Provost takes grassroots approach to connecting the U of A globally

(Edmonton) Universities work best when major initiatives come from the ground up, says University of Alberta Provost Carl Amrhein. To help translate that idea into action and bring the campus community together for discussions on connecting the university globally, Amrhein has established the Standing Advisory Council on International Engagement.

“The hardest to quantify, but one of the critical roles of SACIE, is individual people talking to me about their experiences, about what works and what does not,” Amrhein said. “[This council] is the combined voices of many, of each faculty having their voices at the table.

“It is the faculty, staff and students who define why we’re in existence, so it’s always best if we do what works best for them. The university is the sum total of what the faculty, staff and students do. The rest of us are in the role of creating an enabling environment,” he said.

Included among the group’s initiatives aimed at developing an international strategy are developing co-operation with other countries and forming global partnerships, creating more opportunities for U of A students to study abroad and targeting international student recruitment.

So far, Amrhein says the university is making good inroads into improving student mobility, thanks to initiatives aimed at identifying a clear central supporting mechanism, alleviating some of the financial burden of studying abroad and aligning programs with partner institutions.

As part of its internationalization strategy, Amrhein says the U of A is working closely with Mexico, the United States, Germany, China, India and, more recently, Brazil, the addition of which represents how a grassroots approach to internationalization works.

“It was input from SACIE that in part convinced us to make Brazil a priority country,” said Amrhein. “Brazil has very strong ties to Canada and a sophisticated post-secondary system, and we have a number of professors who’d like to work with people there. I also had visits from some influential members of the community doing business in Brazil.”

Central to the university’s efforts at connecting with the world is U of A International, which Amrhein describes as the university’s “Foreign Service.” He says Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (International) Britta Baron, who heads the unit, has built UAI on the level of a foreign ministry.

“Under her guidance, we have greatly increased the number of students coming to U of A. She has energized relationships with a number of the deans,” he said. “She and her team, including Cen Huang, U of A director of international relations and recruitment, played an important role in getting us into China.”

A recent group, called Consortium of the Universities of Alberta, Laval, Dalhousie and Ottawa (CALDO), co-founded by Baron to unite efforts to recruit top international students to Canada, is also an important part of the university’s international strategy.

“The consortium pools resources for master’s and PhD students who come with sponsorship from their governments, corporations or foundations in their home country,” Baron said. “Our experience was that often these sponsoring organizations do not want to deal with individual universities.”

Baron says CALDO was able to bring more than 70 research interns from China and India to work with researchers at the U of A. Going the other way, UAI established a Summer Language Scholarship program that enabled 50 U of A students to go abroad to study another language.

“If we had more money, I’d be inclined to make an international experience mandatory,” said Amrhein. “But until we have resources, it’s premature to make something mandatory that requires a large expense on the part of students without any financial support. I hope to encourage students to imagine going abroad for some portion of their program, even if it is just a summer workshop somewhere.”

The provost adds that the U of A has more international graduate students than other universities and is ahead on large research undertakings globally. He says he believes ongoing efforts at internationalization will ultimately help make the world a better place.

“It’s a belief in the global-village concept, that the world is a set of tightly coupled political jurisdictions but that humanity is in fact humanity, and the world is safer the more we get to know each other,” he said.