Universities — portals to the world

Global problems require global solutions. Our students learn and live abroad, and bring fresh perspectives that help us tackle challenges back home in new ways

When Ashley Anderson got on the plane in Calgary, it was a bone chilling -32. When she got off the plane in Singapore a day or so later, it was a scorching 32 degrees with 86 per cent humidity. The young woman from a small Alberta town had landed in a city of 5.5 million to spend a semester at National University, a campus so large students take buses to class. “I was a little nervous in Singapore,” she says. “I ended up loving it.”

In the days after Hayden Pattullo arrived in Tokyo, he climbed Mount Fuji, hit up some Karaoke bars and danced in the streets in a village festival just outside Tokyo. The locals didn’t speak a word of English as they taught the students traditional Japanese dance moves, just one of many lessons Patullo brought back from studying architecture in Japan. “I wake up almost every day wishing I was back there,” he says. “I learned a lot of interesting things.”

Dr. Lesley Rigg remembers looking out the window of a plane and being struck with an overwhelming curiosity of and appreciation for the vast landscape 36,000 feet below. She went on to study geography and environmental studies in three different countries and do research in many more. “Everything I am and everything I do was formed by my international experiences,” says the dean of the Faculty of Science.

Walk across the University of Calgary campus and you’ll find hundreds of stories of students, faculty and researchers who have furthered their professional work and enriched their personal lives by going global. And in the process, they’ve helped work on solutions for myriad of problems that plague the planet—from providing clean electricity to remote villages in Nepal to learning from solar power systems in Germany.

“By collaborating across borders in a wide range of intellectual activities at other universities, our scholars are helping us tackle complex global issues such as climate change, clean and affordable energy and poverty.” says Vice-Provost (International) Janaka Ruwanpura who leads University of Calgary’s internationalization implementation efforts. “With the current seismic shifts in global geopolitics, it’s even more important to connect with others around the corner and around the world to better understand how things work and how to solve the challenges we face.”

“Global problems require global solutions,” says Jennifer Hatfield, chair of the University Advisory Council for the Canadian Coalition for Global Heath Research. “Global challenges also require cross-disciplinary collaborations and our ethical partnerships around the world enhance our ability to address issues."

Those relationships are built one person, one interaction and one plane ride at a time. Every year, about 1,200 students select to study abroad for a year, semester or week, take advantage of one of the 150 study abroad programs available in tens of countries. The benefits of these experiences are incalculable.

Richer, deeper travel abroad

International tourism is growing by leaps and bounds—in 2017 alone, more than 1.3 million people visited another country. And while jumping on a plane lets you enjoy exotic cuisine, meet a few locals and shop for souvenirs in another part of the world, exploring different countries through academic partnerships, collaborative research and study abroad programs is a much richer and deeper experience than any vacation. 

While doing research in Mexico’s Yucatan province, Rigg flew in and out of Cancun along with thousands of tourists. They went to the resorts and she went to work. “When you go to Mexico and go to a resort, you’re not actually in the country you’re not seeing what the problems are,” she says. “When you’re outside of the resort it’s a very different feeling.” In research in Belize, Rigg watched tourists come and go. “You don’t absorb like you do when you live there. You don’t make connections.”

Rigg and the hundreds of other scholars working in other countries bring their knowledge of that place to the classroom in Calgary. “My students experienced Cancun and Belize through examples that I brought back,” she says.  And with every story or anecdote, “you’re planting that seed.”

Will Bui finds himself talking about his time at Korea University in Seoul in plenty of professional conversations. The semester studying political economy and global history in 2009 was “one of the most formative experiences of my life,” he says. “Most people have done some travelling and it's become a more interesting basis for small talk than the weather,” says Bui, who works for Solium, a Calgary-based software company. “I've used stories about my time in Korea to connect with people.” Those stories—of meeting students from all over the world and having robust classroom debates with international perspectives—are far richer than those of a tourist. With meaningful international experience under his belt, not only does Bui have a professional edge working for an international company, he’s also “eager to work abroad.”

Culture, context and connections

Dr. Chan Wirasinghe’s first visited China decades ago to start building relationships with colleagues in universities in Shanghai in order to further collaborative research projects. Yet one of his first lessons wasn’t in the academic realm at all, it was about manners. “You get to understand how other cultures operate,” says Wirasinghe, a transportation engineer and professor of civil engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. “In China they have this concept they call ‘old friend.’ You have to get to know somebody before you can deal with them. It’s not like here where you shake hands and get going with the deal. I had to go back three times before I got really good contacts and they showed interest in cooperating and once that happened it was very fruitful.”

Those early relationships are still bearing fruit. For example, one of Wirasinghe’s PhD students got back from Shanghai where he worked on a the project building a second “circle line” to connect the various spokes of rail transit in the city, a design that Calgary may look at in another 30 years as the population grows.

“If you look at the global network of travel there is nothing that exists in a country on the other side of the world that doesn’t have the possibility of impacting us here whether it’s a social issue, a disease, a new knowledge breakthrough of some sort,” says Hatfield, who has spent 20 years working in global health in countries including Uganda and Tanzania.  “At a high level it’s a question of stepping up and moving beyond our own local preoccupations and trying to put them in a context.”

Welcoming the world  

As well as sending students to universities around the world, hundreds of students from partner institutions come to Calgary every year. The international students are challenging their limits, gleaning a Canadian perspective and building relationships that will last a life time. Zhengru Yang arrived in Calgary from China to do a Masters degree in geoscience at the Schulich School of Engineering. He was attracted by the world-class research groups and “very advanced” laboratories. “Students have many opportunities to achieve their academic goals,” he says. “Also, brilliant comments from employers and qualified graduates will potentially provide us a high starting pointing in our future career.”

In his over 40 years teaching, Wirasinghe has lost count of the many international students who have gone on to build impressive careers after their time at UCalgary. He proudly lists off a number of his former PhD students and post-doctoral fellows from Sri Lanka who returned there to teach at universities. “One is even a dean,” he says.

Lessons in independence

As scholars work together across borders to help solve giant societal issues, students learn important personal lessons as well. Caitlin Gropp will never forget her first few days in Washington DC in 2011 getting ready to start interning at a small lobbying firm. She was heading home from the store loaded up with new bedding and household items when the bags broke. She had to figure out how to get everything home—the first of many lessons about independence. “I developed personally, made long lasting friendships that have continued to this day and developed professional networks.” Her time in Washington cemented her passion for politics. A passion she brought to Ottawa where she works as director of parliamentary affairs for a Canadian senator.

Will Bui returned from Korea with a deeper love of economics and a suitcase more confidence. “I came back knowing I could move to a completely foreign city, learn enough of a foreign language to order my own food, make friends and figure out any problems as they came,” he says. Studying abroad is “a social experiment where everything in your life changes but you.”

Alia Aluma arrived in Hong Kong in September 2018 just days before Typhoon Mangkhut. Not only does the arts student get bragging rights for experiencing one of the worst typhoons in Hong Kong’s history, she saw firsthand the resiliency of a city plagued by natural disasters. “While the typhoon was scary and left a lot of damage people here are built for this,” says Aluma. “Everyday life resumed without pause right after the storm.” And once the skies cleared she started working on a project with the South East Asia migrant organization, discovered an underground R&B scene and took in a LGBTQ film festival. “I’ve met people from every inch of the globe,” she says. “If the option to travel abroad comes about, take it.”

Benefits to internationalization

“Universities have a critical role to play in enabling the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, promote pluralism, diversity, equity and inclusiveness. Connect people to find together solutions to the global challenges we face.” said University of Calgary’s Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dru Marshall when summarizing why top universities need to have a global outlook.

“Students going abroad fundamentally change their perspective about the world, professors bring new ideas on how to do things differently, and all of them come to appreciate what we have here in Canada.”

Here is a summary of the benefits to internationalization as a take-away.

  • Immerse yourself in a different culture in a different country and learn about different languages, food and behaviours
  • Learn different perspectives to examining and solving issues and concerns
  • Share knowledge and collaborate with scholars from another country or continent
  • Gain international knowledge to help solve global problems
  • Meet people from all over the world, build friendships and make valuable personal and professional connections
  • Boost your self-confidence and become more independent by living abroad

Why international experiences matter

Canadian students share their transformative international experiences

Watch Queen Elizabeth Scholars program interns from UCalgary

Video credit: Universities Canada