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A worldview makes a world of difference

International study, students and strategies part of University of Cincinnati's growing emphasis

by Deborah Rieselman

Tears streamed down the cheeks of a terrified Brittney Smith as she prepared to head to the Middle East for four months in 2006. The University of Cincinnati sophomore's fear of traveling alone was compounded by the fact that she had never been in an airport before, didn't know how to change planes and had no foreign currency to use once she landed. "Culture shock" was setting in before she left the ground.

No one was forcing her to study abroad, of course. In fact, her parents had tried to dissuade her during the six months she spent deciding whether or not to fill out an application for the American University in Dubai. "But something inside of me needed to see more than the 10-block area I grew up in," she states matter-of-factly.

By the time she reached the airport, however, her fervor had faded. The only thing that kept her from throwing in a tear-drenched towel was the fact that she had paid $1,800 for a plane ticket. "I couldn't turn back," she says. "I was too proud."

What Smith was beginning to experience is a hallmark of education abroad. It teaches students more about themselves than the country they are visiting, says Kurt Olausen, director of UC International Programs.

He knows that firsthand. As a Dickinson College student studying abroad in the '80s, he had "a complete breakdown" one Thanksgiving in a residential director's kitchen in Germany, he recalls. "I was overwhelmed."

Students studying and working overseas grow up quickly, he says. They cultivate greater self-confidence and flexibility, a heightened sense of independence and a willingness to take risks. "You see things in a completely different way," Olausen adds, "and you develop the ability to deal with differences."

Fortunately for Smith, her mother helped ease her transition. Faced with a daughter's meltdown over being simultaneously resolute and regretful, Mom quickly scoured the airport lobby until she located another student headed to the same destination. The families introduced themselves, and soon Eric, a complete stranger, had promised to look after the red-nosed Brittney.

Once they reached Dubai, however, Smith was on her own; a giant wall separated the men's and women's residences. Then when she entered her dormitory room, she found it lacking several things -- sheets on the bed, a pillow and a roommate. "I felt so lonely that I just lay down and cried," she says.

Another adjustment came when her roommate arrived -- an Iranian who was a little uncomfortable about living with an American. "It was tense at first," Smith admits, "but when we found some of the same music on our iPods, things began to soften between us."

Because Smith had been studying Arabic at UC, she found it easier to meet other students. She also joined the African student association because of her African-American heritage, but was surprised when some Africans did not accept her because they saw her American identity as greater than her race, she explains. Eventually, she befriended a group of African men by playing basketball with them (the only woman to do so), and she met other Americans.

Studying in the United Arab Emirates on a campus that typically has about 100 nationalities represented in the student body taught her one thing in particular: "We are all very different, but mostly we're the same."

An international-affairs major, Smith spent January to May studying Arabic, Middle Eastern history and other courses. Like many study-abroad students, she gave a final presentation in the local language -- Arabic, in her case.

On the whole, humanities, social sciences and business-management majors constitute the bulk of UC's 800-850 students who annually receive academic credit for international experiences, Olausen says. Science students are currently being cultivated to boost their numbers.

International rankings

The 2011 International Student Barometer, the world's largest survey of international college students, rates UC among the top 15 destination universities in the world.

Top 15 worldwide,
No. 1 in the U.S.

• Opportunities to teach
• Earning money
• Financial support

Top 15 worldwide
• Expert lecturers
• Good teachers
• Grading criteria
• Sports facilities
• Visa advice
• Finance office
• Welcome on arrival
• Student advising

No. 1 in the U.S.
• Managing research
• Learning spaces
• Online library
• Technology
• Internet access
• Response to applicati

Overall, UC students have a wide range of study-abroad options. Options include traditional programs in which students pursue academic courses, international co-ops, internships, service learning and research. The duration of programs can range from a four-day sojourn to Montreal as part of a business class to a double-term doing design work at BMW in Germany to a full year in Japan for Asian studies.

At one time, people considered education abroad to be a perk of the affluent. But today, UC officials say, global engagement is necessary for survival. The contemporary marketplace demands that students think on a global level and that competitive universities not only produce such students, but also manage themselves as international enterprises.

In 2011, UC President Gregory Williams placed a new emphasis on global engagement by making it an element of his UC2019 strategic plan. His goals include having international student enrollment hit 8 percent by 2019 (up from 5.6 percent at present) and nearly doubling the number of students who undertake an international experience at UC to 1,500 students annually. "That shouldn't be a problem for a university with 42,000 students," says Olausen, "but we do have some obstacles to overcome."

To help the cause, the president also dedicated $500,000 to the effort. Most of that will increase the quantity and amount of study-abroad scholarships, and some of it will support the global-studies component of the University Honors Program.

At present, UC claims a record number of international students -- 2,643 representing 115 countries, notes Ron Cushing, A&S '88, M (A&S) '90, director of UC International Services, which assists international visitors in understanding the regulations and procedures that must be followed during their U.S. stay. Cushing credits the increase to various "strategic efforts," including "aggressive" overseas recruitment, articulation agreements with overseas institutions and the growing success of the English Language Center that ELS Educational Services opened on campus in 2008 to help students improve their English proficiency.

"We're seeing a change in the student body, and many students arrive at UC having international experiences," Olausen notes. "Admissions is now casting its net wider."

UC began focusing on international student recruitment about four years ago, says John Weller, director of International Admissions. "One of the main benefits is that it helps create a global education for our domestic students.

"Only about 5 percent of our domestic students participate in study abroad, so this is a chance to give some global exposure to the other 95 percent and prepare them for a global knowledge-based economy. It also creates UC as an international destination and helps us build our brand internationally and nationally, which can help improve rankings."

The truth is a larger international population on campus creates more international encounters and activities, which generates greater global interest. Furthermore, hearing classmates rave about their overseas experiences cultivates a greater attraction for studying overseas.

"Once students go abroad to study, it sparks an interest in learning new things, and they get the bug," Olausen says. "They want to go again and stay longer to get more immersed."

How global are we?

• International students on campus -- 2,643 from 115 countries
• UC students studying internationally for credit -- 800-850 annually
• Destination countries for education abroad -- about 56 annually
• UC student organizations with international focus -- 50+
• Faculty with degrees earned abroad -- 434 faculty from 324 institutions in 60 countries
• Corporate international activity -- UC provides services to, or engages in activities with, more than 5,000 companies in 184 countries
• UC undergrad admissions website -- available in 14 languages
• Online video tours of UC's Uptown Campus -- available in 10 languages
• Full-time recruitment staff based overseas – 4 staff in 3 countries
• UC's overseas admissions representatives -- in more than 35 countries
• UC's international institutional agreements -- 33 countries represented
• Exchange-student partner schools -- 27
• International faculty advisers on campus -- 7

Annual events
• International Student Orientation during Welcome Week
• Programs Abroad Expo in October to recruit students
• International Education Week in November
• WorldFest in the spring with weeklong programs

See lists reflecting UC's international diversity:

Countries part of university agreements    
Overseas admissions representatives     
Destination countries for education abroad     
Countries where UC faculty earned degrees     
Incoming exchange-student feeder institutions   
International student organizations   

That's what happened to Brittney Smith. After her '06 Dubai excursion, "something in my spirit needed to see more," she recalls. So in 2008, she nabbed a Bahrain internship, working in the U.S. Department of State's Public Affairs office (where she once got to assist secretary of state Condoleezza Rice).

Upon graduation, Smith decided to start her career with the very office that had helped her plan her education abroad experiences. She is now an executive staff assistant in UC International, with a focus on amplifying diversity and inclusion in study abroad.

"It sounds so cliché to say that study abroad changes lives," Olausen says, "but it's true. It gives students a new way of looking at life."

Smith agrees. "I learned that I'm not afraid of meeting new people. Each step gave me a new sense of confidence. I know I can go anywhere in the world now and survive. I'm convinced I can do anything I put my mind to."

That's a far cry from the weeping sophomore she used to know.