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T. Williams, Going the Distance: Faculty Who Teach and Serve in International Higher Education Programs

With Pam Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor

Terry-Williams.jpgTerry E. Williams

Associate Professor, Higher Education
Loyola University Chicago
Research Interests:  International Higher Education; The Education Abroad Experiences of Students of Color



How did you become involved in the Global Faculty Immersion to Vietnam at Loyola? Please describe the program, a brief history, and its goals/mission.

Beginning in 2006, Loyola’s Office of International Programs, in collaboration with other Loyola units, has sponsored faculty and staff immersions to various parts of the world including Mexico, East Africa, Indonesia, Peru, and Vietnam. These immersions are important to Loyola and address, in part, the institution’s Jesuit mission, on-going efforts to internationalize our university, and to address issues and challenges arising from globalization through our teaching and research. In part, Loyola is perhaps most visible in its internationalization through its study abroad and degree programs at its campus in Rome, Italy;  through its leadership of a major academic center in Beijing, China,that brings students from throughout the U.S., and through its Vietnam Center  in Ho Chi Minh City. Currently, Loyola is the only U.S. university to be awarded a license from the Vietnamese government to conduct an academic degree program in that nation.

In late Spring 2011, a small group of Loyola faculty travelled together to Ho Chi Minh City for 10 days and I was privileged to be part of this group. The overarching purpose for the trip was to familiarize and sensitize faculty from across academic disciplines to the rich cultures found within Vietnam, to learn more about the challenges, issues, and needs of the various educational, social, political, and business communities, and to learn about several university initiatives that are currently underway through the efforts of full-time staff who work in Loyola’s Vietnam Center in Ho Chi Minh City. My own interests were grounded in a deep desire to learn more about the Vietnamese higher education system and especially the role of faculty in teaching and research. For the past several years, I have been involved increasingly in international education. For example, I have taught a seminar focused on education abroad at our Rome campus for U.S. and international graduate students and currently I am part of a faculty group in Loyola’s School of Education that has designed and is launching in fall 2012 a new master’s-level degree program focused on international higher education. This M.Ed.  degree program will be “low residency” in that all but two courses will be online and students, as part of the program, will participate in two separate international experiences at our Rome and Beijing campuses. These efforts have required me to address my own professional development around globalization and the internationalization of U.S. higher education. The immersion to Vietnam was a wonderful opportunity to learn and gain valuable insights about Vietnam’s tertiary education system.

Twelve faculty from several academic departments across the university participated in the 2011 Vietnam immersion and while we engaged in several activities as a group, each of us also had a unique itinerary designed to focus on a specific question or set of questions related to our teaching and/or our research at Loyola. My focus was on learning more about the tertiary system of higher education and the role of faculty in that system. I was able to meet multiple times with faculty and academic administrators at a major university located in Ho Chi Minh City and to visit other universities including a rural research center about 100 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong River Delta. My conversations with faculty occurred in their university offices and at times in neighborhood coffee bars where faculty appeared much more comfortable sharing their experiences at the university with me.

What were some of the most meaningful activities and experiences you had while you were in Vietnam?

The entire immersion experience was simply amazing for me. However, three activities  were especially memorable and meaningful.  First, our group traveled via bus about 100 miles south through many small, rural, impoverished communities to Can Tho (a major Mekong River Delta community) to visit with Professor Ni and his staff at the Hoa Am Ecological Research Center which is part of the University of Can Tho. The focus of the research that is going on at Hoa Am is on bio-diversity and sustainable farming  in response to the complete destruction of the local environment in that region due to the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (note: in Vietnam the War is referred to as the American War). Professor Ni (with a very small staff and limited resources) has been conducting research for many decades which has resulted in a number of local farmers once again returning to their lands and to  sustainable farming, which is their only source of income for their families.

Second, on one evening in Ho Chi Minh City, my group was invited to have a traditional Vietnamese dinner with Bishop Nguyen Van Kham who works directly with Cardinal Pham Minh Man. The evening conversation with Bishop Van Kham was very informative and inspirational as we learned about his own family background and experiences both pre- and post-wartime. Learning more about the very delicate balance that exists between the Church, its priests and their work,  and the government in Vietnam was quite fascinating.

Third, my individual conversations with faculty were very meaningful as I was able to learn about their own personal histories and the roles they serve in the university. For example, being able to spend almost 3 full hours one morning with a faculty member over coffee in an outdoor shop on the grounds of the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace) was extremely eye opening for me.  The faculty member was very open  about the challenges and issues faced by faculty and students in Vietnamese higher education and helped me to better understand the aspirations of many faculty who hope to make a difference in the lives of their students.

How have your experiences in Vietnam influenced your teaching, research, and educational philosophy?

In Vietnam, I personally visited university classes where the predominant pedagogy appears to remain very classical and European in that the faculty member was either standing or sitting at the front of the classroom reading from a prepared script/text (in one case, reading from power point slides without looking up) to the students who were dutifully trying to write down in their notebooks as much of what was being said as they could (again, making no eye contact with the faculty member). There was no interaction between student and teacher in part because there is no expectation that this will occur.  These class visits reinforced within me my commitment to make my own classes as engaging and meaningful as I possibly can for my students.  The visits underscored for me that allowing students the space in which to question the faculty member and to explore alternative perspectives on a topic of interest is very important to advancing learning. I learned that the pedagogy observed within the university classes is very closely aligned with the teaching and learning activities found in the elementary and secondary education system in Vietnam as well.  In my conversations with some faculty, they privately confided that a whole new approach to teaching is very much needed in order for students to learn effectively and to become competitive for admission to professional and graduate programs outside Vietnam, especially those within the U.S.

What sort of courses have you taught at the Rome Center? How would you describe your students who attend the Center?  Please provide your thoughts on why international study might be an important element in a young person’s education today.

Rome 2011 Borgese Gardens

For the past six summers, I have offered the same graduate seminar to students enrolled in higher education and student affairs programs across the U.S. This past summer, I also enrolled one graduate student in Higher Education from the University of Hong Kong and I am hoping that the course might continue to attract students from throughout the world. The course is a two-week, intensive seminar that essentially focuses on the learning outcomes associated with student engagement with education abroad. Additionally, the course focuses on identifying and examining different  “models” ’ of education abroad offered by U.S. institutions, by U.S.-based third party providers of study abroad, by Italian culture and language schools, and by the Italian public university. We are out in the city of Rome every day visiting educational sites along with historical, religious, and cultural sites as well. At our various sites, we meet with Italian faculty who teach U.S. students, with program coordinators and deans, with current undergraduate students in residence, and with other key stakeholders (like home stay parents, Italian Student Companions, etc.) who also often illuminate for us the experiences of U.S. students but through the lenses of those given responsibility for ensuring that the program’s goals are achieved.

My students are very diverse along many dimensions and bring a wide range of prior international learning experience to the seminar. Some have experienced multiple study abroad trips and/or have traveled extensively; whereas, others are experiencing not only their first study abroad course but may also be engaged in their first international trip. The diversity of prior international experiences combined with the diversity of coming from as many as 10 different graduate programs provides for a very healthy and  engaging discourse within the course.

In my opinion, a growing knowledge base exists that confirms the many meaningful and powerful learning outcomes that do accrue to individuals who have the opportunity to study abroad regardless of the length of the sojourn. Many scholars and practitioners representing a variety of fields (including anthropology, modern languages and linguistics, psychology, cultural and educational policy, and comparative and international higher education) have conducted valuable studies that capture what students learn not only about the larger world in which they are an integral part but also about themselves and their identity as not only as U.S. citizens but as citizens of the world community. Research studies that occur many years following a student’s education abroad confirm the continued benefits and impact on these students. I believe much agreement appears to exist around the value of education abroad for students today from many stakeholder groups; but, unfortunately, institutions, the federal and state governments, and philanthropic organizations have not yet figured out a way to significantly reduce the many barriers (and not all are financial) that currently exist preventing students from undertaking education abroad.

What are some of the greatest obstacles you have experienced in your international experience? Are there any downsides?

Rome 2011 Vatican on a Rare Rainy Day

Given that my international experience is inherently limited and that the broader international field is in recent years relatively new for me, I have not encountered major obstacles beyond those that I link to the short duration of time that I am able to spend in the international context and the absence of fluency in a language beyond English. I am convinced that, for some short term study abroad immersions with a sharpened focus and purpose, language study need not be a pre-requisite or an essential part of the experience. For example, graduate students who will spend two weeks in Rome with me examining the research and experiences of U.S. students who study abroad, do not need to have a command of the Italian language to succeed in the course. However, full cultural immersion into a country does require, I believe, serious attempts at learning the language of that nation with some degree of minimum fluency expected. When I was in Vietnam recently I would have loved to have some basic language skills as I believe it would have provided me with a much fuller and richer introduction to the society and culture there. Most education abroad programs of at least eight weeks or more typically (but not always) include language study as part of the experience for students and I would support continuing to require this. However, while experience with a language would be very helpful prior to travel overseas, I do not feel the absence of language study should be a bright-line barrier to student engagement with overseas study, especially when the student could enroll in the language as part of the study abroad program.

Some critics think that students should stick to work that relates only to their academic education.  In other words, it is not the business of higher education, at least public universities, to teach students to be good citizens, virtuous people, or caring souls. How would you respond to these comments?

Like many of my faculty and administrative colleagues in the field of Higher Education/Student Affairs, I am  deeply disturbed by the narrow view promoted unfortunately by many today in our society (especially legislators who often control revenue streams for higher education and especially financial support for students) that higher education is really more about providing benefits only for the individual student including advancing their basic knowledge and skills needed to find a job or vocation.  I could not disagree more!

These narrow views have, in my view, led to federal and state policy developments that today force the student (and his/her family) to shoulder almost all of the burden for the costs involved in obtaining a higher education as evidenced by huge tuition increases necessarily set by institutions with significantly declining state financial support and by huge amounts of educational loan debt assumed by students and families.

I can recall in my own undergraduate years in the late 1960s when government appeared to feel very differently and was far more supportive of providing student access to higher education because of the perceived benefits not only to the student but, more importantly, to the greater society. I was clearly a beneficiary of that policy and without government aid (large grants and LOW levels of loans) I would not have completed college. Those years represented a time when many people praised higher education for its many substantive contributions to the larger society and to enhancing our overall quality of life in the U.S. (and beyond).  Many in society believed strongly that higher education was indeed about “formation” and education of the WHOLE person and instilling hopefully in each student a dedication and commitment to giving back to his/her community, state, region, nation, and world. It was a time when dispositional outcomes around what it means to be a good citizen, and “a virtuous people with caring souls” were unabashedly being promoted in most institutions, including the public sector.

As an educator grounded in the humanities and the social sciences, I feel very strongly that higher education today benefits not only the individual interests of the student but our larger society as well and that we need to remind ourselves and our students of this. Students need to know that much is expected of them in the years ahead and that they have the power to become important catalysts for positive social change in society and to be strong advocates for justice in our world. If we can engage our students in formational activities that enable them to reflect on their emerging roles in our global community, then I believe higher education will have served one of its most important roles and functions in our society.

An important historical figure in the history of student affairs in the U.S. is Melvene Hardee. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a student of Dr. Hardee?  How did she influence your educational philosophy?

I was a doctoral student of Dr. Hardee in the late 1970s and came to Tallahassee from Illinois primarily because I really wanted her to be my faculty advisor. I had interviewed with other doctoral programs for admission but came away from my FSU meeting with Dr. Hardee convinced that she was the person I most wanted to learn from. It helped too that I had two  friends from my undergraduate days who had been in the FSU program and highly recommended Dr. Hardee to me. I also admit that my decision was cemented when she put in a “good word” for me with Dr. Richard Hulet, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs with the State University System of Florida, who offered me a research assistantship with tuition benefits and who turned out to be an exceptional and wonderful mentor and coach!  While I have many memories of my time with Dr. Hardee, here I will share one of my stories.

I began my studies in great awe of Dr. Hardee and, to be honest, pretty scared at the same time. One of my first and most vivid memories of her advising “style” was during my first class with her in my first term.  As part of the course, she arranged for the entire class (which “strategically” included all of her new doctoral advisees for that fall term, around 15 of us!) to travel via van/car with her on a study trip through the Gulf Coast where we visited over a few days a variety of public and private colleges and universities. During those visits, she arranged for us to be greeted by university presidents and vice presidents and we were treated almost like “royalty” because of the outstanding reputation that Dr. Hardee had with these administrators and institutions. In reality, I guess she was the “Royalty” and we were her entourage! It was clear to me and my peers, that Melvene Hardee was highly respected and one for whom you would do anything, including changing presidential schedules around her schedule! She traveled with us, she ate with us, she stayed in the same motels with us, and, importantly, she wisely used this experience to create a special bond and sense of community among her group of new advisees in the first few weeks of our time together at FSU. I don’t think I realized until much later the brilliance behind her plan for us.  After almost 32 years now of full time graduate teaching, I recognize how important it is to create community within a graduate program community and to instill the values around the need for effective teamwork and collaboration. I realize that these values in me are heavily grounded in my seminal experiences with Dr. Hardee over 35 years ago.