Understanding Columbia's Satellites

Mar 30 2012 - 1:41pm


Columbia undergraduates have an ambivalent relationship with the Global Centers. On the one hand, the centers are touted by the administration as emblems of a new “global university,” setting us apart from our peer institutions and raising Columbia’s academic clout. On the other, no one seems to know what they are exactly.
I’ve been an intern at the Office of Global Centers for about a year, and in that time I’ve become truly excited about their potential, and about what their success could mean for the quality and diversity of Columbia’s undergraduate education. For instance, I had always been interested in international studies and had traveled extensively in high school, but working at OGC has helped me experience the actual process of incorporating globalization into Columbia’s curricular and extracurricular offerings. In particular, my exposure to the work that various faculty members are doing in the fields of international education has given me the foundation to think critically about what such a new education can contribute to Columbia’s traditional curriculum, as well as the ways in which those changes might be best implemented. The goals of the centers are lofty ones, and are undoubtedly not yet fully realized, but thinking big at a place like Columbia is important because there’s a good chance your ideas will actually come to fruition. The Global Centers are defined on our website as “a global network of centers creating opportunities in research, scholarship, teaching and service engaging across borders and across disciplines expanding Columbia’s mission as a global university,” and are a great example of such high aspirations.
But first, three challenges facing undergraduate understanding of the Global Centers must be overcome. The first is an issue of sheer geography. Facilitating student engagement with offices that are located half a world away presents a unique set of challenges. The centers have full-time staff located in physical offices in seven cities around the world, but they’re too far away for most students to easily engage with them.
This problem of geography is exacerbated when coupled with the second challenge—the relative newness of the Global Centers. The first center opened in Beijing in 2009. If there’s anything that my work at OGC has taught me, it is that initiatives involving a lot of people and a lot of money take a proportionally long time to implement. Given that the official opening of the Latin American Center in Santiago took place just a few weeks ago, we’re still in the nascent stages of the centers’ development. Put simply, they just need more time.
Finally, the Global Centers are still struggling to forge a unique identity in Columbia’s already-expansive field of international offerings for undergrads. From school-year study abroad options to foreign summer programs to the World Leaders Forum, Columbia is already an impressively “global” university, and the Global Centers are still working to define the niche that they will fill in that arena. They are unique in that they are permanent, physical locations that are able to financially and academically support students studying abroad, with the help of Columbia faculty in the region. However, many of the opportunities that are currently offered are catered more towards graduate students. In time, I hope (and believe) that more undergraduate programs will be developed.
Right now, the Global Centers are simply another impressive jewel in Columbia’s crown. In order for them to become a truly useful resource for CC, SEAS, and Barnard undergraduates, they need more time to become firmly established, and they need more input from students themselves as to how exactly they can best serve the undergraduate population. Over the past year, I’ve been lucky to be so involved with them, and it truly has been gratifying to watch the centers’ slow but sure progress towards the realization of so many of their goals. Though at times this progress may seem frustratingly slow, the good news is that in these early stages of the enterprise, students’ input can have a big impact on the final result.
So I encourage you explore our website. Check out the programs that are already in place. Apply to some of them. Contribute to our student blog. Tell us about your own experiences with globalization and how you want the Global Centers to supplement your education in Morningside Heights. If you’re like me, you might end up more involved than you imagined you would be. Both the centers and the undergraduate population on the whole will be better for your participation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2012 issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator. You can see the original here.