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Posted 02.01.06

President Bennet Attends Summit on International Education

Editor's Note: The following article is written by Douglas Bennet, president of Wesleyan University.

During the first week of January I represented Wesleyan at a two-day summit on international education hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The summit brought together 120 college presidents to discuss concerns, opportunities, and initiatives related to study abroad for U.S. students and study in the U.S. for international students. Both President Bush and Mrs. Bush addressed the summit.

The summit gave me the chance to reflect on Wesleyan’s role in international education. I was reassured that we are doing well. Many of the initiatives proposed during the summit confirm that we are on track.

President Bush opened the summit by announcing a “national strategic language initiative”. Much of the media attention devoted to the summit focused on his call for $114-million to teach languages critical for national security to students from kindergarten through college. While the President’s comments focused on security issues, colleges engage in international education for reasons that go far beyond war and security.

Secretary of Education Spellings’ remarks broadened the goals of language study as a way to prepare students to engage in all facets of global business, economic, research, as well as security issues. She pointed out that only 44 percent of U.S. high school students study any foreign language while most European and Asian countries require that all their students take a second language.

Wesleyan has been very strong in language and studies of cultures for a long time. Most students arrive here with a substantial background in at least one foreign language and are likely to study a new language while they are here. While only 8 percent of college students nationally take any foreign language courses, 60 percent of Wesleyan students enroll in at least one foreign language class. We do not formally require language study, but some of our language faculty have found Wesleyan students more interested and motivated because they are choosing to study a language instead of filling a language requirement. In addition to European languages, Wesleyan students are very interested in Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. We will consider where there are ways to connect the Wesleyan curriculum that the President’s critical language initiative.

Slightly more than half of our students participate in study abroad programs compared with 2 percent of all U.S. college students. Of those, half participate in programs outside Western Europe – considerably more than at our peer institutions. Having spent several years working on economic development issues, both here and abroad, I am convinced that many aspects of globalization are most clearly understood in these emerging countries.

Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes raised the issue of how to make it easier for science students find research opportunities abroad. Our science faculty regularly travel and collaborate internationally in their research, but it’s more difficult for our science students to participate in a semester abroad without disrupting their research. We will follow up on initiatives raised at the summit and look for opportunities to expand study abroad options for science majors.

When the President and Secretary Rice each mentioned finding a balance between security considerations and attracting international students to study in the U.S. they received loud applause. I hope the summit helped calibrate this balance. We must compete successfully for international scholars and students if the United States is to offer an education with a meaningful global perspective. As the President and others recognized, many current world leaders were educated in the United States.

Wesleyan will continue to recruit international students and faculty. Currently, 6 percent of our student body comes from abroad. This figure includes 88 Freeman Asian Scholars from 11 Southeast Asian countries who are at Wesleyan for a full four years. All of these students bring an international perspective to the campus. The Freeman Asian Scholars program is without precedent elsewhere and a truly unique asset for Wesleyan.

There will always be more to do as we prepare our students for a global society and our current strategic plan, “Engaged with the World,” sets ambitious goals for us. Still, I returned from the summit knowing that Wesleyan’s engagement with international issues is robust and ongoing.