COVID-19 makes ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ more than a check-box exercise
By Guest Columnists ANNA WESTERSTAHL STENPORT and SEBNEM OZKAN, of the Atlanta Global Studies Center at Georgia Institute of Technology
Now is the time for universities to renew their commitments to preparing global citizens and serving the global public good. The pandemic has made the old opposition between local and global obsolete. This heightens the importance of global learning as a core mission of higher education. This is especially true in metro Atlanta, known for its international connectivity and strength of globally oriented business and residents.
Arguing for a more ambitious global agenda and connectivity might sound counterintuitive given the current situation – a time when social distancing is prescribed as the key to containing the virus. We contend that reinvigorating academia’s commitment to relating to the world beyond its diminishing borders cannot be more urgent. A focus on sustainable development – cultural, economic, environmental, and equitable – should undergird that commitment.
Ambassador Sarah Mendelson, former U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations, shows the centrality of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in that process. As Mendelson observes in a piece published April 7 in globaldashboard.org:
- “This virus, like nothing else, has demonstrated just how much we are of one planet. That concept – we are all global citizens – is the bedrock of the SDGs with its aim of a more peaceful, prosperous planet to benefit people through partnership.”
Universities are important anchor institutions for local and regional economies. We argue that this concept must now be expanded. We propose the adoption of the term Global Anchor Institution. Through the UN’s SDGs, universities can be globally anchored to foster both citizenry and industry, engaging with the world from a place of ownership of local challenges that more than ever involve global processes and solutions. Not doing so risks casting global connectivity as a casualty and also lessens the impact of being a local anchor institution.
We propose that universities in metro Atlanta embrace the Global Anchor Institution concept to anchor the work of higher education in the critical global issues of our time. Promoting cross-cultural competency, including advanced language learning, to advance sustainability will be central for Global Anchor Institutions in the future. Students prioritize global engagement and global approaches to sustainability, knowing that complex issues must be addressed from multiple vantage points.
The Youth Network at RCE Greater Atlanta is an inspiring example. A new e-learning program on sustainability designed by a global consortium – spearheaded by Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, Kennesaw State University, the RCE Greater Atlanta, Geneva-based UNITAR, and the International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders in Atlanta (CIFAL Atlanta) – powerfully showcases the type of regional university-based global coalition needed to address critical challenges for the 21st century.
Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain and the Ray C Anderson Center for Sustainable Business are catalysts of social innovation and entrepreneurship, just as the School of Modern Languages champions cross-cultural competency and global leadership through sustainability-oriented language learning. Over 50 percent of undergraduate students choose to study a foreign language during their time at Tech, without a language requirement. This speaks to students’ prioritizing global understanding of sustainable development from cultural and global perspectives.
To achieve a sustainable world, we certainly need technical, policy, and security solutions. But we also need more than that. We need knowledge about global communities in our own region as well as those abroad, for which cultural competence and advanced language learning are critical. Such expertise brings diverse perspectives into the sustainability conversation and generates new opportunities to bridge the local with the global.
Mendelson asks a critical question that also needs to be answered in the global education field:
- “What would it mean to come out of this crisis and actually systematically elevate a 21st-century conception of sustainable development – both internally and externally – as a public policy and national security priority?”
Organizational innovation among Global Anchor Institutions is central to advance this and other parts of the SDG mission. Atlanta has a powerful new hub committed to contributing to a coalition-based and locally-grounded global agenda to build capacity in metro Atlanta around the UN SDGs. Launched in 2018, the Atlanta Global Studies Center, a partnership between Georgia Tech and Georgia State, is an innovative National Resource Center funded in part by the federal Department of Education’s Title VI program.
AGSC, as a comprehensive interdisciplinary higher education organization with a significant public engagement mandate due to its NRC status, is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in advancing this agenda. Moreover, AGSC is emerging as an innovative model for a new generation of NRCs that proactively responds to contemporary demands of our interconnected world and critical global issues, while also supporting global and priorities at home.
As such, the center distinguishes itself from traditional NRCs, which have been the primary tool of the federal government in advancing international education since the early Cold War era of national security concerns dating back to the National Defense Education Act program in 1958. NRCs traditionally have their programming and partnerships, to the extent that they have off-campus partnerships, squarely rooted in narrowly defined international security concerns, which, in turn, have shaped these centers’ approach to global education and engagement.
AGSC is embracing the potential of the Global Anchor Institution concept. The center, while staying true to its core NRC mission, has been advancing a vision that transforms a more-than 60-year old way of doing international education by moving beyond antiquated conceptions of national security and accepting UN SDGs as the new frontier to better serve the local community, national needs and global society. Given metro Atlanta’s rich cultural and linguistic history and future, this is the perfect region to take this next step for Global Anchor Institutions.
As a convener, AGSC mobilizes a number of SDGs through its own priorities, including Quality Education (No. 4); Decent Work and Economic Growth (No. 8); Sustainable Cities and Communities (No. 11); Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions (No. 16); and Partnerships for the Goals (No. 17). To advance these goals, the center is taking a leadership role in advancing collaborations around global issues among higher education institutions in the greater Atlanta region including Agnes Scott, Emory, Kennesaw State, Spelman, University of North Georgia and University of Georgia.
As such, the center is at the forefront in higher education innovation regionally and nationally, through five key initiatives that champion higher education’s engagement with SDGs through convening main stakeholders and offering high-impact programs that promote peace education, sustainability of global education, cross-cultural studies for global leadership as well as regional sustainable economic development.
(More information on the five initiatives is available here.)
As these select examples show, despite all current challenges, the present moment should be seen as an opportunity to reimagine our higher education institutions and redefine our mission as well as the way we collaborate among ourselves and mobilize our resources in service of our local and global community. We can seize this opportunity if we redefine universities and colleges as Global Anchor Institutions. We hope the work of the Atlanta Global Studies Center can be an inspiration for others going forward.
Note to readers: Anna Westerstahl Stenport, Professor of Global Studies, serves as chair of the School of Modern Languages and co-Director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center, and Sebnem Ozkan serves as Associate Director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center at Georgia Tech.