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President's VIew

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

Global Education: A Progress Update

*President‘s View

Rensselaer has formed an alliance with Stellenbosch University,
one of Africa’s premier
research universities.
Rensselaer expands its cross-cultural collaboration into South Africa

Although 96 percent of humanity lives outside our nation’s borders, only some 2 percent of U.S. college students study abroad each year. This statistic underscores a gap in undergraduate education—namely, providing students with an experientially based global perspective, given our increasingly interconnected world.

Two years ago this column discussed the crucial need for Rensselaer to provide all undergraduates an international educational experience. At that time, I promised to keep you informed about our efforts in this regard.

Our progress has been very good. In addition to our existing study-abroad and student-exchange programs with universities in Europe, Asia, and Australia, Rensselaer has added Africa to its expanding global academic base. In March, a Rensselaer delegation traveled to South Africa, where we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Stellenbosch University, one of Africa’s premier research universities. Like Rensselaer, its roots date back to the 19th century, and it has since grown into an institution with more than 24,000 students, 800 lecturers, and some 50 research and service bodies. This alliance will expand our science and engineering capacity, and encourage our young people to focus their energies on addressing the global challenges of our time.

Specifically, the new partnership will enable two-way student exchange programs, and joint interdisciplinary projects on key development issues, in which students work from their respective home institutions, linked by technology. The project will culminate in the short-term exchange (one month in each university) of students and faculty. In addition, Rensselaer will host a Summer Research Institute for Stellenbosch science and engineering faculty and administrators when the Stellenbosch students are in residence at Rensselaer.

Specifically, the new partnership will enable two-way student exchange programs, and joint interdisciplinary projects on key development issues, in which students work from their respective home institutions, linked by technology.
Later, we visited the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in a small seaside village outside Cape Town. Its modest size belies the significant scholarly achievements of its highly motivated students, who hail from 19 African nations including Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia, and Sudan. Most have overcome great odds in pursuit of their academic goals. We hope some of these students choose to pursue a graduate education at Rensselaer—a cross-cultural collaboration that, in turn, would provide our Troy students with yet more opportunities to work with bright young people from vastly different social and economic circumstances.

Several in our delegation, also, visited Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, where we hope to establish a similar exchange program.

In our ever-flattening world, seeking new places to deepen our international connections is vital to the educational experiences of tomorrow’s leaders. Indeed, the complex challenges facing our leaders are seldom borne of a single issue. The initial focus may be a scientific or engineering problem, but there may well be an ethical, diplomatic, legal, or geopolitical hurdle, as well. Our students must be prepared to lead and to contribute within this global, multilateral context. They must be culturally sophisticated and confident in their ability to lead others who have differing frames of reference. While the international experience long has been part of a Rensselaer education, it is clear that we must pave the way for more extensive programs in all corners of the globe.

Rensselaer plans a five-year program of cross-cultural collaboration in science and engineering education and research-linked development in Africa. Rensselaer will bring its hallmark experiential learning programs to these universities through cooperative projects, student exchanges, and research education initiatives for faculty and administrators. This emerging partnership, also, expands our REACH (Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons) initiative—among the first of its kind in the U.S. During this academic year (2008-2009) 60 engineering students spent the spring semester with partner universities in Denmark and Singapore. A concomitant number of students from those two countries spent the semester on our Troy campus. When REACH is fully implemented, all engineering juniors will be expected to participate in an international experience. We plan that REACH will grow beyond the School of Engineering, encompassing the full campuswide range of disciplines and departments.

We have secured a generous gift from alumnus Sean O’Sullivan ’85, to provide initial funding to build engineering and science capacity through partnerships with African universities, encouraging cross-cultural communication and cooperation. Rensselaer is seeking additional external financial support to expand the initiative. This endeavor is in keeping with the Rensselaer commitment, under the Clinton Global Initiative, to partner with African institutions for these purposes. I will continue to keep you updated.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.