UI investment in Asia benefits all Iowans

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By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs

Downing Thomas

It has been exciting to witness the growth of the University of Iowa’s global footprint over the past few years.  We have nurtured and expanded connections across the globe, from faculty and graduate student exchanges, to partnerships in the health sciences colleges, to new internship and service-learning experiences abroad for UI undergraduates.  But in all that activity, which spans every continent (including, on occasion, Antarctica!), Asia is without a doubt the part of the world where we are seeing the most rapid development of activity. 

President Sally Mason and a delegation of University of Iowa leaders will travel to four cities this summer to strengthen ties with international partners and to build new relationships with alumni, friends of the UI, and prospective students and their parents.  The events planned for each city represent the disciplinary breadth of the University of Iowa’s activities abroad. 

The delegation will attend the graduation ceremony of the Executive MBA program offered in Hong Kong by the Tippie College of Business.  Water resource issues will be a highlight of our visit to Taiwan, where our host, Dr. Hong-Yuan Lee, an alumnus of the College of Engineering, was recently appointed interior minister.  Moving on to Shanghai, we will focus on our relationship with East China Normal University and its traditional emphasis on teacher education, as well as the offices of ACT Education Solutions (the American College Testing Program, was started in the 1950s by faculty at the University of Iowa’s College of Education).  In Beijing, the long-standing ties fostered by our signature Writers’ Workshop and International Writing Program will be prominent aspects of the group’s visit. 

Why should the president of the University of Iowa—an institution serving the people of the state—travel so far from Iowa? The international connections we have established are an integral part of the future successes of the University, and this trip is an important investment to advance these successes for the benefit of the University and the entire state of Iowa.

Today, as never before, the University of Iowa must function as a global institution in order to fulfill its core missions of teaching, research, and public service in Iowa.  As business leaders across the state recognize, what we think of as local is fully tied to global processes and trends. 

It is for the same reason—to serve the people of Iowa—that Governor Terry Branstad has just returned to China, continuing the development of trade relationships forged over many years and building on Vice President Xi Jinping’s February visit to Muscatine. 

Organizations like International Traders of Iowa have sprung up to connect internationally-minded business leaders, to share insights about how to enter new international markets, and to work with international partners of all kinds.  It is also for this reason that Tippie College of Business faculty members are developing an online curriculum that will improve global trade practices in Iowa, as well as offering a global internship experience in Hong Kong for the College’s undergraduates. 

Right here in eastern Iowa, well over 600 students, staff, faculty, and community members participate in Chinese language and culture courses every semester through our Confucius Institute.  But this would not have been possible without our strong ties to East China Normal University in Shanghai, our Confucius Institute partner institution. 

While we will need to make adjustments in order to accommodate the large numbers of new international students we have seen and will continue to see this coming August, these students have a positive impact on students from Iowa and around the U.S., and on the communities here in Iowa in which they live.  To cite only the numbers, international students and their families have an economic impact to the state of Iowa of more than $280 million.

Over the past decade, my family has hosted students and faculty members from Russia, Spain, and China.  Beyond the economic impact, I can state unequivocally that these people-to-people connections have enriched our lives in ways I never would have predicted.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who served in various capacities under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), speaking at an event in Houston last month, argued that learning about other cultures, learning other languages, and developing international relationships will help avoid misunderstandings and conflicts between the U.S. and other countries.  This is a great reason to support the UI’s global connections. 

My hope is that we can build on these relationships—between faculty here and faculty there, and between students here and students there—to develop long-standing ties that will change lives forever and will lead to greater mutual understanding and mutual benefit.  This was the vision of Senator J. William Fulbright many years ago when he started the Fulbright program; and it is this same vision that President Mason is following in traveling to Asia this summer.

Downing Thomas

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