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Take Me Away, Country Roads

August 18, 2010

Bluefield, West Virginia is a city of about 11,000 people in the southern Appalachians, in the southernmost corner of the state – coal mining country. “It’s a small community; I’m proud of this community,” said Sudhakar R. Jamkhandi, the coordinator of the Office of International Initiatives at Bluefield State College, in West Virginia. “I’ve been here since ’86 myself and I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else in the world.”

But Jamkhandi would like to see Bluefield become more worldly. In West Virginia, where 94.5 percent of the population is white and only 1.1 percent is foreign-born – compared to 11.1 percent nationally – international education is arguably all the more critical. Yet the reality is that, leaving aside the two largest universities, West Virginia and Marshall, the state’s smaller, rural institutions have been behind when it comes to efforts to internationalize their campuses.

This is for any number of reasons: financial, cultural, demographic, and geographic. Only 17.3 percent of West Virginia’s population has a bachelor’s degree or beyond, the lowest proportion in the nation. In the city of Bluefield, the median household income is $27,672. Bluefield State estimates that between 68 and 70 percent of its students are first-generation college students, and their average age is 26. In this context, study abroad can be a hard sell.

A very hard sell: When Bluefield State offered its very first study abroad program, in 2009, just two students enrolled. This past academic year, study abroad participation increased to seven, across two programs (focused on the correctional system in Bermuda and the culture and ecology of Costa Rica, respectively). “I look at it warts and all,” said Jamkhandi. “It’s a modest beginning.”

But it is a beginning. The obstacles to internationalization remain, but this is a story not only about challenges, but also about progress, of how rural colleges become more cosmopolitan places largely from scratch and how West Virginia’s institutions of higher education have collaborated in this effort.

“We’re just trying to build the capacity of our institutions to do internationalization,” said Clark Egnor, executive director of the Center for International Programs at Marshall University and chair of the Consortium for Internationalizing Higher Education in West Virginia, which was established in 2006. “A lot of our institutions don’t really have the tools to recruit international students and to do study abroad. We’re a poor state, we’re under-resourced. We’ve been in a recession forever.”

All that said, “We want our students to have these international opportunities just like in any other state.”

Capacity Building

Marshall and West Virginia Universities have played leadership roles in the consortium on internationalization, which receives $120,000 per year in funding from the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission. The consortium is more broad-based than other such statewide consortiums, which typically focus on promoting their states as destinations for international students.

The West Virginia consortium does that, but it’s also focused on increasing study abroad participation and internationalizing the undergraduate curriculum at the state’s public universities (Bluefield State and Glenville State Colleges; Concord, Fairmont State, Marshall, Shepherd, West Liberty, West Virginia State, and West Virginia Universities, including WVU at Parkersburg; and the West Virginia Institute of Technology).

Among its various initiatives, the consortium has signed up with the International Student Exchange Programs, through which West Virginia students can pay in-state tuition and study at foreign universities in the ISEP network. Marshall and WVU are the institutions of record in the ISEP arrangement, and while all of the universities in the consortium can send students abroad (through the auspices of the universities of record), only Marshall and WVU are approved to receive the incoming exchange students. This is for reasons of capacity.

Herein lies the fundamental challenge of capacity building: If you build it, students will come (and go), but you have to build it first. Without an existing international program, universities may lack the infrastructure they need to properly support students as they are incoming and outgoing; some of the smaller institutions have struggled with the process of approving transfer credits from study abroad, for instance. “This is a very sensitive thing,” Egnor said. “We’re trying to help the other institutions develop that capacity.”

The consortium has promoted West Virginia as a study destination for international students. “We’re not what most prospective students are going to think of when they think, ‘Where am I going to study in the United States?’ ” said Egnor. "They’re going to think of New York or California, so we have to work really hard to get West Virginia in there, to make it one of the options.” The consortium has opted to focus its recruiting efforts on Turkey, which is one of the top 10 source countries for international students in the U.S., but which West Virginia universities weren’t already targeting on their own.

“We looked at where West Virginia as a state has been receiving international students, and we found out that most of our institutions were already invested in recruiting students from China, India, South Korea and Japan, so it didn't make sense to duplicate efforts that individual institutions were already making,” Egnor said. “Turkey appealed to us because it is the top European country of origin for international students who study in the U.S., but unlike other European students whose countries are members of the European Union and tend to study abroad within Europe through Erasmus exchanges, Turkish students more often choose to study in the United States.” Egnor noted, too, that there are developing trade links between West Virginia and Turkey. .

The consortium has held training workshops on topics like faculty-led study abroad, awarded $15,000 grants to institutions to support various international initiatives, and funded scholarships for study abroad for foreign language teachers in training. And it sponsors – and subsidizes -- a bus trip abroad.

For two years now, each spring, freshmen from across the state have climbed on board for a one-week, one-credit, faculty-led study abroad program at Laval University, in Quebec. The price for students has been about $300 (not including the tuition cost for the credit hour). “We want to give them a quick international experience, to whet their appetite to do it again,” Egnor said. “What we’ve found is when students do this program, these freshmen come back and they want to study French, they want to go back abroad for a longer period of time. So it’s like an intervention.”

This fall, the consortium will hold a workshop on internationalization and the curriculum. “If these international experiences are disconnected from the curriculum, it means nothing,” Egnor said. “It’s not sustainable.”

“To me, the greatest contribution of this whole thing has been increasing awareness levels at the institutions of the kinds of things they can do to become more internationally focused,” said Bruce C. Flack, the director of academic affairs for the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission. As the interim chancellor in 2006, Flack convened a conference that jump-started the statewide internationalization efforts.

“It’s not that some of these things weren’t going on anyway, but it wasn’t systematic and I think what we’ve done is help to systematize things a bit.”

An International Niche

“West Virginia has not been a very international place and it still isn’t, but certainly these initiatives of the last five years have been very important, and have made an impact,” said James J. Natsis, the director of the office of international affairs at West Virginia State University, in the state capital of Charleston. West Virginia State and Bluefield State are both historically black colleges but have predominantly white enrollments.

West Virginia and Marshall Universities, Natsis said, have all the various components of an international agenda – study abroad, English as a second language programs, and significant international student enrollments. As for the other smaller public institutions in the state, “None of them have the complete package,” but each can carve out a niche, Natsis said.

West Virginia State’s chosen niche is curriculum, and the university is offering a new bachelor’s degree in international studies this fall. “This degree creates a backbone for internationalization,” Natsis said. “It consolidates what we’ve been doing.”

At Bluefield State, Jamkhandi has become an expert in utilizing federal grant programs to bring international students and scholars to campus. “All the programs I’ve been doing are either nominal or low-cost items. In fact, some of them are revenue-generating,” said Jamkhandi.

Among Bluefield State’s initiatives: An undergraduate from Burkina Faso is coming to Bluefield on a Fulbright and two German students will spend the year on campus through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. Fulbright Language Teaching Assistants from Iraq, Kenya and Senegal will teach elementary and intermediate Arabic, and elementary Kiswahili and Wolof, on the campus this fall. Bluefield State’s first Fulbright Scholar in Residence, a professor of psychology at Kostroma State University, in Russia, will teach courses in elementary Russian, 20th century Russian history, and the psyche of Communist Russia. Jamkhandi hopes to leverage this to launch an institutional partnership between Bluefield and Kostroma, and Bluefield State’s president plans to travel to Kostroma State this winter.

Meanwhile, Concord University, in the southern section of the state, just 20 miles from Bluefield, has emerged as something of a magnet for international students. “I hope we’re not being too prideful in saying that Concord is a hot spot in West Virginia if you want to really get exposure to international programming,” said Stephen Rowe, a professor of English and director of the library, who formerly served as Concord’s liaison on the statewide internationalization consortium.

Concord has about 100 international students and, with grant money from the consortium, has funded recruiting trips to Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and Turkey. The university has an articulation agreement with the Japan College for Foreign Languages, whose students can transfer into Concord to complete their undergraduate degrees, and is in the process of developing linkages with Turkish universities. “Students either come here to see us or we go there to see them,” said Rowe. “That works so much better than using agents or e-mails or whatever.”

And once international students decide to come to campus, Rowe said, the university takes good care of them. “We go to Charleston or we go to Roanoke with university vehicles to pick the kids up when they come here, and we don’t charge them a fee for that, because one of the things we understand is it’s a rather daunting thing to pack up your bags and go 12,000 miles away for school in a different culture and a different language where you know no one.”

And in the middle of nowhere. “One student asked me, when I was recruiting in Osaka, ‘Is your college in the middle of the woods?’ ” Rowe related. “I said, ‘You better believe it.’ ”

 

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