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Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe on study abroad

"We want students to be transformed during their time at DU," says Chancellor Robert Coombe. Photo: Michael Richmond

Q:  We invest millions to give our students the opportunity to study abroad through the Cherrington Global Scholars program, which allows qualified students to study abroad at no additional cost. How does this considerable investment support the University’s mission and goals?

A: Internationalization is one of the University’s 11 goals, and it was developed with cognizance of the fact that any major university that hopes to have an impact must have a global perspective. If you look at the language of that goal, it talks about developing a global perspective in our students, in our curriculum and in the work of our faculty. Cherrington was conceived directly because of that goal. If we are aspiring to graduate students who are going to compete and lead in the global environment, we need to make certain we’re educating our students for that environment, whether they’re in business, technology, the sciences or the performing arts.

Q:  Is the Cherrington program giving DU a competitive edge?

A: It is. It’s very well known now. In talking to prospective students and their parents, I find that they see it as an added value that they don’t find at other universities. Part of what we’ve been pushing is that students ought to have an expectation of going abroad. They ought to be thinking about it in their first year so they make an informed choice, so they can build their language capabilities, so they can take courses that will make them more knowledgeable when they go abroad.

Q:  Some argue that study abroad is an increasingly dangerous proposition, particularly with the widespread anti-American sentiment in the world today. Others counter that study abroad is more important now than ever. How do you respond?

A: I’ve found that our students are fearless. Some years ago when I was provost, I decided that we would not do a service-learning project in Nepal because of political changes there that might endanger students. But students wanted to go, and a number of them did go on their own. The University has to be cognizant of the safety of the students, and we have to make decisions of that kind when we feel that there is any kind of danger. On the other hand, those are rare, even though we find our students distributing themselves ever more broadly over the globe. We would like more of our students to go to East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and there are safety considerations embedded in those locations. But, we pick host institutions where we’re quite certain that our students will be safe and still gain valuable experiences.

Q:  What are students learning abroad that they can’t learn here in the classroom?

A: Roughly half of our students have been abroad when they walk in the door, but they’ve been abroad on family vacations or things of that nature. That is a very different experience than being abroad for an academic term or more. As a student abroad, you have to engage with groups of people who are different. It’s an experience that requires that you open up and understand the people that you are dealing with — to understand something about the cultural and political forces that drive them.

We want students to be transformed during their time at DU. Part of that is intellectual growth, part of that is sharpening up your mind, part of that is acquiring skills and abilities. But another part of it is developing an intellectual maturity that enables you to apply what you know and allows your mind to continue growing once you graduate. That is the root of the transformation that we see in students who have studied abroad. We repeatedly hear from them that their worldview has changed.

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