Study abroad, language instruction focus of int’l forum

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A small but impassioned group of undergraduates described diffuse information and institutional inflexibility as major challenges to international education at Brown at a forum Monday with members of the University’s internationalization committee.

The open forum – billed as an opportunity for undergraduate input on the University’s course offerings, language instruction, study abroad and international student life – drew nine students, most of whom stayed for the entire two-hour discussion.

Appointed in November and chaired by Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, the internationalization committee is charged with recommending ways Brown can improve the international component of its education and research efforts and raise its global profile. The committee has divided into a series of working groups that will report back to the parent committee in late April or early May.

The working group on curriculum, language instruction and study abroad hosted the event, represented by its chairs – Susan Alcock, professor of classics, and Kerry Smith, associate professor of history – and its undergraduate representative, Daniel Fombonne ’07.

Most forum attendees were upperclassmen and included three leaders of the Development Studies Departmental Undergraduate Group and a leader of the International Relations DUG.

Discussion ranged from shortcomings in Brown’s area studies and foreign language programs to challenges facing students seeking to study abroad.

Students present criticized the low number of professors with expertise in specific geographical regions and lack of courses available to area studies concentrators – specifically in Middle East studies and South Asian studies.

Tushar Khadloya ’10 said Brown’s South Asian studies concentration appealed to him as an applicant, but he found actually pursuing such a concentration nearly impossible.

“You have to take five or six classes and hope they somehow relate to South Asia so you can write a paper on it, rather than classes that just count,” he told the working group.

Like many area studies programs, development studies also must “fully rely on the grace of other departments,” said Ingrid O’Brien ’07, one of the Development Studies DUG leaders. After the forum, the Development Studies DUG leaders presented Alcock and Smith with a letter they said outlined “concrete steps” Brown could take to improve the concentration.

Students present also raised concerns about Brown’s language programs. The lack of options for higher-level study in languages was a particular concern for undergrad Jessica Robertson, who said most advanced language courses tended to focus only on literature and that opportunities for students with significant language experience to focus on practicing speaking represented “a big hole” in Brown’s curriculum.

Other students agreed, advocating for more informal or semi-formal opportunities to practice languages and better information about non-language courses or extracurricular activities that involve foreign languages.

Alcock and Smith emphasized that the working group and the committee would not advocate a language requirement as a way to increase student participation in language instruction.

Attendees suggested the working group consider how to stimulate interest in study abroad and foreign languages among students whose interests lay outside humanities and social studies.

Many of the attendees had studied abroad and said the minimal outreach efforts and the lack of information about options meant that only those highly motivated to do so studied abroad. Students also noted that Brown’s sometimes-inflexible study abroad requirements and deadlines can prevent students who do not plan far enough ahead from pursuing international study.

Many students are unaware of the opportunities for “nontraditional experiences abroad,” said Michael Boyce ’08, a leader of the IR DUG. He suggested the University provide more incentives, such as grants, to participate in international summer programs and better publicize such options to the student body.

Undergrad Cynthia Wise, one of the leaders of the Development Studies DUG, said information about study abroad is usually spread by word of mouth and that the University’s efforts to facilitate such networking are often “scattershot.”

Two students attended the forum thinking it was a study abroad information session, though they left before the discussion turned to study abroad.

Other students offered anecdotal evidence of the difficulties they had faced getting specific study abroad programs approved, and how arbitrary that process can seem. Several also said they thought the language requirements Brown attached to its study abroad programs were often too tall to meet.

Robertson said she found students with minimal background in a language often adapted quickly in a foreign country. As a Brown student, Robertson added, “I chafe at the idea of any sort of requirements for anything.”

Robertson also expressed concern that Brown was not making enough of an effort to persuade students to consider study abroad, a sentiment echoed by other students. “The people who end up going abroad are the people who seek it out,” she said. “Brown doesn’t seek out students.”

“Publicity is the key,” Fombonne agreed. “Everybody here has some level of initiative.”

Several attendees also thought Brown could do more to promote and publicize extracurricular groups with an international focus, such as the South Asian Students Alliance and the Brown Journal of World Affairs. Khadloya, who works for the journal, gave Alcock and Smith a copy of the semi-annual publication and urged them to consider recommending that the University better publicize the journal as a unique extracurricular available to Brown students.

Overall, Alcock and Smith said they were happy with the results of the forum, though during the discussion Smith jokingly described the group as “self-selecting.”

“A real range of stuff came up,” said Alcock. “It’s interesting to hear about things from the point of view of people who have lived through them.”

Alcock and Smith will hold a similar forum for graduate students on Wednesday night and say they will continue to be interested in receiving feedback from students until the working group makes its report to the parent committee near the end of April.

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