ECU awarded top honor in campus internationalization

East Carolina University’s growing international program was one of four institutions nationwide to receive the Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The award was announced Feb. 14 and recognizes overall excellence in internationalization efforts by an institution of higher education.

According to Jon Rezek, assistant vice chancellor of global affairs, it’s like winning the national championship of internationalization. In addition to ECU, Georgia State University, Northwestern University and the University of Kentucky received the award.

Forty students from ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance traveled across Europe last summer, including a stop at Heidelberg Castle in Heidelberg, Germany.

Forty students from ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance traveled across Europe last summer, including a stop at Heidelberg Castle in Heidelberg, Germany. (Contributed photo)

“This award represents the culmination of over five years of efforts on the part of university administration, global affairs, faculty, staff and students across all of our academic units to deliberately and strategically strengthen and expand our international programs,” Rezek said. “Over the course of the past five years we have moved from a university with certain targeted strengths in the international arena to one that can truly be called a national model for comprehensive internationalization.”

The entirety of ECU’s efforts, guided by its global affairs office, led to the university being included in this short list of U.S. universities promoting outstanding work in internationalization.

“The national and international higher education community recognizes ECU’s Global Affairs excellence. Through innovation, partnerships and a steadfast commitment to our mission, we are indeed a national model for our work in the areas of internationalization and global engagement,” Chancellor Philip Rogers said. “The 2023 Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization is recognition of our best practices and leadership in providing engaging opportunities for our students and faculty.”

At ECU the commitment to diversity and internationalization is evident in study abroad programs like ECU Tuscany and faculty led trips, the Global Understanding programming and Global Zone Training, to list just a few examples. The global affairs office’s value proposition — “Academically supported, professionally prepared. You belong at ECU.” — guides the day-to-day planning and execution of the university’s global outreach.

Internationalization at home

Rezek said that since 2016, ECU has focused on growing campus internationalization opportunities, including the number of international students and scholars attending ECU and student engagement. Support from campus leadership and funding from donors and grant awards provided the resources needed to change campus culture and grow a comprehensive program.

In addition to programming that enhances students’ experiences with peers from other countries, opportunities for faculty and staff to learn more about how to support international students and programming have grown.

Over the course of the past five years we have moved from a university with certain targeted strengths in the international arena to one that can truly be called a national model for comprehensive internationalization.
- Jon Rezek, assistant vice chancellor of global affairs

The number of new international students enrolled at ECU grew by 80% last fall as compared to 2017. Students representing 68 countries are enrolled at ECU. According to the global affairs staff, the increase can be attributed to an increase in personal attention, peer support and marketing efforts.

“We have made tremendous strides in international student enrollment across all stages: student recruitment, admissions, enrollment, engagement and matriculation,” said Cathy Knudson, director of international enrollment and engagement. International student enrollment contributes to the internationalization of campus by bringing students from all around the world to ECU to study, live and be a part of the community.

ECU’s Global Zone Training is a three-hour training designed to help faculty and staff understand the challenges international students face and provide them with resources and tools to help create a welcoming environment and advocate on their behalf. Another workshop series, Global PIRATES, is designed to improve instruction and help build essential skills in the classroom like adaptability, empathy and self-awareness that contribute to student success after they leave the university.

Bringing the world to ECU

Rezek said ECU has been a world leader and pioneer in virtual programming for decades. The university’s global classrooms are familiar to student and staff and provide opportunities for ECU students to have direct interaction with peers from around the world.

About 15 international virtual exchange courses are offered at ECU each semester across multiple departments. Students and faculty follow a set curriculum and include discussions around a variety of topics including culture and traditions, gender roles and work life and students participate in collaborative projects with their partners abroad. This program was a recipient of the Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award in 2016. The courses also provide invaluable opportunities for students unsure about studying abroad or who are unable to travel due to obligations like work or finances.

Six students from the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, led by Misun Hur, studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea, getting hands-on exposure to key principles of sustainable urbanism. “We’ve become even stronger over the past five years,” said Jami Leibowitz, associate director of ECU’s Office of Global Affairs, director of Global Academic Initiatives, and chair of the Global Partners in Education network. “In addition to our signature Global Understanding courses, we now offer discipline specific courses in business, health and environmental studies, and are developing another model of virtual exchange that will allow us to increase the diversity and numbers of courses that can be involved. The addition of these classes will give more students more opportunities to have significant international engagement right here on ECU’s campus so they can build the essential intercultural skills they will need to succeed in a globally interconnected world.”

Currently, ECU has partnerships with 51 universities in 37 countries. Last spring, in the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, ECU hosted a conversation with students at a partner university in Ukraine, offering faculty, staff and students a firsthand account of the effects of the war and the Ukrainians students a chance to have their story told.

Recently, a new instructional model that combines study abroad with virtual exchange (VESA) was introduced at ECU. With funding from a U.S. Department of State IDEAS grant, courses in art, music and dance were designed with virtual exchange and study abroad components. Last year ECU School of Theatre and Dance joined Dance Centre Kenya in an exchange opportunity that allowed ECU students to work virtually with Kenyan dance instructors before traveling to Kenya to work with the instructors and dancers in person.

“It was wonderful to hear that due to the relationships the students built during the virtual exchange portion, they were able to have deep, meaningful interactions with their student colleagues and friends once they were on the ground in Kenya,” said Leibowitz in a previous article about VESA.

With the growth of international students and activities at ECU, the start of the Global Fellows program was a natural progression. Global Fellows is facilitated by ECU’s Office of Global Affairs and positions high-achieving students from a variety of majors for success. The first cohort of 24 students entered last fall. In addition to a study abroad scholarship, the fellows participate in special activities that will prepare them academically and professionally to be a global citizen. Fellows also have the opportunity to live in the Global Fellows Living Learning Community, where students live together in the same residence hall to help ease their transition to college and form relationships with peers.

Study abroad

Last academic year, the first since pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, more than 400 students went abroad, and faculty members led 20 programs abroad.

An increase in study abroad scholarships has improved the accessibility for many students. As a university that serves mainly rural and underserved counties, finances are often a barrier. Each year, between $100,000 and $120,000 in scholarships are awarded to help take ECU students all over the world.

The flagship of ECU’s study abroad opportunities is the university’s campus in Certaldo Alto, Italy — in the heart of the Tuscany region. ECU Tuscany offers a unique experience for students each semester to take classes, be immersed in culture and to become part of a small Italian village that has embraced the Pirates of ECU.

Short-term and faculty-led programs, student exchanges and semester-long programs take students from ECU to all parts of the world. Last summer, ECU featured social media takeovers from students traveling to Galapagos, Spain, Ecuador and England.

Katie Erickson, director of education abroad, said that studying abroad gives students the opportunity to bring knowledge and experience gained to contribute different perspectives in their classes.

“The skills gained from being abroad can also help students as they transition from college to full-time employment (including) skills like adapting to new and different situations, managing their time, interacting with people who are different from themselves, gaining more independence and becoming more self-reliant,” Erickson said.