Written by Michelle Soledad

The past two years have been an interesting and life-altering journey of learning and discovery for me. I traveled almost nine thousand miles from my hometown in the Philippines to Virginia Tech, spurred by a passion for fostering student success in engineering, and the opportunity to learn, grow, and “be the change I want to see” in Philippine higher education – paying homage to the words of Mahatma Gandhi. It was this same passion that came with me as I embarked upon the adventure that is the Global Perspectives Program (GPP).

Going into GPP, I was looking forward to exploring and being immersed in the European higher education system; engaging in meaningful conversations with my Virginia Tech colleagues and the educators, students and administrators that we will meet at the institutions that we will visit; and building friendships with individuals from different disciplines and cultures who also had a passion for fostering student success in higher education. I was specifically interested in collecting stories of cooperation and collaboration among professors and academics in Europe – and who they were engaging with.

As I welcomed new experiences during the program, I realized that my definition of collaboration and cooperation was biased heavily by my engineering, education, and being a citizen of a developing country lens – and the notion that there were opportunities and resources available to educators and researchers in more developed countries like the United States, Switzerland, France and Italy that were not as readily available to me and my colleagues back home. A study on research productivity in higher institutions in the Philippines (Quimbo & Sulabo, 2014) indicated a need for “stronger faculty development programs, enhanced research collaboration, improved research productivity and a good incentive system”. A study on funding sources, on the other hand, recount how the availability of funding and support has affected the desire to “pursue graduate studies and research; the type of research that is being undertaken; and the support for disseminating research findings” (Calma, 2010). Seeing and listening to the work being done in the European universities we visited, it was interesting to take note of and attempt to learn from what they have accomplished, and think of ways to replicate their successes, at least in the context of the department and University that I continue to be a part of back home.

I also could not help but wonder about what role the members of the higher education community in Europe play in the global higher education landscape. Because of what I learned about the Bologna Process prior to the program, I consider the European higher education system as a model for international collaboration and partnership in higher education, and I looked forward to learning about how these partnerships are lived and implemented. More specifically, I wanted to learn about how the European professoriate and higher education community – represented by the people I encountered and met on this journey – are sharing their knowledge and resources to other academics in the global higher education community who do not have the same access to opportunities and resources that they have.

Building Bridges, Breaking Down Barriers

What I found quickly is that collaboration – with other higher education and research institutions, industry, the community, and the government – was a common practice shared by the institutions we visited. On the first day of our visit, for instance, I learned how the University of Zurich (UZH) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), were neighbors, friendly competitors – and partners. As an engineer, my interest was also piqued by the practices that I noticed among the fachhochschule – the Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland – that we visited, as well as Politecnico di Milano. Highlights of those visits included stories of Swiss and European universities working with students, professors, researchers and communities in developing countries, as well as organizations and institutions in their surrounding communities.

Among the stories that resonated with me were those that mirrored my own: newfound friends who, like me, uprooted themselves and traveled thousands of miles from home to study, work and thrive in a global educational environment. I found that as international students, researchers and scholars build academic relationships in the countries that host them, they provide the foundation upon which institutional partnerships and collaborations are built. Beyond providing the foundation, I believe that international students themselves also serve as bridges between the countries, societies, and communities they call home, and those that provide them with the educational and skills training they need to make positive contributions to society. Finally, in a fascinating paradox, these foundation-builders also break down barriers and promote inter-cultural understanding, as they both share the nuances of their personal realities and assimilate themselves in a new environment. It was interesting to witness how these relationships are growing at both the personal and institutional levels. The stories that I heard also reflected the words of Knight (2014), citing Altbach (2013), who wrote: “Higher education has played a pivotal role in contributing to the flow of people, knowledge, values, and economy, and has significantly impacted the changing international engagement landscape.”

Stories – Social responsibility, the public good, and higher education

As I continued to watch out for and listen to stories, I found that I was not alone in my quest to collect these narratives. When we arrived at Politecnico di Milano (PoliMi), I was introduced to an institutional effort to build and apply “university knowledge and excellence”: PoliSocial. This led me to an institution-level compilation of stories of cooperation, collaboration, and partnerships (Polisocial, 2016) built by Politecnico di Milano. Beyond crossing the physical borders of territory, these stories also told of a meeting of minds from across cultures and disciplines; of people with different but complementary knowledge and skills, working together towards a common goal and a more sustainable tomorrow.

The Polisocial program represented PoliMi’s commitment to integrate “social responsibility and cooperation for development” in teaching and research. In the institution’s own words, the program is described as follows: “Polisocial intends to put the university in close contact with the dynamics of societal changes, extending the University’s mission to social issues and needs arising from the territory, both locally and globally.” In an effort “to foster a responsible attitude and to develop skills, expertise and new values,” the Polisocial’s various programs and projects brings PoliMi students, researchers and scholars to developing countries, where they contribute to capability building and promoting sustainable development. With projects in Asia and Latin America, among other locations, the work they engage in includes activities that train professors and researchers in recipient countries and communities, once again fulfilling the higher education role of facilitating the flow of ideas and resources across international boundaries.

Over a period of five years, PoliMi collected stories of developing knowledge and skills in various fields, including urban architecture, design and restoration. I was elated to find that one such story involved a partnership with the University of the Philippines. In May 2014, the 4th International Workshop of Urban and Architectural Design was held at the University of the Philippines in Manila, focusing on urban regeneration of contemporary cities. Having lived in the greater Manila area for a number of years, I am all too familiar with the various issues that this metropolitan Philippine city faced. The workshop brought together 16 students from PoliMi and 16 students from the University of the Philippines. Collectively, they looked into the current state of degradation and ways of recovering the Pasig River – once an iconic feature that flows through the walled city of Intramuros, setting of moonlit boat rides, but now mainly a polluted “symbol of degradation.” It was an example of how technical expertise and local knowledge, when brought together, can be used to provide students with a global perspective.

As I read on, I learned about how concerted efforts resulted in improved access to basic resources; bringing health care to those in need; and a learning network for sustainable energy systems, to name but a few. While the presentation itself in Milan was short, that introduction opened my eyes to a plethora of commendable work that I did not know existed through the stories that Polimi has compiled into a book, and the reality that similar efforts are being done in other higher education institutions. If I had not been part of this visit, I would not have found this wonderful book with exciting stories to share.

The stories also reminded me of the relationship between higher education and the public good. I was reminded of the two-fold role that higher education plays: on the one hand, it is imperative that higher education be regarded as a public good in and of itself, one that is accessible to those who desire it, as it provides the human resources necessary to meet the demands and challenges of today’s society. On the other hand, higher education – and the people who comprise its community – should also advocate for the public good, identifying problems and formulating solutions that would benefit the greater majority.

Stories – putting knowledge into practice, in Europe and beyond

I have always maintained that my role as an educator consists of facilitating the learning process to prepare students to become productive members of society. I acknowledge that conversations about theories and concepts AND applying them in the world beyond the four walls of the classroom are equally important. These beliefs were substantiated by stories of putting knowledge into practice that I heard during GPP – and there were quite a few.

The story that I will share here, though, involves the vision, values, and practices of the University of Applied Science and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI). Their guiding principles include a commitment to ensure acquisition of specialist, methodological, social and personal store of knowledge,” a commitment that, to me, provides a glimpse into the institution’s holistic view of higher education and the kind of training that they provide to their students.

Acknowledging my bias as an engineer, such practices described as follows: “combines academic studies with work experience” and “whenever possible, courses are also conducted in parallel with professional activity” resonated with me. Beyond implications related to the significance of cooperation, collaboration and partnership in higher education, these practices play an important role in fostering success, improving retention, and identity formation among students in the engineering disciplines – things that I value and care about.

I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the partnerships formed by SUPSI. As an institution, SUPSI articulated seven values: strength, originality, multidisciplinarity, partnership, innovation, territoriality, and internationality. In the stories that we were told and the things we were shown, it was not difficult to see how these values are lived by the members of the institution. I regarded their various research and innovation efforts as individual projects whose scope radiates outward, from collaborations that “promote transfer of expertise of technology from the university to companies” through services that range from development projects to risk analysis provided to entities in their immediate location and community, to opening educational opportunities through student exchange programs with universities in China, facilitating engineering and architecture workshops in Ethiopia, and providing grants for developing countries to engage in applied research in electronics engineering. They give equal attention to contributing to the community they call home and to the world beyond their borders that may benefit from their expertise.

Providing such opportunities for my students back home is an ideal for me to aspire to. As of now, putting knowledge into practice in my context is accomplished through a summer-long, 240-hour requirement called on-the-job training that students in our Electrical Engineering curriculum are required to undergo. While it does expose students to practices in the workplace, both technical and professional, the environment is still limited to institutions that are nearby. There is a global context that will need to be met and addressed; while there are now available opportunities to be exposed to work environments in nearby developed countries in Asia, such as Singapore, there is still room for growth and improvement. There is even much to be learned about forging partnerships with companies and institutions in our own communities, to ensure that these relationships remain mutually beneficial and student-centered.

Global higher education and the future professoriate

As the professional environment becomes increasingly global in nature, students need to be prepared to function and contribute to such a work environment. Since we cannot give what we do not have, it thus makes sense that the future professoriate should themselves be prepared to facilitate learning environments that are multi-disciplinary and global in nature. By extension, those who are already in the professoriate will find that there is much to be derived, not just in terms of research and engagement work but in their fulfillment of the scholarship of teaching, from cooperation and partnerships within the global higher education community.

In the report Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Boyer, 1990), Ernest Boyer wrote about the scholarship of discovery, integration, application and teaching to describe what it meant to be a scholar and a professor, at least in the context of the professoriate in the United States. The functions of the professoriate are distinct yet intertwined, and an ideal professor would have the ability to effectively and gracefully achieve a balance of fulfilling all four functions.

In the scholarship of teaching, educators are tasked with encouraging students to be critical and creative thinkers, and developing self-regulated learners who view learning as an iterative and lifelong process that extend beyond the walls of classrooms and academic institutions. The scholarship of discovery and the scholarship of integration calls for the professoriate to engage in the academic quest for knowledge and truth, make connections across disciplines, and recognize & interpret our individual pursuits in the context of the larger and more universal scheme of things. Finally, the scholarship of application calls for educators to situate academic and scholarly work in terms of how it might impact our community, using them to be of service to society.

I saw all these forms of scholarship applied and practiced among the institutions that we visited, and the stories that they told. And I saw that all scholarship is practiced at a global scale – through partnerships that not only add to existing knowledge, but strive to contribute to the public good as well, not just within their community but across international borders as well.

This brings me back to the significance of the GPP experience and preparing the future professoriate for the multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and global nature of higher education. This is, after all, the world that we currently live in: a world where bridges have been built and barriers have been brought down; a world where abundance exists, but challenges are also prevalent, and there is a need for collaboration, cooperation and partnership in order to overcome the obstacles that are encountered along the way. As the ones tasked with preparing future generations to live in this society, we should strive to be an active member of the global higher education community and develop relationships that transcend that which we know and are comfortable with.

Exploring further the context of higher education and the public good, I remember that the successes of the researchers and innovators who came before us have provided us with such conveniences as the Internet, air travel, and mobile communications that have made this world smaller and more accessible. Higher education should continue to harness these opportunities to make higher education a public, common good – as well as advocate for the public good. One small step towards that goal is to ensure that the future professoriate – the future movers and change-makers in higher education – are themselves provided with holistic, global educational opportunities that allow them to explore and see the world before they are sent back to the classrooms and research laboratories.

Throughout this experience, I consider this as my most important learning and reflection: that my world is composed of two truths – an overarching global Truth that I share and built with others who have similar passions as I do, and local, personal truths that guide the specific steps that I have taken (and hope to take) as I try to make a difference. For me, GPP served as a bridge for these two T/truths by expanding my horizon and opening my eyes to realities that I previously could not see, allowing me to experience life beyond that which I already know, and reminding me that there is a lot left to learn about the world and those who live in it. As an educator, this opportunity means that I get to share this experience with my students, hopefully providing them a glimpse into this larger world that we are all a part of, and that they will eventually contribute to in the future.

References:

Altbach, P. G. (2013). The International Imperative in Higher Education. SensePublishers.

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, N.J: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Calma, A. (2010). Funding For Research and Research Training and Its Effects on Research Activity: The Case of the Philippines. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.3860/taper.v19i2.1593

Knight, J. (2014). International Education Hubs: Collaboration for Competitiveness and Sustainability: International Education Hubs. New Directions for Higher Education, 2014(168), 83–96. https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20115

Polisocial. (2016). Storie di Cooperazione Politecnica 2011-2016. Milan, Italy: Politecnico di Milano. Retrieved from http://www.polisocial.polimi.it/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/libro_bianco.pdf

Quimbo, M. A. T., & Sulabo, E. C. (2014). Research productivity and its policy implications in higher education institutions. Studies in Higher Education, 39(10), 1955–1971. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2013.818639

SUPSI – Guiding principles. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2017, from http://www.supsi.ch/home_en/supsi/filosofia-istituzionale/principi-guida.html

SUPSI – Values. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2017, from http://www.supsi.ch/home_en/supsi/filosofia-istituzionale/valori.html