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University/Industry Partnerships for Locally Based Global Engagement and Understanding

As travelling remains limited in today’s world, institutions need to find alternatives for students to provide the internal and cultural understanding that studying abroad provides. 

The increasing convergence of information and technology and the decreasing gap between the digital and physical worlds provide both major opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the world has never been smaller, ensuring that people separated by oceans and thousands of miles can interact and work with each other as though in the same room, merging the best of intellects and culture. On the other hand, the decreasing gap causes diverse cultures to be pushed ever closer together, sometimes making them reluctant neighbors and often fueling resentment, envy, anger and mutual disgust. Divides–social, cultural, religious and political–are amplified. Over the past few years we have witnessed intensified conflicts on a global scale, a frightening increase in xenophobia and racial hatred often fueled by a lack of understanding of cultures, norms, backgrounds and languages. And this at a time when global engagement and a deeper appreciation of diversity, inclusion and equity are more important than ever before, not just locally but globally, as we work together toward a common future.

In many ways we are at a crux, similar to that perhaps noted by RW Kirkbride, a WWI veteran and instructor at the University of Delaware. In 1921 he advocated for the first structured study-abroad program, which was then established in 1923 as a means of enhancing cross-cultural understanding.  Today, there is even a greater need for the development of leadership–young women and men who can think beyond boundaries of place, identity and norms, who have empathy, trust and mutual respect for diverse cultures and civilizations, who seek to contribute to a sustainable and more humane world, and do not live in a vacuum but seize important questions, confront them and develop solutions. While study-abroad programs and international students attending U.S. universities will continue contributing to the development of greater diversity, trust, and appreciation of cultures and societies, we can also do a great deal locally, especially through focused and targeted university/industry partnerships. In many ways, these can be very effective in exposing far greater numbers of students and faculty to the values and importance of international diversity and the appreciation of different cultures and societal customs, while building global, international and intercultural competencies. Some of these aspects are outlined below:

Form partnerships with international chambers of commerce – Many nations have chambers of commerce that serve both as support for businesses started by immigrants of a certain country and to connect U.S. corporations to that country. Partnerships with these can enable student internships, including international guest lectures from corporate leaders about socio-cultural norms and practices and how they might differ from those in the U.S., and exposure to mentors from other countries, especially for students pursuing a degree in business or international policy. Since the chambers of commerce meet regularly and also host leaders (political and corporate) from their cognizant home countries, they serve as a very effective means of linkages and exposure.

Create structured internship programs with multi-national firms – Many international companies have units in the U.S., and often a large percentage of employees are either from the country itself, in the U.S. for periods of time on a revolving basis or are immigrants from that country. These companies strategically have to follow processes and procedures for both countries and often run in conjunction with offices in that country linked by videoconferencing meetings on an almost daily basis. Student internships with these companies, if structured appropriately, would engage the students with interactions on both sides, not only enabling them to experience and appreciate the differences in conducting business but also understand the differences in culture that lead to varied approaches. The methods used by the companies to bridge the two or more sets of cultures also can provide a tremendous sociological and cultural experience for the students. Ensuring that their mentor at the company explains the intricacies of the differences is key to this experience.  In addition, while discussions are generally held in English, there are often conversations between the two offices (in the U.S. and in the other country) held in the language of that country, providing the student with exposure to a foreign language in an international setting. Physical international internships, where students complete their internship at an international location, are extremely valuable, especially when appropriately structured to provide the student with a level of introduction and assimilation in the U.S. first along with focused and dedicated mentors who will ensure the intern not only learns the necessary work skills but also imbibes the socio-cultural experience that can be invaluable through the full-immersion setting. 

Develop integrated relationships with small businesses owned by immigrants – Immigrants are responsible for a significant and growing proportion of small businesses in the U.S. These often family-operated businesses are routinely overlooked in partnerships by universities, although they can provide some of the most meaningful experiences for students and faculty. Internships with these businesses are often far deeper and richer than with larger companies, since the owners generally take a personal interest in the intern, looking at her/him as a member of the family in many ways and are keen to ensure that the student not only gains from an educational standpoint but a cultural one too. Such businesses often follow customs of the home country and speak that language at work, providing a unique and powerful immersive experience to students. Often, the companies are either owned by alumni of local universities/colleges or have owners whose children attend local universities/colleges, enabling ease of contact and engagement. These companies are also often highly involved in the celebration of their cultural festivals within the local community, and universities can take advantage of that to expose a larger number of students to international week activities, among other kinds.

Build partnerships and programs with societies formed to enhance the understanding of countries – Many countries have special societies dedicated to showcasing their culture in larger cities, and they are keen to expand their reach to enable a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the cultural and ethnic diversity of that nation. Having strong partnerships with such societies, enabling them to meet on campuses to include students, hosting exhibitions and cultural activities  to engage with the communities they serve can be powerful ways for schools to increase student exposure to a cultural richness that otherwise would be unavailable. In addition, societies can provide informal instruction in language, dance, theatre and art. Mentor-mentee relationships developed through formal and informal partnerships can foster true engagement and cultural understanding resembling those achieved through a study-abroad program.

Take advantage of sister city programs – Many cities, especially large ones, have multiple international sister cities with active social, cultural and business exchange programs. They can provide strong engagement with local citizens as well as with pen-pal-type mentors in the sister cities. Similar to societies, sister city programs can provide an immersive experience that showcases the socio-cultural diversity at a high level.

The aspects discussed briefly above provide mechanisms that enable enhancement of international diversity and develop a greater understanding at a global level through local partnerships primarily around corporate and chamber entities.  While these cannot completely replicate the depth of engagement and education experienced through study-abroad-type modalities, they do provide, in many cases, close and sometimes longer-lasting and deeper experiences that help a greater number of people appreciate the value of international diversity and inclusion, breaking down barriers of hate borne through ignorance. They also provide opportunities for students unable to take part in full-fledged study-abroad programs due to reasons ranging from financial considerations and family responsibilities, to the rigidity of academic schedules and credit-transfer restrictions.

In 1869, Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of humanity cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth.” Little did he know that those words have even more meaning today than they had 150 years ago, and each of us needs to do our part to make this happen, using every mechanism at our disposal to build great understanding, appreciation and trust among diverse peoples globally. All institutions of higher education not only have a role to play but an inherent responsibility to be a part of this, enhancing an understanding of, and appreciation for, international diversity and inclusive good practices at all levels.

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