publish, give talks about at conferences, things like that.” Her enthusiasm increases when describing the more personal impact on her students. She speaks about the “deep experiences” that students gain from learning a new language, traveling abroad, “working on an interdisciplinary research team that is international, and working on practical problems, all at once.”

The University of Washington Worldwide

Working to resolve practical problems is at the heart of the students’ research. Environmental and social changes resulting from industrial development are very similar in Washington State and Sichuan Province, from the effects of hydroelectric plants on streams, to the effects of industrial waste on rainfall, forests, and biodiversity. The internationalized curriculum of UWWW is the product of collaboration between UW faculty and SU faculty, who come from several academic fields and therefore unite varying perspectives on shared regional issues. The selected themes for UW Worldwide reflect the environmentally influenced needs in Washington State and Sichuan Province: water, biodiversity, anthropology/archaeology, forestry, and eco-materials. The student-and-faculty research teams tackle relevant, real-life problems within these chosen thematic fields. For example, the first water team, entering its third year in the project, has been developing new waste-water management methodologies, while the first anthropology team at Sichuan University made a CD-ROM of the funeral ceremonies of the Chuan minority in Sichuan.

There are five pairs of student-faculty teams. Five teams in Seattle cooperate with five partner teams in Chengdu. Each team is composed of students from different major fields and faculty from different but relevant academic fields. The interdisciplinary team works at its home school, researches its home region’s experience of an identified problem, and shares data and findings with its partner team via e-mail and video conferencing. Then, after two years of research at home, the teams switch turf; the five US teams go to China, and the Chinese teams come to the States. By the time the UW students and SU students switch places, “they have already done two years of work, and that will be their primary focus in China,” Kalonji notes. While exchanged, the teams continue to communicate and share data, and also spend the summers together before and after the year of exchange – one summer in Chengdu and one in Seattle – thus completing a full year abroad and an additional summer at home working on the project.

Worldwide Students

The students must take a regular course load at UW and while they are abroad in addition to working on their UW Worldwide projects. After two years of Chinese language classes geared toward the needs of the project, Kalonji predicts that by their second semester in Chengdu, after the first semester of exposure to the Sichuan dialect, “some of the students will probably be taking their courses – engineering, for example – in Chinese.” Kalonji further explains the importance of the experience for students: “It’s the only program that I know of where an engineering major can have a year of active research and go abroad…. Part of what is exciting for the students is that they have the potential of resolving important problems in Washington State and in China and still major in what interests them.” The advantage of being able to have both UW Worldwide and a normal academic life also can present a challenge. Kalonji points out that the UWWW students “have to make sure this project does not take over their whole lives,” and must juggle fulfilling some very structured major requirements while participating in UWWW.

UWWW is not a restrictive program for its students: “The students are very active in guiding us,” Kalonji says. They give Kalonji advice about the program’s curriculum, suggest program structure, and choose which of the project groups they join. Students choose their project groups after short introductions to each, and change groups later if they change their minds. Some students become involved in more than one project. UWWW students are more actively engaged with the project and curriculum because they have a certain amount of flexibility within the program, and work on research areas to which they were not merely assigned; they are more devoted because they have ownership of their work. Kalonji comments, “Luckily, the groups have been equal in number based on the students’ requests and natural interests, and we haven’t had to place students in groups that they didn’t choose.”

UW Worldwide allows for those “natural interests” because it is not designed or advertised as just for engineering or scientific majors. Kalonji says that there is a wide range of interests among the community of UW Worldwide students. Some major in fine art or pursue music and literature. The students apply to the UW Worldwide program for differing reasons; but all the students who are selected share the benefits of close personal and professional relationships with several faculty members, of independent, exciting, and new research, of close communities of students on campus and in China, and of acquisition of a new language and culture. With each year and each new step of the program, the experiences that the students encounter contribute to their growth as scholars, researchers, analysts, communicators, and writers. Their deep and growing knowledge about Chinese language, history, and culture, paired with their growing confidence as researchers and their interdisciplinary understanding through the varied and broad curriculum, are “quite remarkable for first-year students,” Kalonji says.

Across the Pacific Ocean, at Sichuan University, the project’s faculty has separate protocols for accepting student applications, but the curriculum and research projects are parallel to those at UW because they are collaboratively designed with Kalonji and UW faculty. The SU faculty members also come from different professional fields, and bring their own interdisciplinary perspective in addition to their experience and understanding of Sichuan Province. SU is very active in their part of the planning. “They take this project very seriously,” Kalonji says about her partners. “They bend over backwards to design things for this project.” For example, SU will be able to accommodate the UW students in China with courses and activities in English and, for more advanced Chinese speakers, in Chinese. While project staff members occasionally fly to China or vice versa, the main communication and planning is done through e-mail. This hasn’t deterred the faculty, though. After years of planning and coordination with SU faculty, the two faculty teams have overcome linguistic and geographic distance. Kalonji laughs when she says, “Yes, we’ve become very close with them by this stage.”

Behind-the-Scenes Interest

Non-academic partners of the project include the Washington State China Relations Council and the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development, as well as several local small-to-medium environmental technology companies, which Kalonji estimates as numbering around six hundred in Washington State. “The sister state-province relationship between Washington State and Sichuan Province was established in 1982, but it hadn’t been very active in recent years. The project has helped revitalize that relationship. The Office of Trade and Economic development is very supportive of our project because it increases interactions with China and with Sichuan, specifically. In fact, independent of our project – before our project even started – the Office of Trade and Economic Development cited China as the state’s third-largest trading partner, and as the fastest growing. It also named environmental technology as the sector of the state’s economy with the most potential for growth,” Kalonji narrates, describing the backdrop for UW Worldwide’s state government and non-profit relationships. The support from state, business, and non-profit organizations provides a glimpse of the potential impact and scope of the students’ research, because the partners seek to consider, in Kalonji’s words, “whether we can link our research with these innovative local environmental tech companies.”

UW Worldwide is lucky also to have the support of the university’s administration; the UW higher administration has dedicated significant resources to the project, shows interest, and does not interfere with Kalonji and her colleagues in the design of the project. The president of the University of Washington also traveled to Chengdu to observe the Chinese branch of the project. The show of support bodes well for the longevity and impact of the UW Worldwide project.

Kalonji hopes to see the interdisciplinary UW Worldwide project extend throughout the university, but this is inevitably a slow endeavor. The process has begun, as faculty members from several departments are involved in creating the curriculum and advising the students in UW Worldwide; they have started the formation of interdepartmental relationships among faculty. Kalonji and her colleagues also work with other departments in order to fit UW Worldwide into a schedule full of major requirements for some students, leading to more working relationships.

At a large research university like UW, faculty often work on their own projects and do not venture outside their departmental enclave. The research undertaken by UWWW students, however, requires more than just materials engineers or environmental scientists. Kalonji hopes to publicize the project this year and eventually draw from the depth of resources available if involving more of the thousands of faculty at UW. “We’re a research university. Faculty here are very committed to their research, and this project offers them an opportunity that is interesting, stimulating, and rewarding, upon which to distill their research interests,” says Kalonji.

The Question of the Future

The UW Worldwide project includes several international collaborations other than the one with SU. All UWWW projects aim to improve the University’s international opportunities for students both on campus and abroad. “If you imagine what the Sichuan program will look like in a few years, after it’s had time to become sustained, then there will a continuous presence at any time of 25+ visiting students on each campus,” Kalonji explains. “At any given time, there will be 25 freshmen, 25 sophomores, and 25 seniors from the UWWW Sichuan project on campus, in addition to 25 SU juniors from China. At the same time, 25 UW juniors will be in China with the 75 SU students in the program.” The permanent Chinese population at UW will be supplemented by other groups of international students, on campus through other UWWW international exchange programs that are currently in development. Increasingly, the presence of these cohorts of exchange students will redefine the meaning of “international campus.”

Kalonji stresses that other UWWW projects are not necessarily as intensive as the Sichuan collaboration. The other UWWW pilot projects underway involve a number of other partners in a variety of disciplines. Kalonji insists, “I think it is important that the activity be authentic to the character of the discipline. For example, the Sichuan project focuses on science, technology, etc., so we use research as the activity. A project through UW’s English and history departments, for example, lasts only a semester, but uses interviewing, investigation, and writing in order to focus on writing biographical works. That collaboration takes place through only one course.” Other joint projects at UW are underway in Asmara, Eritrea; Sendai and Tokyo, Japan; Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Beijing, China; and San Andres, Argentina. The quality that all the UWWW programs share with the Sichuan project is collaborative work across national boundaries on projects that are designed to be authentic to the characters of relevant disciplines, which Kalonji says is the key to attracting and holding faculty, who can pursue their work through the program, improve their professional development, and support the international experiences and curricula of students and of themselves.

“Of course, the UW-SU project is still young. This needs to be continued for a considerable amount of time in order to be evaluated for effectiveness, and to see what the long-term effects will be,” Kalonji states. However, due to the design of the program, with its many partnerships, and due to the support it has won, the project promises to be sustainable. Kalonji cites what she hopes are early signs of success: “As a consequence of [being funded by] the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), we’ve received more funding and awards, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) Distinguished Teaching Scholar, and a grant from the new NSF Partnerships for Innovation Program. The partnerships were communities brought together for the FIPSE project. [Funding from] FIPSE was a catalyst for other awards.”

In a more immediate timeframe, the UW Worldwide Sichuan project continues to offer new experiences to its students. The first group of third-year students just spent a summer together in Chengdu and then switched countries for the academic year. “In China, they are always experiencing something new and marvelous and exciting,” Kalonji says. The UW students in Sichuan have already, before the start of the academic year, embarked on a retreat with the SU students following the Min River from Chengdu to its source in the Tibetan plateau and investigated a variety of environmental issues. The Chinese students also have plans to explore the newness of the Seattle region and of Washington State. “This year, one of the Chinese groups is going to make a documentary about Washington State in Chinese and for Chinese people,” Kalonji says.

The UW Worldwide project provides a model for institutional exchange that includes in-depth research experience that serves state and regional environmental and technological needs. Students, idealistic and energetic, are able to add their efforts to cooperate on international teams to help with internationally important problems, as well as pursue their individual curricula. Furthermore, the program design models a way to reach significant results through four years of research and exchange, rather than to offer simply a smattering of semester-long courses during a trip abroad. The four years that students spend with UWWW Sichuan are formative, academically and personally, and result in a deep exchange of language, culture, academe, and significant research that is beneficial to Washington State, to Sichuan Province, and to the individual students themselves.

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Last Modified: 01/05/2011