April 2, 2012

Skorton Seeks Surge in Number of Students Abroad

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In a recently released white paper, President David Skorton announced his goal to ensure that no fewer than 50 percent of undergraduates have an “international experience” –– defined as studying, holding an internship or going on a service trip in a foreign country –– by the time they graduate.

Skorton said he plans to achieve this goal by increasing the number of short-term study abroad programs, such as those that take place during winter break, while also increasing the number of students who study abroad for credit during the fall and spring semesters.

Twenty-seven percent of undergraduates have studied abroad for academic credit at some point in their Cornell careers, according to Skorton’s paper, “Bringing the World to Cornell and Cornell to the World,”  released March 2.

This goal is part of a larger plan to increase Cornell’s stature in international areas and make changes to University study abroad policy, according to Director of Cornell Abroad Richard Gaulton ’67, Ph.D. ’81. In the white paper, Skorton outlines a series of goals, including hiring more professors in international studies, to increase the University’s global presence.

“We all live in a very global world, and whether you grew up in upstate New York or outside of the United States, we are all going to be interacting with each other … It is very important for the University to provide the skills for students to thrive in this interconnected world,” Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, said.

Pell said Skorton’s plans allow for the development of the University’s partnerships with foreign institutions, as well as the development of its existing programs abroad.

“This initiative fits in with the tech campus and campus in Qatar. The scope of Cornell’s international activities is huge,” she said.

Gaulton said Skorton’s goals can be achieved by “increasing the capacity” of Cornell managed programs –– which, though located overseas, are owned and operated by the University.

“This is the first time we have a strategic view about how many students we want to go abroad, how many international students are appropriate and how to develop an international curriculum,” he said. “We now have a Cornell-wide approach to the international dimension of the University as opposed to individual colleges or units.”

Cornell only counts students who study abroad for credit when determining the percentage of students with “international experience.” According to Gaulton, the University should reconsider its definition of an international experience in order to realize Skorton’s vision.

Pell said the University is responding to President Skorton’s call for increased international ties by forming new committees to tackle the issue. She said doing so will provide Cornell Aborad with an opportunity to reassess its programs.

“This a good opportunity to reflect on current programs and figure out what types of programs we want to be offering,” Pell said.

Prof. Walter Cohen, comparative literature, who chaired a committee called Cornell in China, said that pursuing Skorton’s goal is critical to bolstering Cornell’s international reputation as a research institution. He said that many problems need to be addressed before the initiatives can be realized.

“There are a huge number of logistical questions,” Cohen said. “We need to figure out where students can go abroad without compromising the educational mission of certain schools. Whether it is some schools sending their own faculty or making exchange agreements, we should look at other schools and see what works.”

Prof. Frederik Logevall, history, director of the Mario Einaudi Center of International Studies, said he supports Skorton’s plan but also pointed out potential obstacles to increasing the number of students studying abroad.

“I think it is laudable for President Skorton to push for a sizable increase in the percentage of students who study abroad, and whether we can reach the figure he is giving us remains to be seen,” Logevall said.

Administrators raised concern about the potentially high costs of studying abroad. Cohen said that funding these trips has to be made the “center” of conversations about increasing the number of students studying abroad.

“The right way to do abroad programs is to equalize the costs with staying on campus and make it an academic over a financial decision, but this is not as easily done as said,” he said.

Gaulton noted that financial aid programs could be reformed to help more students pay for studies abroad.

“There is a very generous financial aid policy for students who study [abroad] over the semester, but it is typically not available for students who study abroad over the summer and that is something that we could look into,” Gaulton added.

Pell echoed this sentiment, adding that financial aid reform may be necessary to encourage students to study abroad.

“We want to make sure that financial aid is available so that it does not exclude students from participating in Cornell Abroad or other international programs,” she said.

Original Author: Dan Temel