A founder of the academic field of intercultural communication

Making the World Your Classroom, Bob Gibson, Sorenson Institute, University of Virginia in Li Mengyu, Ph.D. and Michael H. Prosser, Ph.D. (in press). Communicating Interculturally, Chapter 7 Case Study. Beijing: Higher Education Press.[Post 174]


Making the World Your Classroom: Bob Gibson, Sorenson Institute, University of Virginia [Reprinted with permission, Bob Gibson, Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, Published: 2010: April 18,]

I feel like one of the luckiest students at the University of Virginia. Every semester for the past two years, I take a graduate course in the education school. This spring’s academic adventure is a fascinating study of schooling around the world in a new era of economic, cultural and political globalization. The class is all the more enlightening with its delightful foreign-born cohort of grad students from China, South Korea, Haiti, Colombia, Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt and elsewhere. Even discussion of food is mouth-watering, as are Haitian curried chicken dinners shared together. Twice in one month we meet through the Internet on a real time basis talking with a university class in Seoul.
A market of ideas

If Americans could learn Korean and Chinese languages as well as these students learn English, the US would be better off for the next century. Korea is engaged in mass study of English as a means to get ahead in the world economy.We are exporting democratic ideals born here in Virginia more than 200 years ago and we are offering top-quality higher education. Asian nations are exporting the 21st century equivalent of gold: the products and prodigies of science, technology and, increasingly, liberal arts.In the past 10 years, China has become the world’s leader in sending students abroad for higher education. Ever higher numbers of foreign degree holders return to China each year, fueling a growing economy and creating a brain gain that is heavily promoted by that nation’s government while it hugely enriches top American and British universities. Leaving China for study abroad is seen by Chinese families as a way to provide a leg up in fierce competition for massively unequal distribution of resources.

China rolls out the red carpet and increasing incentives to win the return of those who spend and send their children abroad for top educations. Chinese and Korean students in our Comparative Education class say they do intend to return to their homelands once their graduate studies at UVa are completed and wonder how “Americanized” they must sound to their friends and families back home.
Assimilate, individualize.

Foreign students’ identities change as they spend time here. “My style is so American,” said a fellow student from Cameroon who wonders if those in her West African nation even understand exactly what she means in her postings on Cameroon-ian Web sites.“ ‘You are so American’,” a Korean student in the class said she has been told by Korean friends. “There are so many layers to this,” she said of the identity she sees herself gaining.That’s not a bad thing in the new globalized economy. It can add cultural capital to the Asian students who seek higher education in the US and at UVa[University of Virginia].Another Korean student said so many Koreans are gaining valued degrees at American universities that alumni groups in Korea from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas have become major social and professional networks for their many alumni there.

While many foreign students can gain prestige from having an American degree and appreciate the academic freedom found here, life isn’t always easy for these students as they cope with long separations, often from spouses or children.This separation has a name. A “wild goose” is someone split apart from immediate family members, one said. American students also study abroad, but not as much in the ways that many Asian and African students do. American college students prefer shorter stays such as a semester, or even an eight-week term abroad in a foreign country. They soak up the cultural and social opportunities in addition to the studies abroad but not the same long periods of isolation. And, American students do not see as much benefit in attaining a degree from a foreign university in many fields. China, India and Korea are racing past the United States in terms of understanding and attaining keys to economic success through globalization. More of their residents gain social and cultural capital through more intensive study abroad.

The University of Virginia is a big beneficiary of this growing international trend, sending more of its students abroad and collecting more foreign scholars and their dollars and yens, yuan and wen, as well as the cultural transfer and good will of many people.The numbers of foreign students attending UVa continue to climb, jumping from about 630 in 1991 to more than 1,730 in 2008.The numbers of Chinese students studying at UVa has risen by about 60 students a year for several years, to a total of 600 as of this spring. More than 250 students from Korea attend UVa, and India also has more than 250 students attending. One trend that China and America seem to share is the production and reproduction of growing economic disparity. The rich on each side of the Pacific now grow richer faster than the common citizen’s chances to climb up the ladder in a global market where trained brains reign. UVa’s students, myself included, learn more about the world by sharing experiences with the smart foreign students earning graduate degrees. Having friends and fellow alumni on various continents feeds a quest for understanding.

[Bob Gibson is Executive Director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Institute.]

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  35. Bob Gibson also appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, interview program Politics Matters with host Jan Paynter discussing journalism http://bit.ly/pm-gibson

    • michael says:

      September 20, 2011
      Dear Politics Matters,
      This is amazing to get a comment actually related to the topic. When I was in the Semester at Sea office in August, I saw Bob Gibson’s office in the Sorenson Institute there, and left my card, but I didn’t meet him personally. This essay by him, first published in the Daily Progress, was republished in Li Mengyu’s and my intercultural communication text book for Chinese students, Communicating Interculturally, which will be published by Higher Education Press in Beijing before the end of 2011 or early in 2002, with his permission.Thanks for alerting me. Michael Prosser

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