Monday, November 16, 2015

Exporting higher learning where education is a matter of life and death

LCI Director Don Back wrote an opinion piece that was published in The Roanoke Times on Nov. 15. In it, he underscores the importance of international academic exchanges.

Read his story below or at

Back: Exporting higher learning where education is a matter of life and death

By Don Back

After rounding up the men, women and children who had tried to flee, they told them to lie on the ground and then began shooting them at random.

Amid the survivors’ cries and wails, they killed the remaining men and boys and loaded the women and girls onto trucks and buses. Many of the captives — including girls as young as 10 — faced torture, rape, forced marriage or slavery.

In the end, Islamic State fighters killed thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq; tens of thousands of Yazidis who managed to escape were stranded in the nearby mountains without food or water.

The United Nations cited the vicious 2014 attack as a possible genocide, and it was one of the United States’ main justifications for starting its air campaign against the Islamic State.

A Yazidi man I’ll call Mamo recounted these atrocities recently during a workshop organized by the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute. A professor at the University of Zakho, Mamo and nearly two dozen other educators from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region came to Blacksburg to discuss ways to strengthen their universities’ administration and reform their English language curricula. The Iraqis saw firsthand how professors at Virginia Tech use student-centered and problem-based teaching methods to create more engaging learning environments.

IKRUPP participants pose with LCI faculty members.
Just as important, the Iraqi educators also shared their experiences and spoke about life in Kurdistan, where peshmerga forces are still battling militants along the front lines in northern Iraq. By doing so, the educators helped build greater understanding and forged partnerships for continued collaboration. This is essential, they say, because strengthening the region’s education systems is among the most important ways to foster stability there.

Mamo and the others stressed that militant groups such as the Islamic State see efforts to promote critical thinking, open dialogue and wider understanding as threats to their authority and control.
Such academic mobility programs are key components of the Language and Culture Institute’s work and are vital to fulfilling Virginia Tech’s mission. As a global land-grant institution, the university aims to address society’s needs locally and globally and to encourage greater understanding of our interdependent world.

This fall, Tech welcomed its largest-ever population of new international students — 549 new undergraduate and 590 new graduate students. Overall, more than 3,500 international students are enrolled at the university, more than any other institution in the commonwealth, according to the Institute of International Education. Those students come from more than 90 countries around the world.

It is fitting that from Nov. 16-20 we will celebrate the 16th annual International Education Week, which highlights the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. A joint initiative of the U.S. Departments of State and Education, this year’s festivities are focused on the theme of “International Education: Advancing Access for All.”

The LCI's Elsie Paredes talks with an IKRUPP participant.
This celebration offers us an opportunity to reach out to the international students in our own communities and develop a broader understanding of cultures and languages besides our own.

Each year, hundreds of international students come to the Language and Culture Institute’s locations in Blacksburg, Fairfax and Radford to improve their English skills and prepare to make the transition to academic life at a U.S. university. Indeed, many of our students go on to earn undergraduate or graduate degrees at Tech.

The benefits of these academic exchanges can be seen both at home and abroad. In the 2012-13, for example, the institute and its students added more than $5 million to the Blacksburg and Northern Virginia economies, according to a report from Tech’s Office of Economic Development. These students also increase the diversity of the campus community and, in so doing, help prepare Virginia Tech students for the interconnected world in which they will one day live and work.

In return, our international students receive the benefits of a high-quality Virginia Tech education. After their studies here, they return home to become leaders who better understand American society and values. By emphasizing mutual understanding and cross-cultural openness, we are, in a very true sense, enhancing America’s national security and public diplomacy.

We live in an ever-evolving international landscape where knowledge of the world is a necessity, not an option. For those of us dedicated to a system of higher education that is focused on the dual mission of discovering and disseminating new knowledge while also preparing the next generation of global citizens, there is no more important task than creating an environment in which international exchanges are encouraged and collaboration can flourish.

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