International Education Week spotlights a year-round priority

During International Education Week (IEW) Nov. 17-21, schools, nonprofit groups and other organizations in more than 100 countries hosted events promoting international exchange programs and cross-cultural understanding. SF State's IEW celebration was one of the biggest, with culture fairs, music and dance performances, screenings of foreign films, international lunches and dinners, Japanese tea ceremonies, Chinese Culture Day and workshops, seminars and debates on international topics. (To see the full SF State IEW schedule, go here.)

SF State student Amy Yang in Copenhagen

SF State student Amy Yang found time for a weekend visit to Copenhagen during the academic year she spent at Uppsala University in Sweden.

But SF State's focus on international education didn't end when IEW did. The University is a leader in the field all 52 weeks of the year. According to the Institute of International Education, SF State sends more students abroad for long-term study than any other master's-granting institution. During the 2014-15 academic year, 402 SF State students will study overseas through partnerships with 70 institutions in 25 nations. And it's a two-way street: More than 400 students have come to San Francisco from other countries to begin studying at the University this semester.

"Not every SF State student is going to live and study overseas," said Office of International Programs (OIP) Associate Director Jay C. Ward, who coordinates SF State's IEW festivities each year. "So we try to bring the world to the campus through exchange students from all over the world as well as IEW and other international events."

When SF State students do go abroad, stresses OIP Assistant Director Noah Kuchins, it's not to sightsee. It's to further their education.

"We focus on the academics," Kuchins said. "Every time we set up an exchange, we're opening up an entire university's classroom curriculum as a branch of SF State."

That exposure to other schools -- and other approaches to education -- frequently pays off later, according to Kuchins. Studies have found that students who take part in overseas exchanges get higher grades afterward, graduate at higher rates and find post-graduation jobs more quickly.

"We want SF State students to get at least a semester abroad, but the trend in study abroad programs is to have exchanges that are shorter and shorter," said OIP Assistant Director Marilyn Jackson. "That's so a school can say, 'Oh, we sent 1,000 kids abroad.' But they only went for a few days. What we believe is that the true purpose of exchange programs is immersion in the culture. That way you learn the language and make life-long friendships, and it really becomes part of who you are going forward."

OIP Director Hildy Heath says that SF State's study abroad program differs from others in another key respect: who goes abroad. Nationwide, study abroad participants are overwhelmingly white females. At SF State, on the other hand, around two-thirds of the students in the study abroad program are non-white -- a figure that mirrors the makeup of the overall student body.

"Our study abroad population matches the demographic of our campus, and that's very unusual," Heath said.

OIP advisors help students find scholarships and stipends to subsidize their overseas studies. Each year, for instance, dozens of SF State students win Benjamin Gilman International Scholarships -- U.S. State Department grants designed to give people with limited finances access to international education opportunities.

Without a Gilman scholarship (as well as a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service), SF State student Breena Miller says she couldn't have gone abroad at all.

"I rely on financial aid and loans and a little bit of savings, so I just wasn't sure how it was going to work out," she said. "But I went for it and applied for the scholarships, and getting them was the deciding factor. It was positively life changing."

Miller ended up spending a year in the German city of Tübingen. She came home a different person.

"I grew a lot," she said. "Like I'm doing classroom presentations now on study abroad, and if you had asked me to do that a year and a half ago I would have been too timid and shy. It made me more confident."

SF State Student Jose Carlos Navarro Solis says he changed in a different way while studying in Pavia, a small city in northern Italy. While there, he was awed by the striking architecture of the town's centuries-old buildings, the lush loveliness of the surrounding hills…and the slow pace at which life moves, especially if there's paperwork involved.

"It was very beautiful, very different," he said. "And it made me a lot more patient."

As Associate Vice President of International Education Yenbo Wu sees it, that kind of transformation is what study abroad programs are all about. Students learn that there are different ways of doing and thinking, and by adjusting they acquire new skills that will help them -- and the world -- in the future.

"They come back not only able to understand other people but with the ability to negotiate and collaborate with those people. In today's world, that's an important part of life," he said. "Through this promotion of mutual understanding, we're trying to create a world where there are fewer misunderstandings between people and cultures. And that creates a more peaceful place for all of us."

-- Steve Hockensmith