College Matters | Introducing international service learning to students

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, July 7, 2022 - 1:13pm

Part of attending a university is to become exposed to different cultures, ways of living, learning other political systems, and finding one’s ability to help others as a college graduate.

Many years ago, the emphasis on student success was largely about how well one wrote, spoke, computed, read, and completed math. In the early days, it was unimaginable that a school, let alone a university, would produce a graduate who could not read well, write well, or complete basic math. In the early 2000s, one’s ability to use technology was introduced. Today, it is unimaginable we would have a graduate who could not properly use a computer.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, we aspire to help cultivate the region into becoming a model global community. We know that our graduates will not just work on the North Coast. They must graduate with skills that will keep them competitive throughout the world. This is especially true as a Cal Poly. Imagine a business major seeking work for a small business in San Francisco. That small business buys products from all over the world, and that business major must understand how to interact with other businesses located far from the United States.

One way to introduce international education, and the more humanitarian part of it called international service, is through a deliberate international service-learning program. In essence, it is about learning how to collaborate with others beyond our borders through a course that then takes you on location. That is the Cal Poly Humboldt program.

Our new International Service Learning Program is modeled after the award-winning ISLP at the University of Louisville. That program was focused on providing opportunities for students to travel and learn in other countries in a very structured and interdisciplinary program. These experiences are deeply engaging, expand learning, and even lead to new career opportunities for students. At the same time, the students who participate can lead us in creating the type of model global community that we aspire to be.

Cal Poly Humboldt’s first ISLP program is being established in the Philippines, and students will be able to participate in the program beginning in spring 2023. The program will begin in the classroom here on campus where students will learn about the culture, history, and expectations of the program. Later, as ambassadors for this campus and country, they will travel to the Philippines and not only teach in a small school, but also experience the culture and traditions. The learning that happens, primarily by our students, will be transformative. It may be the most influential experience for many students.

Many times, in working overseas, the assumption is “we are going someplace to educate or teach others.” In truth, we are going someplace else to learn and become better global citizens.

Throughout higher education, educators recognize the power of studying abroad, considering it a “high-impact practice.” Students recognize it as well, first as an exciting possibility before they have traveled, and later as an experience that changed their perspective or opened up new possibilities for them.

International study helps students feel comfortable with change and uncertainty. It helps them discover new strengths and expands their problem-solving skills. It teaches them to work with others who have very different points of view and, of course, it often helps them learn to communicate in other languages. These are all important in helping them become graduates who can step into fulfilling careers and help tackle the challenges facing our world today.

The power of international education is supported by solid research. Numerous studies have demonstrated positive effects including understanding global complexity, applying knowledge in a global context, linguistic competency, cultural competency, ability to work with people from other cultures, and comfort working with people from other cultures.

Significantly, the impact of study abroad appears even greater for underrepresented and low-income students, according to research by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and others. This is important for Humboldt because we are a minority-majority campus, and a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).

At Cal Poly Humboldt, we already have a relatively wide range of international options for students and recent graduates. We have been well-known for many years as a top university for placing graduates with the Peace Corps, and just recently launched a certificate program to help undergraduates get ready for this type of service. We have faculty-led study abroad programs such as one focused on archaeology in Belize, one focused on environmental issues in Costa Rica, and language-focused programs that take students to Spain, Latin America, and France. We have exchange programs with universities in many countries including Germany, Australia, Netherlands, Norway, France, Finland, and Czech Republic.

Many of our faculty bring international perspectives to their teaching, and we have had many more Fulbright Scholars than you would expect. A recent recipient includes professor of recreation administration Jayne McGuire, who was supported to conduct Special Olympics research in Jamaica.

Most of us can pinpoint experiences both large and small that changed our direction, jolted us out of our comfort zone, or helped us imagine new possibilities for our lives. At Cal Poly Humboldt, we seek to make those experiences possible for our students. To put it another way, we will graduate students who can truly impact the world. Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.