A major theme of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Commons has been largely overlooked in critical discussions of its recent Report: namely, the desirability of injecting significant international experience into an MIT education. Its first recommendation is that “The Dean for Undergraduate Education should convene a committee to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure that, within five years, any MIT student who wishes to undertake meaningful study, work, or internships abroad may be able to do so without financial or academic penalty.” In parallel with the Task Force’s final deliberations, a committee of 15 faculty and staff was indeed convened in May 2006 by Dan Hastings, Dean for Undergraduate Education, to address global educational opportunities for MIT students, with particular focus on those issues raised by the Task Force. This eponymous GEOMIT Committee will issue its own report shortly. Here, we consider recommendations made by the Task Force regarding international education. We feel that these recommendations are well written and make important points. We identify, also, a potentially serious conflict with other proposals advanced by the Task Force regarding the freshman HASS curriculum. Our commentary should not be taken as a summary of the upcoming GEOMIT Report, but rather as reflecting some conclusions of our Committee pertinent to the Task Force’s recommendations.
The Task Force points out that MIT has developed many distinctive, innovative models to accomplish international education. Roughly 15% of our undergraduates now participate in these programs. Why is this percentage so low? First, many undergraduates do not know about the international opportunities offered at MIT, and one recommendation by the Task Force is to rectify this ignorance. In response, a “Global MIT” Website, shortly to be launched, will provide more comprehensive access to the wealth of opportunities that exist already at MIT. We further suggest establishment of an Office of Global Education that will serve both as clearing-house and facilitator for international educational opportunities.
A second reason that more students do not participate in international opportunities is lack of encouragement by their major department, and their assumption that international experiences could preclude graduation in four years. Task Force recommendations call for removal of both disincentives.
However, while the Task Force proposes that departments should encourage students who wish to participate in international education, we believe that this is not a sufficiently strong imperative. Instead, we propose that every student be educated to understand the importance of a global education, because a student lacking in such education will be at a significant disadvantage in the future. Simultaneously, we suggest that faculty will need to be educated about the importance of global education for their students. We feel that involvement of and ownership by faculty in devising components of a global education is crucial to its success.
We also note that the Task Force emphasizes the “international experience,” alone, as sufficient for the education of a student. The GEOMIT Committee suggests a more holistic notion of global education, of which the international experience is but one part. Specifically, we propose a triad of “preparation, international experience, and retrospective” that will help a student build a “toolkit” for global competency. Where possible, we suggest integration of global education into the major curriculum.
A third reason that few students participate in existing international programs is inability to recoup financial aid while away from MIT; removing this impediment is essential, as recommended by the Task Force. More than 60% of our undergraduates receive financial aid, imposing a self-help obligation that is usually accommodated by working during the academic semesters or the summer. Many opportunities abroad preclude moneymaking activities, and the result can be a strong disincentive for many students to participate in them. Our global programs cannot come with a financial penalty, even indirect, if they are to succeed, and we suggest that the Institute modify its financial aid structures accordingly.
The innovative international programs already devised by MIT faculty and staff are enviable and provide “quintessentially MIT” models that have been proven in several years of pilot phases. However, essentially all international programs at MIT are funded outside the Institute budget. The challenge put forward by the Task Force will be to extend existing programs and develop new programs to achieve a 500% expansion over the opportunities that we have presently, all within the next five years. This expansion will require priority Institute funding, as well as acceptance by MIT educators and administrators that these opportunities comprise an integral part of an MIT education.
Paradoxically, the Task Force recommendations for changes in the freshman curriculum have a significant unintended – and deleterious – impact on its recommendations for international experience. One key to success of many of MIT’s innovative international programs for students is the strength of Institute resources in foreign language instruction and cultural education. The GIR curricular requirements proposed by the Task Force effectively preclude language study in the first year for most freshmen. In order to take advantage of global opportunities during IAP of the sophomore year or the summer following, beginning language study in the sophomore year is just too late – too late perhaps even for participation in the junior year. We therefore very strongly suggest that Institute requirements be structured so that students are actively encouraged to study relevant language and cultural studies in the freshman year.
MIT has not shied away from bold international initiatives in research or industrial liaison. Educating our students to be competent global citizens and leaders offers a similar opportunity for expanding existing and creating anew distinctive, innovative vehicles. Developing a truly global education is an opportunity for MIT to shine, in an even wider international context, by doing what it does best: educating its students to learn by solving important problems, this time on a more global stage.
The authors are co-chairs of the Committee on Global Education Opportunities for MIT (GEOMIT).
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