Spartans on the march around the world

10-22-2010

Fully 140 years after what is now Michigan State University accepted its first international student, our legacy of scholarship and service overseas and our vision for even greater engagement globally positions our graduates well in an increasingly connected, flatter world.

Michigan State really began to hit its international stride after 1956 when President John Hannah set up the Office of International Studies and Programs (ISP). Today, we are among only five universities in the nation to be in the top 10 for both study abroad participation and international student enrollment. In 2009, MSU was ranked first for study abroad participation among public universities by the Institute of International Education.

Michigan State has one of the nation’s largest study abroad catalogs with more than 260 programs in more than 60 countries on all continents. And as the Peace Corps marks 50 years since its creation by President John F. Kennedy, MSU ranks fourth among the nation’s largest universities in the number of alumni serving in that program overseas.

All told, we can boast more than 41,000 international alumni living in 172 countries. Michigan State has 25 active international alumni clubs around the world. The United Kingdom (UK) alone has some 760 MSU alumni.

Our faculty members are highly regarded and often-sought experts around the world on critical topics such as economic development and food and water security. Such global engagement gives us a seat at the table when international issues are discussed at high levels. I recently moderated a panel convened by the Council on Competitiveness for a U.S.–Brazil innovation summit. In upcoming weeks, I will sit on several more panels to discuss opportunities for overseas engagement, including one focusing on Africa and another on collaboration with our peers in the UK, our most popular foreign study region.

On average over the past five years, MSU has had 2,775 students studying abroad annually, with 380 of those students, or 14 percent, studying in the UK. We rank fifth in the nation for participation in this region and have our highest concentration of study abroad programs—41—in the UK.

In addition to various academic disciplines, MSU also provides students a wide selection of options in which to participate, from a full academic year studying British politics and culture to a three-week winter break program learning marketing and business in London, one of the great business and cultural centers of the world.

Undergraduate research also is increasing in that region. MSU has an arrangement with Lancaster University, for example, that is oriented toward the natural sciences and environmental disciplines, allowing our students to participate in the Center for Independent Research. Past students have conducted research in biology and chemistry.

But we also have longstanding and productive connections with institutions and regions outside western Europe, including in Africa. More than 50 percent of MSU students study outside of traditional western European locations. In fact, we offer more study abroad programs in Africa than any other U.S. university—this year there will be 28 programs available.

This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the African Studies Center. MSU ranks first among U.S. universities in the number of African language courses offered and in the number of different African languages taught. More than 1,200 African students have earned an MSU degree since the 1970s. And since 1992, more than 1,300 MSU students have studied in Africa and MSU faculty members work on scores of projects in 32 African nations—more than half the countries on the continent.

Working with our partners where they live, Spartans are making a difference. Written off by some as a result of its well-publicized political and economic problems over many years, parts of Africa, in fact, have quietly made some astonishing gains.

Alumnus Steven Radelet, himself a former Peace Corps volunteer, a foreign service veteran, and now a senior development adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited campus recently to talk about this progress. Seventeen non-oil-rich Sub-Saharan African countries have recorded average annual per capita gains of 2 percent or more in gross domestic product since 1995, he said. That’s a huge increment, with corresponding gains made in democracy and political stability.

Sensing opportunity, other players, including China, have taken note and are deepening their involvement and investments in Africa. We’ve been on the ground there already for a half century, partnering with Africans and their institutions in practical agriculture, development, and health programs, as well as in scientific research programs in areas such as paleontology and wildlife conservation.

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